“We drive into the future using only our rear-view mirror”
was one of the many notable aphorisms of Marshall McLuhan
, Canadian philosopher, futurist, and communications theorist of the sixties. If ever there was an image that captures Tony Abbott’s approach to public policy, this is it: driving into the future using only the rear-view mirror.
In full, McLuhan’s maxim reads: “The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” His argument
was that our futures are always experienced and frequently determined by a past that few of us fully acknowledge or understand.
On a contemporary note, take Tony Abbott’s approach to broadband, the lifeblood of more and more involved in commerce and industry, in education, health, agriculture, tourism, and in the tech-intensive and service industries. His initial approach was typical of his pugilistic nature. “Demolish the NBN”
was his instruction to Malcolm Turnbull. It was a Labor initiative and therefore must be destroyed. Moreover, he knew that if the NBN were stillborn, Rupert Murdoch would be pleased, as that would eliminate a competitor to his TV empire.
Abbott failed. As Turnbull sipped from this poisoned chalice, all the more bitter because it demanded he act contrary to his tech-savvy nature, he realized that demolition was going to be difficult, and in the end impossible, and unwise, as the Government’s NBN unfolded. Whether it was Turnbull’s awareness of the logistic and legal difficulties, or whether he became aware of the growing public support for the NBN, or whether his love of communications technology overcame him, he decided he must dissuade Abbott from his pursuit of demolition. That move carried the political risk of Abbott being seen as doing a ‘backflip’, having repeatedly condemned the Government’s NBN as an obscenely expensive white elephant that the nation could not afford. Of course, Abbott doesn’t do backflips; he changes his mind – ask the media.
Last week we witnessed an unanticipated spectacle – Abbott and Turnbull launching an NBN, the Coalition’s NBN, but an NBN nonetheless. Set against a high-tech background, courtesy of the new Fox Sports Sydney headquarters complete with a hologram image of a footballer, Turnbull and Abbott, looking like snake oil salesmen, with Abbott looking out of his depth at that, launched a cheap, low-tech alternative – dubbed ‘NBN-lite’.
Because it has been done to death elsewhere, even in the mainstream media, it is not my purpose here to compare this and the Government’s NBN, except to underscore the patently obvious fact that NBN-lite is not just inferior, but portrays Abbott’s proclivity to plan for the future by looking in his rear-view mirror, to march backwards into the future.
There was a delectable take on the launch in Brisbane Times Free floppies a policy flop
by John Birmingham that makes my point: “The Opposition Leader promised this week that every Australian household would receive a free floppy disk drive and monochrome monitor under an Abbott-led government. Launching the Coalition’s long awaited response to the government’s National Broadband Network program, Mr Abbott denied that providing a floppy drive and monitor without the computing box to plug them into would leave Australian households with a second best solution… If people want more they can easily spend a few thousand dollars to upgrade to a very fast 386 or even 486 computing box.”
That is closer to the truth than its satirical tone suggests. From the outset Abbott claimed that Australia’s existing broadband was fine for him to send emails and for his daughters to download movies. His implicit question was “What more do you need? He was looking in the rear-view mirror to gaze into the future. Commenting on the NBN, even journalists who might usually support Abbott’s position have characterized him as lacking vision. That is not correct. Abbott has vision all right: backward vision.
His broadband vision is restricted to email and movies. He says he ‘needs it for his work’, but has he thought about the almost unbelievable potential of super fast broadband? Has he contemplated the possibility that in the years ahead applications will emerge that have not even been thought about yet? Does he remember that when he was a boy the first mobile phone was invented – the size of a brick and weighing a kilogram – and that since then we have seen the emergence of the extraordinary technology we now have? Has he forgotten that the World Wide Web began only a little over 20 years ago? Has he even thought about the next twenty years and the demands that burgeoning applications will place on the WWW? It seems not. Does he really think the Internet will be the same twenty years from now? Whatever he thinks, he tells us that his NBN-lite is ‘good enough’ for us: "I am confident that it gives Australians what they need."
Regrettably, we will never know what he thinks about the future while he looks nostalgically into his rear-view mirror and sees only the past. Looking backwards is Abbott man’s greatest drawback as a politician and leader.
It’s not just about broadband that Abbott looks back, not forward. How many times have you heard him lament that the halcyon days of John Howard are behind us. How he would love to return to that golden era where mining revenue flowed in a torrent into Howard’s coffers, enabling Howard and Peter Costello to hand out middle class welfare and give tax breaks, especially to those on the highest salaries and superannuation, and still bring in their hallowed surplus budgets. There was no global financial crisis, no recession; there was no dire threat to our economy as they prepared their budgets, no impediment to them handing out electoral bribes come election time. Abbott yearns for those days, and berates Labor because they have not done what Howard did.
Abbott looks in his rear-view mirror, sees the Howard years, sees the ideal fiscal circumstances he enjoyed, ignores all that has occurred globally since 2007 as if it had never happened, castigates the Government for taking the actions it did to protect the economy and employment during the GFC, and pretends that had the Coalition been in power everything would have been better, with surplus budgets as usual. Abbott’s capacity to fix his gaze on the rear-view mirror and look back at the road long past travelled, his faculty to ignore the road ahead, is pathological.
And it goes on. Looking back a usual, Abbott fondly remembers the days of high demand and sky-high prices for coal and iron ore and the revenue that resulted. He still refuses to see how the scene has changed, refuses to acknowledge that as a result Government revenue has fallen by $160 billion, and that the anticipated surplus is no longer possible. His rear mirror view shows him that nothing has changed, demand and prices are as they were, and not delivering a surplus is just ‘another broken promise’.
Of all the rear mirror views Abbott relishes, one of the most cherished is the spectre of how WorkChoices brought the workforce into line, and dampened union power. He also catches sight of how damaging that restrictive and unfair policy proved to be for the Howard Government and reflects on how it was a major factor in its defeat in 2007. He is petrified at giving any hint of its return, declaring it ‘dead, buried and cremated’. But his longing continues for the ‘flexibility’ business demands. Abbott’s IR spokesman, Eric Abetz, is using language that hints strongly at Abbott’s intention. He keeps looking back, pining for those ‘good old days’. But with an election pending, looking forward to reintroducing IR changes is too fraught.
How many times have you heard him insist that returning to Howard’s magic three-legged formula for stopping the boats: offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, temporary protection visas, and turning the boats around ‘when safe to do so’, would work again just as it did then? By looking in his rear-view mirror, he is able to ignore all the changes around the world in the refugee situation, ignore all the push factors that now operate, and lay blame for the influx of arrivals on pull factors, to Labor’s leniency, to their abandonment of TPVs that the evidence showed were not just ineffective but harmful, and to their refusal to turn boats around, a maritime manoeuvre that is hazardous to service personnel as well as the boat people, one that is considered disaster-prone by senior Naval personnel, and was actually seldom done in the Howard era. Looking into his rear-view mirror Abbott sees the Howard program as ‘the answer’, the only answer: “we did it before and we will do it again”. He yearns for a return to those ‘days of yore’ when the refugee population in detention was tiny.
Take global warming. Despite his affirmation that he believes it really is occurring and that human activity is partly responsible, with his negative behaviour towards measures to reduce pollution by putting a price on carbon, it is not unreasonable to suspect that he still believes that ‘climate change is crap’, that it was ‘hotter in Jesus’ time’, and that therefore radical action is unnecessary. He still believes that planting 20 million trees and paying polluters to stop polluting will do. Again he’s looking into his rear-view mirror at climate in the long past, at the time when Dorothea Mackellar wrote of ‘droughts and flooding rains’, ignoring the constellation of severe adverse weather events that have occurred recently around the world, events that climate scientists attribute to global warming. He is able to ignore the almost universal consensus of thousands of climate scientists that global warming is real, is upon us already, will steadily escalate, and will bring with it untold catastrophes.
Looking in his rear-view mirror, he sees a world that existed before emissions trading schemes began. He still believes, indeed insists that Australia is running ahead of the world, that the trading schemes and pollution abatement programs that abound all around the world, and are proliferating every month, scarcely exist. He can’t see the evidence that is before his eyes, so fixed is he on the past. He repeats his mantra that the rest of the world is lagging behind us in emissions trading, when clearly it is not. His rear-view mirror looks back a long way.
The same mirror reflects back to him the traditional values he embraces so lovingly. During his address at the IPA’s 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner last week, Abbott said this: “Alas, there is a new version of the great Australian silence – this time about the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation are unimaginable.”
Nobody would deny Abbott his beliefs and his values, ones refreshed by looking in his rear-view mirror, but those who are inclined to vote for him should ponder to what extent he will allow those entrenched values and beliefs to intrude on his policy making, to influence him as he fashions policies that ought to benefit all Australians. To what extent is he prepared to look forward, to see changing community attitudes to, for example, abortion, same sex marriage, and euthanasia? To what extent is he prepared to change his long-established viewpoint?
But his value system extends well beyond these emotion-laden issues. Looking back longingly to the Howard era he cherishes Howard’s values: support for private schools to the detriment of public schools that Howard neglected; support for private hospitals and private health insurance even if that disadvantages public hospitals; endorsement of the user pays principle, even if that leaves some behind; support for the privatization of public assets; sustenance of the powerful and the wealthy (Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart spring to mind), even if that means that trickle down economics continues to fail and the gap between the rich and the poor widens.
Indeed, voters need not only to know Abbott’s contemporary attitude to these issues, but to what extent he embraces the Institute of Public Affairs’ list of 75 radical policy changes it is recommending to him and the Coalition? Take a big breath, and read them here
. This is what Abbott said about them during his IPA address: “So, ladies and gentlemen, that is a big “yes” to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me…
! Read YaThink’s response to that
Abbott is a traditionalist, a monarchist, a Catholic imbued with Jesuit beliefs, and ultra-conservative that hankers for long gone days, days that he gazes at through his rear-view mirror. Even his recently expressed ideas for development of the North, which some rank as ‘visionary’, are a reprise of ideas from the last century, ideas advanced by Ion Idriess seventy years ago.
Look at the people behind Abbott, and you look at relics from the past. Yet he vows to install this team unchanged should he win power. He looks in his rear-view mirror and sees his future ministers.Abbott longs for the past; he is fearful of any future that threatens his conventional, conformist view of the world. He eschews looking forward; the past is too comfortable and reassuring to abandon.
Yet, this man wants to be the leader of this nation in this unprecedented time of change as it faces the Asian Century, as it faces unparalleled challenges both in its own economic base, and in the global economy. The turmoil ahead demands that our nation’s leader look forward at the evolving landscape and steer our country along a course of prosperity, in harmony with our neighbours and our trading partners, in tune with the evolving geopolitical situation we hear about every day of our lives, and able to align our country with the powers that can give us support and protection and enhance our own defences – a leader who is willing and able to fruitfully adapt to the dynamically evolving world around us.
Tony Abbott, a man whose eyes are fixed on his rear-view mirror, who seems unable see the road ahead, is not that leader.
What do you think?Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Adam Bandt, Julie Bishop, Tony Burke, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Smith, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Windsor and Penny Wong.