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Tag Archives: Trust

Forging the Wrong Leaders

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“We are not the Labor party.”  Amongst the leadership tensions of the past few weeks in the ruling Coalition government, Prime Minister Tony Abbott appears to have adopted this as a mantra of sorts, an incantation to ward off the attacks of his foes both inside and outside of his own party. A return to the internecine warfare of 2010 and 2013, he argues, would make the Liberal party as bad as their predecessors. He speaks as if there is something qualitatively different between the parties and the way they go about their operation, as if the Liberal and Labor parties have entirely different and incompatible DNAs.

Whilst the spill motion may have failed, the simple fact that the motion was raised shows that this is manifestly untrue.

Labor has not been slow to join in the chorus of jibes, directly quoting back invective initially directed at Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd by Abbott and his fellows. There is no shortage of material to use. Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne and others were incessant in their criticism of Labor’s leadership woes, all at the instigation of the consummate attack dog who now finds the tables turned. The rich irony is that leadership battles are only unpalatable because Tony Abbott made them so. They are not new to Australian politics.

Admittedly, leadership changes at the Federal level are rarer than in State politics. Additionally, many Prime Ministers step down “gracefully” before the inevitable push.  It is not until Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – and the unedifying return to Rudd – that replacement of a sitting Prime Minister by force became somewhat common. However, the attempt by Liberal backbenchers to push a spill motion and depose Tony Abbott shows that leadership battles are not restricted to one side of politics. They are caused by something deeper – a malaise in politics.

“To lose one Prime Minister may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness.” (With apologies to Oscar Wilde.)

Deposing (or attempting to depose) a sitting, first-term Prime Minister is, admittedly rare – at least, until recent years. So how is it that we’ve come to this?

Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007 with a sweeping majority and the hopes and aspirations of Australians behind him. Less than three years later he was pushed from office, a broken, tearful man. What forces wrought the triumphant visionary of Kevin 07 into the chaotic, vindictive morass he became?

The issue at the heart of Kevin Rudd’s downfall was his inability to govern. Rudd was a great communicator, an idealist, a visionary and a fantastic politician for elections. In government, however, he proved lacking in the skills and attributes required of a Prime Minister. This came about, essentially, because elections and governments require very distinct skill-sets. What makes a great leader during an election campaign does not make a wonderful leader in power. Unfortunately, the reverse is also often true: great leaders may be let down by their inability to win elections.

Our modern democracy revolves around elections. They are the fixed points at which the people can have their say. It has been argued that Australia is a democracy for a month or so every three years, after which it becomes an effective oligarchy. There is some truth to this.

Increasingly, however, the three years between elections are conducted with an unremitting focus on the next election. Oppositions have this easy: they spend their years in the political wilderness with nothing but the next election to think about. Government is a harder job. Making decisions in the greater good, aware that every action will have detractors, will be attacked by the opposition and by the media, requires courage. Making decisions aimed solely at bolstering the government’s reputation at the next election is easier.

During elections, enormous sums of money are spent on revealing and promoting policy, on attacking political opponents, and on strategising the message. How much do you reveal? How long can you keep your best offerings hidden, in order to best capture public approval whilst restricting the other party’s opportunity to respond? All is done with an eye on the prize – the all-important twelve hours when the electoral booths are open.

Elections are replete with unreasonable expectations, with impossible promises, and unfortunately often, dirty tactics. Throw a partisan media into the mixture and an election becomes so much froth and noise, a lot of the detail can be obscured.

But then the election is over. The winning party is expected to segue into governing. Suddenly there is no money for advertising. The messaging takes a back seat: governing is a long game. In governing, there is limited value to continuing to attack the other side. Even a party which had the media’s partisan support during the election can find, all too soon, that it becomes hostile. Sudden attention is paid to detail. Promises were made during the campaign, but when it comes to execution, any number of headwinds interfere: from the quality of the public service to unexpected financial setbacks. Changing circumstances require flexibility, but promises and public expectations are not flexible.
In the public’s view, the choice has been made. The election is over: it is time to make good on the promises. And woe betide a party that cannot deliver on its promises, the next time elections come around.

Promises are the currency of elections

Campaigning requires a particular skillset of a political party and its leaders. Leaders must bring inspiration and vision. An election from opposition can be carried on criticism of the government, but only insofar as plans can be proposed to address the identified shortcomings. Attacking your opponents will get you only so far; a party needs to explain what it would do differently. The universal truth of electoral campaigns is promises.
Kevin Rudd was a great campaigner. He brought vision and grand plans. His rhetoric inspired the young and the old alike in an idea of what Australia could be. He promised changes that would be difficult, but he made them sound easy, and he had obvious commitment to his cause. Kevin 07 was a whirlwind of hope, and with a strong team behind him, he made his promises sound convincing.

Unfortunately, Kevin Rudd proved to be terrible at governing. The essential qualities of a government leader are the ability to negotiate, persistence to follow-through on projects, focus on detail, delegation and empowerment of your team, and detailed planning. These were not Kevin Rudd’s strengths. In eternal search for polling approval, Rudd lacked the ability to push projects through to completion against critical media campaigns and public resistance. His inability to delegate power and responsibility was also a detriment. In an election, the leader’s visibility and personality are critical to success. But Australia is too large and complex for a single leader, however frenetic, to manage. Kevin Rudd and his centralisation became a bottleneck, and Labor was unable to effectively execute on its promises.

Kevin Rudd was a great “wartime leader” but a mediocre peacetime one. When he was deposed in favour of Julia Gillard, the priority was to regain some momentum on the projects that had stalled. Fulfilling at least some of the promises that won the 2007 election would go some way to address the electors’ buyer’s remorse. Such was Gillard’s success in a short period of time that she won Labor another term of office.

Gillard was amazing at the things that Rudd was not. Negotiation and persistence were the hallmarks of the Gillard administration. With Gillard’s direct intervention and follow-through, outstanding issues got resolved. Promises made at the previous election, sabotaged by poor planning and policy backdowns, were resolved in short order – perhaps with suboptimal outcomes, but enough to get them off the table.

Gillard was a very successful peacetime leader and history will likely judge her kindly. However, she was let down in the face of Tony Abbott’s incessant campaigning by a poor communication style. Gillard was not seen as a great campaigner. A last-minute return to the Great Campaigner, Kevin Rudd, in late 2013 was insufficient to address the extended election campaign Tony Abbott had run from the moment he ascended to the Liberal leadership.

Uncomfortable parallels

Tony Abbott was also a great campaigner. His approach was different to Rudd’s; he brought no grand plans or vision to the table. Instead his approach was to sow discontent wherever possible, and his pitch was for a return to the Good Old Days of prosperity under Howard. His messaging was consistent and strident and believable. With no grand plans to propose, details of execution were not required. Tony Abbott ran a three-year election campaign leading up to his election in 2013. The primary promise of Tony Abbott’s Coalition was to “Not be Labor” – a message he is still pushing today, over a year after taking government.

Abbott’s success on the campaign trail has not carried through to success as Prime Minister. Tony Abbott and his cabinet repeatedly point to their grand successes – the mining tax, the “carbon tax”, and three free trade agreements. Regardless of whether you consider these outcomes to be successes, unstated are the Attacks on Everyone of the 2014 budget, the ideological attack on industrial relations, the Captain’s Picks, or the reliance of the Coalition on a model of Australia’s prosperity (mining and export) that is rapidly coming to an end. Not described is the government’s lack of a plan for developing the country into a nation of the 21st century – nor the failure of the government to progress its plans to forge the country into the preeminent example of a 20th century country. Not mentioned is the changing circumstance which is the belated acceptance of the rest of the world that Climate Change is an existential issue demanding action.

Like Rudd, Abbott is also a centraliser. The inability to entrust his Ministers with management of their own offices, let alone their own portfolios, has led to internal dissatisfaction – just like Kevin Rudd. The inability of the Abbott government – with its hard right-wing policies and its head-kicker parliamentary supremos – leads to an inability to negotiate in good faith with their political opponents, which leads to legislation languishing in the Senate. In turn, this leads to further deterioration of the budget. This government seems to know only one way to respond to a budget problem, but this approach does not have the approval of the people the government is elected to serve, nor the Senate which protects them.

The skills and attributes that brought Tony Abbott to government are not the skills and attributes needed to effectively govern this country. This is the malaise of our democracy. The focus on winning government means that leaders are forged who can win elections but not lead the country.

The enormous political cost of changing from Rudd to Gillard, and back to Rudd, led to Rudd introducing new rules to the Labor party around leadership contention. This was good politics. It is not, necessarily, good government, if it serves to protect the interests of an incompetent or unsatisfactory Prime Minister. Such rules, ironically, would serve to protect Tony Abbott, and a similar set of requirements have been proposed for the Coalition that would further endanger Australia’s ability to unseat a leader who can campaign but not govern.

Where to from here?

History shows us that Tony Abbott is unlikely to survive as Prime Minister to the next election – unless the Coalition follows Labor’s lead and institutes new rules to prevent the unseating of a Prime Minister. If Tony Abbott is unseated, perhaps as a result of another poor Captain’s Call or a further string of poor polls and State election results, who would be expected to replace him? And would Abbott be replaced by a good governor – or a great campaigner?

Amongst the ideologues and right-wing extremists, the climate deniers and the silver spoon born-to-rule set, who on the Coalition’s side can be the great governor Australia needs? Malcolm Turnbull looks like the most likely candidate for the top job (despite the particular loathing which some of his Coalition colleagues reserve for him). Can Malcolm Turnbull the Despised become the negotiator, the facilitator, and the project lead that the Coalition so desperately needs?

 

Tony Abbott: I make this pledge to you, the Australian people

Tony Abbott - never taking the important issues seriously (image from echo.net.au)

Tony Abbott – never taking the important issues seriously (image from echo.net.au)

The following is an excerpt from Tony Abbott’s 2013 election campaign launch speech with an interactive report card on how he is going so far.  Click on the links to read further.

“This election is about making a great country even better; and that starts with changing [to] the worst government in our history.

I will spend the next two weeks reassuring people that there is a better way while Mr Rudd will spend the next two weeks trying to scare you about what might happen if he doesn’t keep his job.

Mr Rudd thinks this election is all about him.

Well, it’s not about him and it’s not about me.

It’s about you and how a better government can help your family and make your job more secure.

We know that a stronger economy is not about picking winners but about helping everyone to get ahead.

I want our workers to be the best paid in the world and for that to happen, we have to be amongst the most productive in the world.

From day one, it will be obvious that Australia is under new management and once more open for business.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation will cease making non-commercial loans with taxpayers’ money.

And the motor industry will be saved from Mr Rudd’s $1.8 billion tax on company cars.

Within one hundred days, the Australian Building and Construction Commission will be running again, and the true state of Labor’s books will be revealed.

The NBN will have a new business plan to ensure that every household gains five times current broadband speeds – within three years and without digging up almost every street in Australia – for $60 billion less than Labor.

By the end of a Coalition government’s first term, the budget will be on-track to a believable surplus.

The WestConnex in Sydney, the East West Link in Melbourne, the Gateway Upgrade here in Brisbane, the North South Road in Adelaide, and the Swan Bypass in Perth will be well and truly underway.

A standing Green Army, rising to be 15,000 strong, will be working with councils, farmers and volunteers to clean up our polluted waterways and restore our degraded bush.

And the National Disability Insurance Scheme will be operating in large parts of every state.

We’ll trim the commonwealth public sector payroll by 12,000 through natural attrition

And we won’t increase the humanitarian migrant intake until such time as it’s no longer being filled by people smugglers.

There will be no new spending under a Coalition government that’s not fully-costed and fully-funded.

By the end of a Coalition government’s first term, working with the states, teacher standards will be rising and teaching programmes will be improving.

People who are capable of working will be working, preferably for a wage but if not, for the dole.

And there will be a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme in place, because factory workers and shop assistants deserve to get their actual wage while they are on leave – just like public servants do.

We must be a country that rewards people for having a go – but we must never leave anyone behind.

That’s why I announce today that an incoming Coalition government will finally index eligibility thresholds for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card so that more self-funded retirees will have access to cheaper medicines.

If our vision is realised, within ten years, Australia will have lower, simpler, fairer taxes.

There will be two million more jobs, in manufacturing as well as in agriculture, services, education and a still buoyant resources sector.

We’ll have a more functional federation where the states are sovereign in their own sphere.

Public schools and hospitals will have far more freedom to be as good as their private rivals.

Childcare will be more affordable and more available to families who need more than one income and who have to cope in a 24/7 economy.

As long as I am in public life, I will continue to spend a week a year in a remote indigenous community as I’ve done over the past decade.

Because, if they’re good enough for people to live in, they should be good enough for a prime minister to stay in.

Over the next three years, should we win the election, an incoming Coalition government will do exactly what we’ve said we’ll do.

We will be a no surprises, no excuses government, because you are sick of nasty surprises and lame excuses from people that you have trusted with your future…

It’s performance, not promises, that will earn your respect; it’s actions, not words, that you are looking for.

You could trust us in opposition and you will be able to trust us in government.

You don’t expect miracles; just a government that is competent and trustworthy and a prime minister who doesn’t talk down to you.

And I’m confident that your expectations can be more than met.

An incoming Coalition cabinet will respect the limits of government as well as its potential and will never seek to divide Australian against Australian on the basis of class, gender, or where people were born.

When I look at pensioners and superannuants, I don’t see people who are a drain on the taxpayer but people who have built the country that I am lucky enough to live in.

When I look at the benefits that all Australians rightly enjoy such as Medicare and good public schools and hospitals, I don’t see “middle class welfare” but the hallmarks of a society that gives families a fair go.

After the previous Liberal and National party government gave you the four largest surpluses in our history the current government has given you the five largest deficits in our history.

But the worst deficit is not the budget deficit but the trust deficit.

This election is all about trust.

Kevin Rudd says that a Coalition government would sack nurses and teachers even though we don’t employ any…and sell schools and hospitals…even though we don’t own any.

So not only is Mr Rudd leading the most incompetent government in our history, he’s now running the most dishonest election campaign in our history.

I make this pledge to you the Australian people.

I will govern for all Australians.

I want to lift everyone’s standard of living.

I want to see wages and benefits rise in line with a growing economy.

I want to see our hospitals and schools improving as we invest the proceeds of a well-run economy into the things that really count.

I won’t let you down.

This is my pledge to you.

The one thing you know is that you can’t trust what Labor tells you.

To Labor voters wondering why your party has sold its soul to the Greens; to Green voters wondering why your party has embraced socialism over environmentalism; to independent voters wondering why your MP has sided with a bad government, to everyone who has been let down and embarrassed by the circus in Canberra:

I say: give my team a chance.

Trust me

In light of the deficit levy and the PPL levy and the increased medicare levy to pay for the NDIS and the increased fuel excise and the co-payment for doctors and medications (aka sick tax), I thought it might be interesting to revisit Tony Abbott’s words.

Thanks to the abc and Crikey.  I have also added a few more to their lists.

August 22, 2011 : “It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards. Nothing could be more calculated to bring our democracy into disrepute and alienate the citizenry of Australia from their government than if governments were to establish by precedent that they could say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.

January 31,2013: “So my pledge to you is that I won’t say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards because fibbing your way into office is what’s brought our public life into disrepute.” 

August 25, 2013: “We will be a no-surprises, no-excuses government, because you are sick of nasty surprises and lame excuses from people that you have trusted with your future.” 

October 28, 2010 : “We stand for lower, simpler, fairer taxes, not great big new taxes that damage Australia’s economy, not great big new taxes that are yet another hit on the cost of living of struggling Australian families.”

January 2011:  “Why should the Australian people be hit with a levy to meet expenses which a competent, adult, prudent government should be able to cover from the ordinary revenues of government?”

February 10, 2011: “The one thing that [people] will never have to suffer under a Coalition government is an unnecessary new tax, a tax that could easily be replaced by savings found from the budget.”

February 23, 2011:  “We honour the victims of the floods by being a competent parliament and a competent government. We do not honour them by imposing an unnecessary new tax.”

May 12 2011:  “People can be confident that spending, debt and taxes will always be lower under a Coalition government because we have the record to prove it.”

August 15, 2011:  “This is the week in which we will mark the first anniversary of the Prime Minister’s infamous promise to the Australian people before the last election: ‘There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead’.  This is a promise that will haunt the Prime Minister and the Government every day until their ultimate political death.  This Government fundamentally lacks legitimacy and not because it lacks a majority but because it lacks integrity and nothing more highlights the Government’s lack of integrity than this monumental broken promise.”

August 16, 2011:  “A very clear message is going out from the Australian people to this government: there can be no tax collection without an election. If this government had any honesty, any decency, that is what we would have: an election now.”

August 16, 2011:  “There is one fundamental message that we want to go out from this place to every nook and cranny of our country: There should be no new tax collection without an election.”

August 22, 2011:  “I have often said, and members of this House will no doubt hear me say it again, there should be no new tax collection without an election,”

September 14, 2011:  “I say to this Prime Minister: There should be no new tax collection without an election.”

November 23, 2011:  “This government thinks that somehow you can build prosperity with new taxes. No country ever got rich by increasing taxation. No country ever built a strong economy by clobbering itself with tax after tax after tax.”

November 24, 2011:  “Our objective can be stated quite simply and quite clearly. It is lower taxes, better services, more opportunities to work and, above all else, stronger borders.”

March 14, 2012:  “What you’ll get under us are tax cuts without new taxes,”

May 10, 2012:  people who work hard should not be “hit with higher taxes“.

September 19, 2012“The time for big-spending, big-taxing, big-fibbing government has gone. We will give the Australian people the decent government they deserve.”

January 2013:  “And when this government claims that its attacking middle class welfare, its just attacking the middle class because the family tax benefit and the private health insurance rebate are tax justice for families, not handouts.

May 16, 2013:  “We want taxes that are lower, simpler and fairer and will take proposals for further tax reform to the following election,”

Real Solutions pamphlet, 2013:  “We pledge to the families of Australia that we will never make your lives harder by imposing unnecessary new taxes.”

Liberal Election Policy 2013:  “But only the Coalition can be trusted to actually deliver tax cuts and genuine tax reform that will boost the economy and ease cost‑of‑living pressures for Australian families

July 8, 2013:  “The current government is addicted to regulation. They’ve never seen a problem that they didn’t think a new tax or a new regulation or another bureaucrat could solve.”

August 6, 2013:  “Taxes will always be lower under a Coalition government.”

August 9, 2013:  “The only party which is going to increase taxes after the election is the Labor Party.”

August 11, 2013:  “The only party that will raise taxes after the election is the Labor Party.”

August 15, 2013:  “I am determined not to increase the overall tax burden. I am absolutely determined not to increase the overall tax burden on anyone.”

August 15, 2013:  “There will be no overall increase in the tax burden whatsoever.”

August 17, 2013:  “Now I say the tax burden isn’t going to increase. Well, we are going to abolish the carbon tax, abolish the mining tax, we will reduce the company tax – of course the overall tax burden is going to go down.”

August 18, 2013:  “I want to make it absolutely crystal clear that our objective when the fiscal circumstances are right, is to lower all taxes. We want to lower all taxes. We really are the party of lower, simpler, fairer taxes – look at our record in government.”

August 19, 2013:  “We’ll build a stronger economy so that everyone can get ahead, and part of building a stronger economy is cutting unnecessary taxes, abolishing unnecessary taxes,”

September 2, 2013:  in three years’ time, “because taxes will be lower and regulation reduced, economic growth should be stronger” if the Coalition was elected.

September 5, 2013:  “Right now the best thing we can do for our country and ultimately the best thing we can do for people around the world is to strengthen our economy and that means cutting taxes, building the infrastructure of the future, because if tax is lower and infrastructure is better our economy will be more productive and a strong Australia is going to be a much better international citizen than an Australia which can’t really pay its way.”

September 5, 2013:  “Economic policy will be geared towards stronger economic growth than it currently is. If you reduce taxes, if you reduce regulation, if you increase productivity, you will get stronger economic growth.”

Love the one you’re with

tony_friendly

Tony Abbott is your friend.

In fact, he’s everyone’s friend. He’s so inoffensive to anyone that why there should be resistance to his nefarious schemes is inexplicable. Tony Abbott, and his Coalition, are unfeasibly flexible; whoever you might be, whatever interest group you represent, the Coalition is on your side. One day Abbott will be patting you on the back and swearing his undying support for your cause; the next day he’s in the enemy’s camp and promising your head. Tony Abbott is the friend who will promise you undying support, so long as it will not require him to take action against the other group to whom he has already pledged his undying support.

This article was originally going to be about the shape of Tony Abbott’s first week in government, if he’d really been held to all the promises he had made. The first week would have been spent in the north of Australia, but it’s doubtful whether Abbott would have had the time to focus on indigenous issues considering the hectic schedule of legislation he had promised. Carefully-worded non-promises aside, however, many of the concrete legislative promises which the Coalition offered have been met on schedule – at least to the point of beginning investigations and committees, if not the actual drawing of legislation. Blandishments in the current world of politics need to be made very carefully. Tony Abbott himself raised the petard of “liar”, of an inflexible requirement to deliver exactly what you promised during a campaign. Leading politicians are now very aware of this pitfall and make certain to couch their statements and their support in terms that are vague enough or specific enough in their limitations that you can get away with less than people thought you had promised.

So the article went on hold. Then the Prime Minister’s hectic round of international travel and meetings began and gave another angle to examine. The thing in common between the promises made, over many weeks to many audiences, about initial actions and legislation, and the approach to international leaders, has been one of inconstancy. Or more precisely, being a “man for all seasons” – constantly nodding agreeably to whomever he is addressing.

It’s partly an outcome of the small target approach the Coalition took to the election campaign, and in the heat of an electoral campaign a bit of “policy flexibility” may be excused. It’s not as if the Coalition is unique in this regard; Kevin Rudd took the art form to new heights himself, earning himself the moniker Chameleon Rudd.

However, once in government, and temporarily freed of the pressures of a looming election, a politician is lumbered with certain inconvenient hindrances that don’t harness him/her in opposition; hindrances like actual power, and actual interactions with people outside of the need to get them to vote for you. In this circumstance, it becomes necessary to have the courage of your convictions; in Tony Abbott’s parlance, to “say what you mean and do what you say”. It is disheartening to see that the Coalition, one month into government, appears to be maintaining its approach refined so successfully during its time in opposition. In any number of ways Tony Abbott’s Coalition is still an Opposition, still seeking to demonise the failures of the other side whilst minimising scrutiny of their own intentions and actions. And they are still telling people what they want to hear, assuming they tell them anything at all.

It may be instructive to examine a few of the many faces of Tony Abbott and the Coalition.

On Diplomacy

Kaye Lee helpfully summarised the following in the comments on “Transforming Tony Abbott” a recent AIMN post.

Japan is Australia’s closest friend in the region. However, we are also BFF with Indonesia, “in many respects our most important overall relationship”. Except, of course, for Papua New Guinea, because there is no more important relationship for Australia. One wonders how many respects are left to qualify Tony Abbott’s statement that “New Zealand is in many respects Australia’s closest relationship.” One can only hope that if they’re ever in a room together, those four countries can work out where their relative standings with Australia sit, because I certainly can’t.

On Foreign investment

Australia’s sovereignty and ability to feed itself is at risk. So obviously the laws surrounding foreign investment need to be tightened up. Except that we also need to inject “…momentum into deals with China, Japan and South Korea as a matter of urgency” and lure foreign investment back. It helps that the Coalition has under its roof representatives who passionately believe in foreign investment, and those who obstinately oppose it, so it’s possible to send the right person to the right forum to ensure the right message is given. So long as they don’t go telling their position to the media, which gets read by interests of both persuasions.

On climate change

Tony Abbott’s varied positions on climate change are well documented. Commencing with his famous 2009 statement that the science around “climate change is crap” – itself a 180 turnaround from his previous position – he has been variously a supporter of a carbon tax, a trenchant opponent to any kind of market mechanism, a reluctant convert to the anthropogenic origin of global warming, and most recently both an advocate of the Direct Action plan’s ability to meet targets, and an apologist in advance of when it doesn’t. About the only position he’s not recorded to have held is support for a market-based price on carbon, which economists and ecologists alike think has the greatest bang for buck in carbon abatement. Of course, his actions upon reaching government hark back to his original poor view of climate science, indicating that if he’s unable to change his opinion in an area where the science is becoming ever more irrefutable and the consequences ever more dire, he is unlikely to change his original beliefs in many other areas either.

See http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/03/09/climate-change-cage-match-abbott-debates-abbott/, wherein Tony Abbott debates Tony Abbott on climate change science.

On industrial relations

It’s commonly accepted wisdom that Workchoices was the Coalition’s downfall in 2007. Tony Abbott was regarded then as a moderate, which may be part of the reason that Labor’s personal attacks on the man and fear campaign regarding the resurrection of Workchoices policy was not as effective as hoped. In this policy area, the Coalition is spoilt for choice when it comes to the messages they deliver the electorate. Do they roll out Tony Abbott, the “best friend of workers“? Or if the audience is made up of big business and industrial heavyweights, would it be more appropriate to send in workplace relations spokesman Eric Abetz?

It’s true that the Coalition’s IR policy – this term – is cautious, to the point that some business leaders and ex-politicians have called it “timid”. The sense is that this is an area where the electorate is still tender after being bitten by the Coalition’s previous attempt. There are exceptions, though, largely because the Coalition wants to be able to give big business good news. Thus we see the push to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a body whose primary achievement was to decrease workplace safety and lead directly to a spike in workplace accidents and deaths. And we see the vilification of unions.

Unions are one group to whom the Coalition does not seek to speak softly. This is why the Coalition’s rhetoric has been about “union thuggery” and “union corruption”; the intent is to drive a wedge between workers and their historic support groups. Unions provide monetary and other support to Labor and it is for this reason that they must be curtailed, but you can’t directly attack the union movement without first discrediting it.

The weakness of Teflon Tony

The examples above are prominent policy areas, but the technique of saying to each audience the thing most closely calculated to their own hearts is one that sees use in a multitude of areas. Whether he’s telling farmers that they should have the right to refuse entry of mining leases to their farms, or supporting the ability of mining companies to enter private property at will; whether he’s promising that a paid maternity scheme will be “over my dead body”, or proposing his own scheme an order of magnitude bigger than the one that Labor had just rolled out to acclaim, Tony Abbott and his Coalition will say anything to anyone. Words are cheap and promises are meaningless.

In late 2012, in the throes of the US election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney self-destructed because of this exact kind of policy vagueness. In the case of Romney, the Democrats and at least some parts of the media were willing to draw attention to his various contradictory promises and policy positions. The message to Australians is that it is possible to overcome a hostile media (in the US, Fox News is almost as overbearing as the various Murdoch enterprises down under) – so long as there is a will to expose inconstancy for what it is. It’s too late for 2013, but if the Coalition will maintain its T-1000 approach to communications, it will soon enough be time to highlight that for every favourable position the Coalition has held, it has also held the alternative position, and the only real way to tell the intentions of the party in the future is to examine them in the recent past.

We all know to judge a man by what he does, not by what he says. This is doubly true of the Coalition. During the next term of government, and leading into the next election in three years – if not before – the left, and the media, need to focus not on the Coalition’s statements, but on the range of opinions they have held as a backdrop to their statements; and not what the Coalition says and promises, but on what it has done.

If you believe in a fairer, more considerate Australia, a more progressive Australia, a clever country that designs and builds things and innovates new technology rather than relying on the non-renewable resources with which this country has gifted us, then Tony Abbott is not your friend. Whatever he might say to your face.

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