What a contrast there is in Federal politics today. We have a Government that has many programmes in train, chief among them protecting the nation from the effects of the GFC. Then we have an Opposition that opposes almost everything, relentlessly attacks the Government’s stimulus plans and those responsible for overseeing them, criticizes almost everything the Government does, is consistently negative, and regularly engages in scare campaigns. It seems to take to heart the Randolph Churchill dictum for oppositions: ‘oppose everything, suggest nothing, and toss the government out’.
Does it have to be this way? [more]
It is cold comfort to those who have elected the Rudd Government to do what it promised to do to be reminded that 'Labor did the same in opposition' or that this is how democracies work in other countries.
A report today in ABC News on Barack Obama's speech to the US Congress exposed the troubles he is having getting his health reform bill supported. What follows is excerpted from that news item. Obama warned Congress “...that more Americans would die if it did not act now on health care," and bluntly warned he would "...not waste time working with Republicans bent on defeating his plan to damage him politically.” After months of charges by conservatives that he is trying to impose a 'socialised' state-run health system, he used the speech to say “...the time for bickering is over, the time for games has passed, now is the season for action, now is the time to deliver on health care.” The president drew frequent scoffs from his Republican critics, but insisted that if Washington again did nothing to change a system that leaves up to 47 million Americans uninsured, the deficit would grow and more families would go bankrupt.
He warned Republicans he would not hold up his plan just to appear bipartisan. "I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it; I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now."
Republican assaults in August created an impression that they had taken a strategic decision to defeat health care reform in a bid to cripple Obama's presidency. Passing health care reform would put him in rarefied political company with an achievement that has confounded reforming US presidents for decades. But failure could embolden Republicans and hamper his hopes of building a coalition to pass an ambitious agenda including a global warming bill. Scare campaigns too were afoot. Sarah Palin even suggested that so-called ‘death panels’ or governmental agencies could be created to cut off care for critically ill people as a cost-cutting measure.
Sound familiar? Just last night the Coalition, with cross bench support, defeated the Government’s bill to change the private health insurance rebate, leaving the budget $1.9 billion short. The cross benches may come to the party when some adjustments are made, but the Coalition says it won’t on the grounds that Kevin Rudd promised not to change the arrangements, and that the changes would flood the public system, a charge we’ve heard before about similar changes, but which has never eventuated. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, like the Republican’s stance in the US, the Coalition’s position is political rather than having anything to do with health; having lambasted the Government on its ‘deficit and debt’, its actions last night ensured that the deficit will be $1.9 billion more.
All the Opposition does is cloaked in the mantra – our job is to hold the Government to account. Of course that is what an opposition is expected to do. It’s how it does it that counts. So what has the Opposition contributed to parliamentary discourse, at least that which is seen in Question Time and reported in the media? Let’s draw a picture of how the Opposition goes about its daily business by looking at its performance in parliament and the media.
First we have seen it use a number of unedifying mantras over the last few months: ‘debt and deficit’ and the ‘debt truck’ (presumably now garaged), all part of a long-running fear campaign; ‘reckless spending’; ‘waste and mismanagement’ in the schools program; the ‘schools stimulus debacle’, today embellished with ‘fiasco’ and ‘shemozzle’; ‘Julia Gillard Memorial Assembly Halls’ and ‘Dear Leader and Dear Madam Leader’, all arising from the schools program; ‘all spin and no substance’ still gets a run but is losing its potency as the Government is engaged in feverish activity; ‘the Government has never made a hard decision’ – presumably its decisions to ameliorate the effects of the GFC were easy; a Government of ‘broken promises’ (a rare phenomenon in federal politics); and today a new one for the Coalition – a re-run of the same one used against John Howard – ‘Kevin Rudd is a clever and tricky politician’, which Peter Dutton introduced and which I’m sure we’ll see more of.
Apart from the mantras, what else does the Opposition contribute? They ask questions in Question Time. Having targeted Wayne Swan in the early months, regarding him as the ‘weak link’ and having found him too formidable an opponent, all this week they have concentrated their questions on Julia Gillard; in case you’ve missed it, she’s the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, and Social Inclusion, a title repeated with every question – code for ‘she’s got too big a job and is doing it poorly’. I lost count of today’s questions to her; there must have been well over a dozen, all relating to individual schools, on such momentous aspects as the inconvenience occasioned to some children and carers relocated as a result of the new building program; a request to indemnify a school threatened with legal action by the local council over the removal of trees; the one child school in outback Queensland that has been allocated a quarter of a million dollars but has not, and will not receive a cent until its status is resolved; several schools that have had some disagreement with the buildings and amenities proposed; the alleged ‘rorting’ by contractors and ‘rip offs’ by state departments; the variance in contract prices with what are purported to be identical projects in different schools; the failure of the minister yet to visit some schools which she promised to do, but insists she will. All important in their own way, but surely not something that should engage around 150 parliamentarians for over two hours. What possible benefit could that be to the wider community? And if that was not enough, Christopher Pyne immediately after QT introduced a debate on a ‘matter of public importance’ on the same subject, repeating the same complaints and accusations. Yet of the 24,000 projects in 9,500 schools only 49 complaints have been received, a fact omitted from most media bulletins, keen to magnify what are a very small number of problems. Bushfire Bill has quantified the amount involved in disputed school projects as two thirds of one percent of the total schools program funding. How can there be so much fuss, so many questions, so many petty comments, so much time taken over such a miniscule amount, when the benefits to employment, to small business, to the economy, and to the schools and the children is so immense? The Government calls all this ‘nit picking’ and it is.
All these questions on the schools program were asked on the day that the ABS announced that 27,000 full-time jobs had been lost in August, (although because many had given up looking for work, the unemployment rate stayed at 5.8%), but there was not one question on unemployment, not one.
Then there have been the recent shrewd utterances of Coalition members in the media. Asked by The Australian how he would manage the deficit, Joe Hockey, in a piece today titled Joe Hockey vows to slash $14bn of government spending, he confirms that it is $14 billion a year, and that he would reduce spending to 24% of GDP, much below the Government’s 28.6%. He gave no indication of how such a massive reduction in the budget might be accomplished. And he gave this commitment the day after the Coalition had knocked a further $1.9 billion off the health budget. He was ridiculed in parliament, as he was for his Twitter comment that the G20 was a left-wing group perpetrating a global conspiracy to continue fiscal stimuli.
What else does the Opposition contribute? Any policy ideas? No. Both Hockey and Pyne have declined to say what the Coalition would do in Government on grounds that the Rudd Government would ‘steal their ideas’ if they gave them out too far before the election. Either they don’t really have any useful ideas, or else if they do, they intend to keep them secret rather than put them forward now to benefit the nation.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see what this Opposition is doing that might be of value to the country.
Opposition members are in denial about the GFC, they seem unconcerned about unemployment or small business stress, they insist the Government panicked and embarked on unnecessary ‘reckless’ spending, they even use the fact that the Australian economy is performing best among developed nations as evidence, not of the efficacy of the stimulus package, but as an argument that the stimulus was not needed in the first place. They still insist the stimulus must be withdrawn despite all the opinion to the contrary, despite the continuing job losses. Can you get your mind around that logic?
All of this is compounded by the incompetence of the Opposition Leader. Guy Rundle, writing yesterday in Crikey had this to say about Malcolm Turnbull: “Is this the worst Australian Opposition Leader evuh? He is certainly in the running. He is failing his party on every front. He lacks the skills and appetites to lead an intellectual renovation of Australian liberalism/conservatism, his strategic leadership has been obscure, and his tactical moves have been blunderful to watch. He gets nothing right, and everything wrong. He has the least aptitude for frontline politics of anyone in recent memory...Politically, he is a teenager adrift, finding that what looked easy, what he was desperate to get out of the harbour to do, has hidden difficulties related to the presence of other, more considerable vessels.” Is there a need to say any more?
Finally and sadly, this Opposition has so mastered its own dark art of opposition, has so abrogated its duty as a responsible party, is so incompetent, so abysmally led, so undisciplined in its statements, so immature, so lacking in insight into its own lamentable performance, that it represents a serious danger to sound democracy in this country.
If only the mainstream media would expose this for all to see instead of running with the facade of competence the Opposition purports to possess, we might achieve better government and superior outcomes for this nation
What do you think?