While most politicians are political opportunists from time to time, as are some partisan journalists, some have made an art form of this form of political behaviour. This piece cites some examples and questions the place of opportunism in politics.
There are hundreds of examples of naked political opportunism from the past; this piece draws on recent examples.
First, take Tony Abbott’s comments about the NBN in the wake of the Queensland flood tragedy as expressed in an article in Business Spectator: Flood costs should drive NBN rethink: Abbott
on January 7 that began: “The huge cost of responding to Queensland's flood crisis calls into question the wisdom of spending billions on a national broadband network (NBN), federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says.”
Here is my analysis of what was an interesting article that illustrated the multiple facets of political opportunism:
No doubt some would argue that Abbott is entitled to suggest that NBN money would be better spent helping flood restoration. In isolation, that would not be a reason for disgust. There are other reasons. First, as Hillbilly Skeleton pointed out at the time, he was playing on the raw emotions of those affected by the floods and of those who from afar empathized with them, when they were most vulnerable. At a time when everyone was distressed and wanting to help the flood victims and assist in restoring normality in the ravaged areas, the idea of diverting money from the NBN to flood restoration might have had superficial appeal to the unthinking. One could hear some saying – ‘that would be a better use of taxpayers’ money’. A time of high emotion is not the time to carry out complex discussions about such alternatives, or to jump to superficially plausible solutions. Abbott must have known this; if he didn’t, he has no right to be seeking prime ministership. But such considerations are irrelevant to him when an opportunity for wedge politics arises. To make such a suggestion shows once again that the NBN and all it will be able to do for our economy, for health and for education, is not valued by him. He seems unable to see its enormous potential; if he does and still seeks its ‘demolition’, again he is not fit for prime ministership.
Next, in order to reassure any doubters, he argued that: “…the scheme
[the NBN] could be ‘perfectly well’ provided in most instances by private sector businesses…”
He knows ‘perfectly well’ that is not so; the private sector has had a decade to provide fast broadband and it has not, nor will it, even if invited. The best we could expect would be cherry-picking the profitable parts and to hell with the rest, including most of rural Australia.
He then tried to advance his case by smearing the CEO of NBN Co. Mike Quigley, who was in the employ of Alcatel-Lucent at the time of a bribe scandal by saying: "Senior officials of the NBN were in charge at Alcatel when illegal bribes were paid"
although the article itself stated: “Mike Quigley, head of NBN Co, the company responsible for rolling out the network, and his chief financial officer, Jean-Pascal Beaufret, were previously senior executives at Alcatel-Lucent, but played no part in the bribe investigation.”
So there although was no association, Abbott still smeared these men with reckless abandon.
Finally, unable to resist any opportunity to smear the Government once again, he repeated his old mantra: “He said this was particularly the case given the government's ‘appalling record of mismanagement’ when it came to the stewardship of public money.”
So an opportunity for driving a wedge was exploited ruthlessly, and the wedge driven in with several well aimed blows.
Another recent example of opportunism, this time by journalists, occurred at the January 11 press conference about the flood crisis conducted by Julia Gillard in Canberra. Her focus was on the depth and tragic implications of this human and economic tragedy. Yet that did not stop a Canberra Press Gallery journalist (identity unknown) asking whether the cost of restoration after the flood would result in the Government revising its promise to restore the federal budget to surplus by 2012/13. No doubt the journalist was trawling for a gotcha statement had the PM said revision would now be necessary. The hoped-for headline ‘PM reneges on promise to bring budget into surplus’ was denied when she unequivocally said ‘no’. Yet he persisted with a variant of the question and got the same response. That she kept her cool and eschewed dealing out a rebuff is a tribute to her patience with such aggressive journalists. Another journalist later asked a question about the timing of the health reforms, implying they might not be able to occur as planned, possibly hoping too for a gotcha moment, and got the appropriate brief response that left the message that such a question was inappropriate on such a solemn occasion.
I was incensed by such insensitive and blatantly political questioning while many of our countrymen were lying dead in their inundated homes or cars, or drowned in flooded watercourses. It was surprising yet gratifying to hear talkback callers on ABC radio expressing similar annoyance. Several from Canberra called to express their solidarity with the people of Queensland, to apologize for the conduct of the Canberra Press Gallery journalists, and assure Queenslanders that the people of Canberra were not tarred with the same self-serving attitude as Canberra’s introspective journalists who seem to live in their own little inward-looking political bubble. It is heartening that the political opportunism of the journalists was so apparent to ABC listeners. Whether any of this filtered into the rarified atmosphere of editorial corridors in Canberra is unknown, but with the Twitter aficionados at large, it would be a pretty disconnected journalist that did not get the feedback.
On the Ashghebranious website, Ash drew attention to Tony Abbott’s utterances early in the flood crisis when Abbott said he would ensure that the Government lived up to his promises, something his supporters would no doubt applaud, in a piece titled Scrutinize
Ash said: “Okay I should be more specific. Mr. Abbott plans to scrutinise. He proposes that while a flood is happening and while people are in need and despair, he and the coalition will watch and make sure the government delivers help to the people. See. What I want to know is why he can’t roll up his sleeve, pitch a hand, and then scrutinise later.”
We would all like to know.
The serious floods had hardly begun when Barnaby Joyce pontificated on the subject of dams, giving the impression that not enough had been built for flood mitigation, although there had been Coalition opposition to recently proposed dams.
Tony Abbott then appeared in the flooded areas, declared the floods a tragedy, and soon echoed Joyce with more talk about dams. It was not his intervention in the flood crisis, it was not his showing of concern for those affected by the floods that evoked criticism; it was his characteristically opportunistic approach. Had he said: “The Opposition is one with the Government in providing assistance and support for flood-ravaged communities”, he would have earned applause. Instead, with his comments about the need for Australia to overcome ‘its dam phobia’, and his thought bubble to form a Coalition committee headed by Andrew Robb to investigate the building of further dams, leading no doubt to another of his well-tried three-word slogans, such as ‘Build More Dams’, he opportunistically politicized the floods. Like all the other three-worders, it would sound plausible, indeed to the unthinking and uninformed it would seem an obvious solution; it would fit with the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ image that Abbott likes to portray, and would paint the Coalition and its ‘Action Man’ leader as on the ball, in contrast to his opponents whom he always portrays as not knowing what to do, and of dragging the chain.
His intervention suggested that Labor governments had got the issue of dams wrong, notwithstanding NLP opposition to recently proposed ones, and that Action Man could get it right, as usual. He knew full well that the existence of the Coalition committee would keep the matter in the public eye as long as he wanted, even if it concluded, as have most experts, that dam building is a complex issue, especially when the dams are somehow expected to store water for when it is needed, as they always have been, but able to catch flood water when that is what was needed. I suspect that the Coalition taskforce is more to give him an opportunity to spread misinformation and keep the blowtorch to the Government than it is about finding a solution to flood mitigation.
So if Abbott had stuck to showing solidarity with those affected by the floods we would have clapped our hands. If he had waited until the crisis was under control to voice his thoughts about the value of dams in flood mitigation, it would likely have been seen as a helpful addition to this vexed debate. It was his penchant for trying to opportunistically turn every event, no matter how devastating, no matter how contemporaneous, immediately to his political advantage, that was reprehensible.
If more examples of political opportunism were needed, this piece could have been many times longer. But these recent examples serve to illustrate its prevalence and to demonstrate its ugliness. It is a sad impediment to balanced dialogue about important national issues. Is there any remedy, or is this an incurable malady in our political system?
What do you think?