The dark art of opposing

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?

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10/09/2009my system has been crook for a few days frozen in fact just like the Coalition and ltd news in a sort of timewarp, little jumps to the left etc. You have covered everything extremely well and my only fear is that repetion of the lies will find some traction with the general public, if the Govt do not start spelling out the true situation. Check out "club troppo I told you so" a picture is worth a 1000 words.

Bushfire Bill

11/09/2009[i]"... she’s the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, and Social Inclusion."[/i] Actually today they came up with a new one: [i]... she’s the Deputy Prime [b]Minister[/b] and [b]Minister[/b] for Education, [b]Minister[/b] for Employment, [b]Minister[/b] for Workplace Relations, and [b]Minister[/b] for Social Inclusion.[/i] Their focus groups must consist solely of News Ltd opinion writers. I dunno who they think they are impressing. Seems to me the more they remind people of what a good job she's doing, the deeper they dig that hole they're already in. Julia even ridiculed the new strategy of "Let's Get Julia", by referring to it - mockingly - as often as possible.


11/09/2009They contribute nothing, they have nothing, they are nothing. Hence they are not worth worrying about. I thought Downer's was the worst opposition I've seen, but at least he had ACME FightBack. Cheers Eb.

Bushfire Bill

11/09/2009Dennis Shanahan's latest angle is to lambast the government for attacking a weak opposition. Poor diddums! Malcom and Co. might get their feelings hurt. Never mind that Dennis' newspaper is the one that provides the Opposition with a drip feed of half-baked stories in the Schools For Scandal affair, the daily litany of misery that (they suggest) is the Building The Education Revolution rort. Never mind that Joe Hockey reckons the whole thing is a lefty plot dreamt up in the Marxist Halls of the G20. Never mind that yesterday in Parliament we saw ten minutes wasted examining a dispute between a school and the local council over 6 trees. And another ten minutes on a toilet block versus classroom debate. And, in total, probably 40 minutes on idiotic points of order. Never mind that Dennis was the chief perpetrator of the "brilliant" performances of Peter Costello in the House, precisely because - under the benign supervision of the Liberal Speaker - he was able to skewer Labor members mercilessly in QT. No, the government should be nobly above grubby point scoring and concentrate on governing, a task that would be easier if the Opposition allowed the occasional bill to pass the Senate. If Rudd played nice Dennis could say the reason the government wasn't responding was because they had no defence anyway. The Opposition would have a free hand to spruik their cloud-cuckoo theories and parish pump paranoias with renewed vigour. They could label Rudd a wimp because he didn't have the courage of his convictions enough to challenge them. Perhaps Dennis should consider the alternative. If the Opposition stops beating its head against those political brick walls they so actively seek out, and actually do some work, their headache is guaranteed to go away.,25197,26055354-17301,00.html

Ad astra reply

11/09/2009Bilko I share your concern that the public may believe some of the untruths generated by the Opposition and dutifully promulgated via the media, which it does for dramatic effect more than the pursuit of the truth. It’s a human tendency to believe the bad rather than the good, and most people don’t have the time or interest to sort out which is which. The Government needs to ‘advertise’ its achievements, which it does in QT and via ‘set pieces’ that it trots out during media interviews. This irritates some people who tire of hearing the same message over and again, but most of the people are busy going about their daily lives, and catch only tiny snippets of these messages, which is why they are so often repeated. The PM and Treasurer send regular email bulletins about Government programs to those who enrol, but I suspect these reach relatively few. Today Kevin Rudd is running a blog for young people at The ALP website gives daily updates on a variety of topics. Here is Julia Gillard’s take on yesterday’s unemployment figures: I agree that illustrations such as the Peter Martin graph to which you refer are powerful as messages. If only more aspects of government could be treated in this way. I think that the Rudd Government is very conscious of the need to communicate well with a wide variety of groups; thus Rudd’s appearance on Rove Live and his use of FM radio that he seems to prefer over AM radio and TV. It is a massively difficult job to communicate with the whole community comprehensively, especially when much of the media is uncooperative or outright hostile. BB Anyone watching QT this week would have been irritated by the repetition of Julia’s titles, and the continual peppering she endured. It was a ploy that only Coalition supporters would have enjoyed. I thought she handled herself well and with good humour, no doubt to the irritation of the Coalition, and particularly Christopher Pyne. Anabelle Crabb agrees in [i]La Gillardine lops Hockey's left-wing conspiracy[/i] But of course Dennis thinks she had her worst week in [i]Sloppy Joe and the poodle[/i],25197,26055354-7583,00.html and cautions the Government not to overdo the attacks on the Opposition. He seems to have forgotten how he lauded Peter Costello, ‘the greatest parliamentary performer of all time’ for doing exactly what Rudd and Co are doing so effectively now. It seems that in contemporary politics the rule is that if you’ve got your foot on your opponent’s throat, keep it there. After all, that’s what the Coalition has been attempting, albeit poorly, all week. It may not be nice, but politics is a ruthless game. You’re right, if the Opposition desisted from its petty pursuit of Julia, the quality of debate just might improve. Ebenezer I agree. Even when Labor was struggling when Simon Crean was leader, it was never as inept and disorganized and pathetic as the Coalition is now.


11/09/2009They've got nothing, nada, zip and zilch. No policies, no leadership, no tactics or strategy, no idea. Attacking Julia G.? Whose bright idea was that? Hockey's very silly left wing G20 brain snap? I reckon they are looking like the worst Opposition, probably ever.

Ad astra reply

11/09/2009monica That is a conclusion many are coming to, but because they lack insight into their own pitiable state, they don't see the need to act differently. So expect the same lemming-like behaviour to continue unabated.


11/09/2009I could pretend I didn't already comment on this topic with the following response to Dennis Shanahan at The Australian, but I won't. "Dennis, if you were confronted with simple-minded stupidity every day, comments and actions that did, in fact, make it difficult to get on with your daily work without addressing them, what would you do? The Opposition is the root cause of the problems with focusedly governing Australia. Still confused and anguished about having been turfed out, their only response is to harry and nitpick. But such activity is given media coverage, and left unresponded to, is 'sold' as laying a punch into the government's midriff. If the Opposition under its cabal of clowns in 'leadership' would look more to Australia's interest than the nearest camera lens or microphone, we might find ourselves in a country with a government and civil-minded opposition working in Parliament and beyond as they are meant to - reflecting the will of the people, and aiming to improve our lot. And we might find Shadow Ministers expanding their vocabulary from the limited vulgarity of the locker-room while it's happening."

Bushfire Bill

12/09/2009Rudd got where he is by agreeing with the government on most things (which probably reflects the true situation anyway) and differing only on certain well-defined points of contention. The basic strategy in any war is to concentrate your forces at the enemy's weak point, not to indulge in permanent, exhausting, all-out full frontal attacks. The Liberals haven't twigged to this yet. What they also haven't cottoned onto is that the weak points they think they [i]have[/i] identified are actually strong. Sometimes a strong point can be [i]made[/i] weak by a concentration of force. But the trick is to pick the apparently strong points that have an underlying weakness, and not to confuse these with genuinely strong points that really [i]are[/i] unassailable. In picking the government's response to the GFC as a strong point that has a potential weakness, the Liberals have got it all wrong. It's one of those genuine, unassailable stong points. In other words, the Liberals are beating themselves to death trying to overwhelm it. A lot of this is because they still possess the testosterone that comes from believing they were robbed at the last election. If they were robbed, then it was the other side's cheating that caused it, not anything to do with their policies. Ergo, don't change policies, positions or tactics fromlast time. The Liberals believe that "one last push" against the impregnable fortress will get them back into government. So they marshall the same forces, use the same weapons ("debt", "interest rates"), the same strategies and the same doctrines that always worked for them in the past. And then they make the same attack, again and again. The only thing that will save them is if a Labor artillery shell lands right on the HQ tent and wipes out the leadership that is pursuing this wrongheaded strategy. Until they clean out the deadwood, or have it cleaned out for them, the Liberal leadership will continue aching for past glories and using yesterday's tactics to fight today's war. Past glories are all the current leadership has. But in war and politics, it's tomorrow's glories, and the prospect in the voters' eye that they can and will be delivered that decides the issue.

Bushfire Bill

12/09/2009A follow on from my post above... I guess it follows that Labor should aim their artillery away from the Liberal HQ tent. They might actually score a hit. When your opposing general is getting it so wrong, so often, why interfere with that?


12/09/2009BB, I think that's why Julia declined to comment on Tony Abbott's description of her smile by week's end. A number of alternatives are available: he got the phrase wrong in which case he's made a nong of himself: he got the phrase right in which case he's 'fessing up to the Coalition being defeated by her this week: she doesn't need to say a thing as Abbott's statement says it all. I think both Kevin Rudd and Julia Guillard are having a perfectly wonderful time of it and Malcolm Turnbull is not a politician. Silly Malcolm can't keep his mouth shut and today's musings on IR will easily be portrayed as their intent to bring back Serfchoices.

Bushfire Bill

12/09/2009[i]"Silly Malcolm can't keep his mouth shut and today's musings on IR will easily be portrayed as their intent to bring back Serfchoices.[/i]" First it was "The Rudd Recession". Then it was "Recession? What Recession?". Then it was "The Howard Surplus" (all $20 billion of it - a drop in the bucket compared to the extent of the problem). Now it's "WorkChoices saved our bacon." In-between we've had to endure "They spent too much on a dunny block", "The G20 is a Leftist cabal" and "It's all a Labor rort to enrich their mates in Ipswich." Oh, and yes, "There's a feeling in the air", plus Glen Milne's favourite, "This time the Honeymoon [i]is[/i] over." The Liberals got everything perfectly correct. There is no need to adjust their policy settings. Just don't let yourselves be swindled by the "Bradman Of Boredom" a second time. We'll keep that in mind, Malcolm and Joe. Thanks for the tip.


12/09/2009I still reckon the "Bradman of Boredom" must be laughing himself silly. Oh look, the history wars are over, well, their history wars are over. Welcome to our history wars, and you ain't going to like it.

Sir Ian Crisp

13/09/2009Ad Astra, despite your casuistic distinctions there is little to separate our political parties. And don’t hold your breath waiting for Australian politics and politicians to be free from the trammels of grubbiness which is an apt description of Australian politics. As I have said before, the inept, corrupt, sophist, tourist, dishonest, indolent, immoral, insane; all of these types and more will find Australian politics offers a safe haven. It’s natural for the Bird of Paradox to be asked to account for her Education Revolution spending. However, I did find comic relief in one of the Lib’s alleged bright lights saying she looked like she had eaten a s**t sandwich. This from a man who can hardly complete a sentence without the usual weighty caesurae. It goes something like: “Julia… ahhhh… looked… ummmmmmm…like she had eaten… ahhhhh… a… ummmm… s**t sandwich”. He would make a great PM. What I find most admirable about the Bird of Paradox is that her personal “Speaking English” lessons are at last working. Don’t worry about avuncular Big Joe. He’s hoping that his baboonery will somehow ease the memory of HIH until it occupies the liminal recesses of the Australian psyche. Sorry Joe, I have a fully functioning memory. Big Joe is like Paul Keating in lots of ways. No matter how many book launches Keating attends and no matter how many speaking engagements he crowds into his diary he’ll always be a dud. Ad Astra, there was no need for the opposition to mention the 27,000 poor sods who have found themselves on the unemployed scrap heap. I’m sure you’ll rip into our Dear Leader on that matter just like you did when he postponed the end of the world. I do agree with the assessment of the banker. His faults are many and we were even treated to high farce when the banker, in God-mode, had to be embarrassingly reminded by iron bar just what the agreed party policy was on a particular matter. He is not cutting through with the voting public and he lacks a strong presence.

Ad astra reply

13/09/2009Michael Welcome to[i]The Political Sword[/i]. Thank you for posting your very apt reply to Dennis Shanahan. His attempt to muster sympathy for or understanding of the Opposition approach will mostly fall on deaf ears. Dennis still writes hopefully. BB You’re right, the Turnbull leadership is grossly inept, the Bishop deputy leadership almost invisible, and the Hockey ‘leadership’ suffering from a serious case of ‘foot in mouth’. The G20 a centre-left cabal, jobs less important than rising interest rates, and the promise to reduce the budget from 28.6 per cent of GDP to 24 per cent, slashing an estimated $49 billion from the annual budget, is a pretty impressive trifecta. And to top it off Joe insisted he had had a good week, and apologized for none of it. And Tony Abbott shows his seething anger with an unnecessary dig at Julia Gillard. Then at the weekend Turnbull capped his week with a hint that he may bring back AWAs. That sounds like a suicide mission. Have the Coalition learnt nothing? Hopeless. monica A good assessment of Abbott’s taunt. The Opposition would do much better just to say nothing, certainly nothing controversial, as every time a Coalition mouth is opened, out flows superb video clips for Labor’s next election ad campaign. Sir Ian You do have a very jaundiced view of politicians in general. We know some are incompetent, some devious, some corrupt. But I find it hard to accept that all are tarred with the same brush. Perhaps one day we need to discuss the good politicians – those who work hard trying to make a difference. I believe there may be more than we recognize. You mention the 27,000 jobs lost. What I heard from the Government was that despite the static unemployment rate that on the face of it looked good, there was a large loss of jobs and it was only the change in the participation rate with fewer seeking work that the unemployment rate was unchanged. The job losses are serious and have fortified the Government’s argument for not discontinuing the stimuli too abruptly.
T-w-o take away o-n-e equals?