Is the job of the Opposition to oppose? NO.

How many times have you heard those who think they know, say this: ‘The job of the Opposition is to oppose’?

It might be the worker at the pub who says this as he raises his schooner of VB to his thirsty lips. It might be the young professional as she sips her Margaret River Chardonnay while she grabs a quick lunch with friends at the local café. It might be the well-heeled businessman as he relishes his Grange Hermitage over a long business lunch. But it might also be the political commentator who has assumed guru status, such as Richo, who utters these words, or the political columnists from the Canberra Press Gallery, the ‘insiders’ who know it all. No matter who insists that ‘The job of the Opposition is to oppose’, they do so with great confidence, as if it is holy writ, not to be challenged. There is no doubt at all in their minds that this is so.

This piece argues that it is NOT the job of Opposition to just oppose, but to engage in the process of governance so that the public can benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of all parliamentarians. They are all paid from the public purse. Why should all of them not contribute and be accountable?

Just to give you an idea of what Opposition leaders are now paid, Tony Abbott’s wage is $347,800. The PM gets $486,550. The average wage of parliamentarians is $190,550. Why should around half the parliament work to legislate for the nation while the other half attempts to frustrate their governance efforts? Why should we waste the talent of half the 226 elected parliamentarians that cost the taxpayer over $44 million annually for their salaries alone, apart from all the other costs of running a federal parliament? And this half IS wasted if all it does is oppose, frustrate, and obstruct the Government’s legislative efforts. It need not be like this, but the adversarial nature of our politics, exacerbated grossly since Abbott’s ascension to leadership, leaves parliament wallowing in this inefficient and wasteful state of affairs.

Take Question Time in the House as a shameful example of wasted time and talent. Most questions asked by the Opposition since Abbott has become leader have been directed NOT to seeking information from ministers about matters addressed by their portfolios, but have had the intention of seeking to embarrass the Government, or berate it, or demean our PM.

Repeatedly, questions have been related to the carbon tax, more by far than to any other subject. Because the Opposition has deemed this subject to be the most potent one for inflicting damage on the Government, the same old tired questions come up over and again, sometimes embellished with an anecdote from a business or a proprietor who feels hardly done by the carbon tax, with the byline – ‘a tax based on a lie’ – thrown in for good measure. But the question is always the same: ‘Why is the Prime Minister/Government imposing the world’s biggest carbon tax at the worse possible time’? And of course sending jobs offshore, destroying industries, decimating towns, making our industries uncompetitive, and so on the monotonous spiel goes. And to no environmental benefit at all, says Abbott! What a waste of time this talk is. Nothing ever eventuates, except of course the occasional grab for the evening TV news, which is why the questions are asked anyway. The questions never add a useful dimension to the debate, they don’t even probe relevant aspects of carbon pricing, and they never suggest a plausible alternative.

Reflect on how much time has been spent on ‘motions to suspend standing and sessional orders’ to rebuke or censure the Government or the PM, well over sixty so far in the first half of this Government’s term, an exercise that has had the effect of wasting vast amounts Question Time and preventing the asking of hundreds of questions. No doubt, this will be repeated in the second half. Think of the time wasted. Each motion takes around thirty minutes for the debate, plus the time for the inevitable and always unsuccessful division, about 40 minutes all told, a waste of around 100 man/woman hours every time, a waste of well over 6,000 woman/man hours in this parliamentary term alone, for which we pay. And nothing positive has ever eventuated. It’s all been pointless and unproductive opposition and obstruction of the proper working of the parliament.

Before any Coalition supporters become apoplectic at my assertion that the role of an opposition is not just to oppose, let me acknowledge that all oppositions do oppose, but have they opposed so unremittingly as has our current Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott? In his book Battlelines (doesn’t the title alone tell us a lot about this man), Abbott confirms his adherence to Randolph Churchill’s dictum: “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out.” He has followed this to the letter. He would assert that he is doing only what all opposition leaders have done. That though would be another of his lies.

Remember the approach Kim Beasley took over the Tampa crisis. He supported the Howard Government. Recall the approach John Howard took over the major fiscal and regulatory reforms introduced during the Hawke/Keating era. He supported them, much to his credit, credit that still accrues to him. As these two examples show, and there are many others, oppositions don’t have to oppose everything. Why then does Abbott?

In my view it is because he knows nothing but pugilism, as I said in The pugilistic politician, written ten days after he became Opposition Leader. Among other things I said: “Abbott intends to criticize everything the Government does, to fight everything it attempts to do, to refuse to collaborate on anything…”, and later in the piece: “So to what can we look forward? If one can judge from Abbott’s demeanour and performance during the last week, from the look in his eyes, from his aggressive attitude, from his determination to fight in hand to hand combat, we are in for a ruthless, cruel, bare-knuckle fight with no holds barred. This week Abbott reminded me of the familiar scene before a prize fight when the combatants line up – hairy-chested, jaw-jutting, throwing punches in the air, loud-mouthed, asserting their prowess, and promising to knock their opponent out early in the bout.” It’s now eighteen months since those words were penned, and not one word I wrote then has proved to be an exaggeration.

But I hear some of you angrily protesting, surely oppositions MUST oppose, that’s what they’re there to do, to hold governments to account. Of course the latter is true, and of course oppositions need sometimes to oppose. But when they do, why do they do so?

In my view there is one cogent reason why oppositions oppose, and that is ideology.

Naturally, if a progressive party favours increasing regulation, a conservative one will likely oppose it. If a progressive party favours a Keynesian approach in times of recession, a conservative one will prefer a ‘markets know best’ approach, and oppose fiscal stimulus. If a progressive party favours fair play for workers in the workplace, a conservative party will favour the employers. We saw the latter ideological difference played out in WorkChoices and its replacement by Fair Work Australia. These are just a few ideological issues that have been in play since Labor came to office. They represent a fundamental difference in belief, in philosophy, over which parties will adopt different positions, and therefore oppose each other. But ideological differences are not the totality of politics. There are many, many areas where differences in ideology are not dominant. There are plenty of areas where agreement could and should take place, where collaboration in fashioning legislation should be the norm.

Take asylum seeker policy. Both Labor and the Coalition favour offshore processing. Let’s leave aside whether you believe that policy is right or wrong, and focus on why, when both parties believe in offshore processing, the Opposition opposes Labor’s version of it, the Malaysia arrangement, and insists that its own solution, the ‘Pacific Solution’, is the only way. Of course we’ve heard the disingenuous ‘it worked before and will work again’ mantra over and again despite all the expert advice that it will not, but this is not the point I’m making. Abbott won’t support the Government’s Malaysia arrangement purportedly because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, although he is threatening to turn boats back to Indonesia, a non-signatory, and return to the Howard Government ‘solution’ of Nauru, also a non-signatory all through the Pacific Solution. No, his denial of support for the Labor scheme, which would also enable his own scheme as well as Labor’s, is not ideological, or even humanitarian, it is just cussedness. It is simply a determination to oppose everything, to obstruct, to make governance difficult, and in this policy area, impossible. He won’t even join a parliamentary committee to sort out a solution. He doesn’t want one. He wants only to oppose, to obstruct, and benefit politically from the continuing arrival of boats on our shores.

Of course the Greens have not been immune from obstructive opposition. Take its opposition to Kevin Rudd’s ETS. Had not the Greens joined the Coalition to oppose it and give Labor nothing instead of something, we would have had an ETS already in operation for a couple of years, and none of the ‘toxic tax’ nonsense we have now, day after day. Had the Greens supported the Oakeshott bill a couple of weeks ago, both parties would have had the option of offshore processing of asylum seekers, whichever it chose. But no, the Greens preferred ideological purity although it produced an impasse. As a result we have more boats arriving, more getting into strife, more men, woman and children drowning. It is this style of trenchant ideological opposition that is detrimental to the proper governance of our nation, and both the Coalition and the Greens are culpable.

There is another, perhaps more important reason than ideological, that fuels Abbott’s opposition.

He opposes not just the legislation the Government proposes, but also the Government itself. He has never accepted the Gillard Government as legitimate. He has consistently maintained that it has no mandate for its legislation. So, much of his opposition has been to the very existence of a minority government led by Julia Gillard. He has attacked it, and PM Gillard herself, as much as he has attacked the Government’s legislation. He has set out to destroy the Government, not just its legislation. Most of his ‘motions to suspend standing and sessional orders’ are fashioned to achieve this.

What I’m saying is that he’s not just insisting: ‘Axe the Tax’, but just as loudly insisting: ‘Ditch the Witch’. This is why his approach is so vindictive, so vitriolic, so venomous, so vicious, so venal, so vituperative, so vandalistic, so vile – ‘the longest dummy-spit in Australian political history’ as Anthony Albanese likes to describe it.

Abbott thought that he could beat the Government in its first twelve months and take over The Lodge, and so he planned a quick knockout strategy, his preferred combative approach, to do that. But now that he finds that he is in a tiring fifteen round bout against a resilient opponent, who easily rides with his wild punches and counters with some well placed jabs of her own, all the time building up points as she successfully passes bill after bill, over three hundred to date. He is floundering and showing signs of fatigue as he continues to throw the same old punches – ‘toxic tax’, and ‘axe the tax’.

What this piece contends is that a collaborative approach by all parties is what a virile democracy needs, an approach where there is a coordinated approach to governance.

Let me give a medical analogy. There is a neurological condition where a significant part of the pathology results from the so-called agonist muscles being opposed by antagonist muscles. Normally, as the agonists contract, the antagonists relax. Muscle action and joint movement is thereby smooth and coordinated. But in this condition the antagonists fight the agonists, so that in extreme manifestations of it, no movement can occur as stiffness and rigidity prevent it. Medication can reverse this.

This is an analogy of what is happening in our federal parliament. Every movement by the Government, the agonists, is opposed by the Coalition and sometimes by the Greens, the antagonists. Movement is inhibited, at times stopped. Progress is limited. Too often nothing happens. We saw this with the asylum seeker impasse that has so disenchanted the electorate. ‘Medication’ was needed, but was unavailable.

It is to Julia Gillard’s eternal credit that she has managed to legislate so much since she became PM, to have so many reforms passed into law. But imagine how much better this nation could be governed were there even a modest amount of cooperation between the parties. Imagine if opposition was limited to major ideological differences. But it is not. Instead, we have opposition for opposition’s sake, not designed to improve or enhance the legislation, not designed to suggest amendments or acceptable alternatives, but simply to oppose, to obstruct, to block. What a waste, what a deplorable misuse of the talent of our parliamentarians, what a lost opportunity to extract the very best from the talent, knowledge and experience of all of our 226 parliamentarians.

Yet this is not possible while Tony Abbott leads the Coalition. He is hell bent on destruction, on demolition, on obliteration, on annihilation of Labor and all it stands for, of all it is attempting to do. He knows no other way.

In Tony Abbott we have the most vicious, damaging and destructive Opposition Leader in living memory, one who is interested only in knocking out our PM, one who is not remotely interested in contributing to good governance. While all opposition leaders have had their moments of obstruction or antagonistic rhetoric – Paul Keating had an acerbic turn of phrase - there has never been anyone to match Tony Abbott’s nastiness, his ferocity, his malevolence, his malice, his meanness and personal spite, his belligerence and pugilism, his dishonesty and deviousness, his disregard for the welfare of the nation, and his single-minded selfishness in pursuing his objective of seizing power at any price. With him at the Opposition helm there will be nothing but negativity, obstruction and opposition at every turn. It is a national disgrace and tragedy. Sadly he will NEVER understand that it is NOT the role of oppositions to oppose EVERYTHING.

It could be so different. Parliamentarians like to tell us that most of the time they do collaborate, that they do work together for the benefit of the nation. Yet we don’t believe the Coalition when they proclaim this, because all we see is obstruction and opposition, a determination to destroy the Gillard Government and all it is attempting to do, indeed all it stands for.

With most of our political journalists unwilling to call Abbott to account, indeed many applaud his obstructive opposition, he goes on his destructive way, untrammeled by a critical press.

It’s time you journalists woke up and exposed this man for his destructiveness, which is tearing apart the fabric of this nation. I know many of you are under instruction from Rupert Murdoch, but try showing some guts for a change and call this man for the destructive person he is.

It is NOT the job of the Opposition to oppose everything, but to oppose ONLY those measures that are ideologically anathema to it. For the rest, we ought to be able to expect collaboration between the parties in the national interest. What a calamity it is that this is not the case.

What do you think?