Political Sleepwalking

October 11, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Currently, the Australian Government is easy to criticise. But then again, what government is not? To hold any elevated position of power necessarily means to invite elevated levels of criticism.

Whereas from opposition, a change of policy, a failure of ideological consistency, or a disregard for the majority public opinion more-often-than-not leaves no discernible political stain. From government, the very same actions are likely to be considered as deliberate deceptions, as unrestrained hypocrisy, or as out-of-touch paternalism – and are not likely to be forgotten. But with this being the case, the Coalition, as the current governing party of Australia, is simply making it too easy.

Though it may present as a self-evident statement – political planning, and continuity in the application of such planning, is important. That is, clearly thought out policies matching to a clearly thought out ideological agenda, a meticulous political strategy for selling these decisions, and importantly, a comprehensive set of contingencies in the event that any of the above should encounter difficulties – the creation of a grand political narrative.

Outside of election cycles, this function is what justifies the continued employment of political advisors, and indeed, the very existence of political parties themselves. If members of government are seen to be publicly contradicting one another, casually backtracking on ideological promises without offering sufficient reason, or ruminating on potential policies in the public arena without a commitment to their follow through, then it is only reasonable to assume that there has been a substantial failure at the political level.

The Australian Coalition embodies just such a failure. Despite holding power for almost a year now, they have appeared rudderless for the entirety of that time – a political party sleepwalking through government:

  • It began without hesitation. Immediately after winning the federal election in 2013, new Prime Minister Tony Abbott and education minister Christopher Pyne fresh from telling the voting public that they would match the Labor Party’s proposed education funding for the following four years, abruptly reneged, committing to match such funding only for the coming year – a $1.2 billion backflip. Rather than trying to justify this change of policy with economic considerations or deference to long-term outcomes, Abbott’s political advisors directed him to claim that the voting public had simply mis-heard Christopher Pyne and himself. That despite openly promising a “unity ticket” on school funding with Labor, they had in fact meant something else altogether, and if the Australian voters had merely listened more carefully, then this confusion would have been avoided – a political strategy of condension. Though as if this weren’t bad enough, it seems no-one within the party rooms had asked the question “what if this explanation does not cut through?”. For, following just this predicable failure to satisfy the public with this explanation, Abbott and Pyne backflipped on their backflip and reinstated the funding, later explaining this episode away via the schoolboy apology “The lesson that I have well and truly learnt from that is that we do have to precisely honour our commitments”.

 

  • For a considerable period of time, the Australia automobile manufacturing sector had been suffering from ever increasing challenges to the viability of the industry as whole. The Coalition were aware of this before entering government. Ford had already made the decision to end operations in Australia, and experts were warning that Holden and Toyota might follow. The new government quickly asserted the ideological position that “No country has ever subsidised its way to prosperity” and withdrew $300 million in annual support that had been promised to car industry by the previous government. Holden and Toyota promptly announced that they would follow Ford out of Australia, resulting in the collapse of an entire manufacturing sector, and a predicted loss of 50,000 jobs throughout the economy. Such an ideological commitment to refuse business subsidisation is potentially defendable. However, it was a political stance that should never have been professed, for it was a standard that no government could reasonably and uniformly adhere to. Only months later, this same government was comfortable in supplying $16 million in assistance to a failing Cadbury factory in Tasmania, $320 million in subsidies to the farming industry.

 

  • When Attorney-General George Brandis proposed the repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the political machine of the Coalition must have recognised, based on ample polling results, that it was a policy which betrayed public opinion. To govern according to principle rather than polling is admirable, and for the Coalition this principle was the protection of freedom of speech. A basic human right that should not be infringed upon regardless of how many people believe otherwise. However, once such a political argument has been made, you are necessarily bound to its fulfilment, for to later disavow the policy is to axiomatically disavow the importance of freedom of speech. Citing a growing public dissatisfaction, in August this year, George Brandis and the Coalition did just this, and abolished the proposed legislative reform.

 

  • Treasurer Joe Hockey publicly defended his budget’s greater imposition upon low income workers by claiming that higher tax rates for the rich negated this statistic, inadvertently arguing for the introduction of a flat tax rate in the name of perceived fairness – an introduction that the Coalition has no intention of pursuing.

 

  • When an increase to the fuel excise was introduced the government was desperate to avoid being accused of breaking their election promise of “no new taxes”. However, depending on which minister was being interviewed the increase was either openly denied to be a tax, openly accepted to be a tax, or obfuscated via the muddled language of ‘impost’ or ‘indexation increase’.

 

  • In the past week alone, the government changed course on proposed changes to the welfare access and report standards, after complaints from both business and social advocacy groups. Such consultancy could and should have been completed in private, and certainly prior to the public announcement of the policies, and the implied political commitment to their validity.

 

  • And most recently, finance minister Mathias Cormann mused publicly about imposing a new tax to fund the Iraq engagement, claiming “It’s self-evident that you have to make some adjustments”. Days later, Tony Abbott categorically ruled out just this possibility. Not yet satisfied with this level of indecision, Joe Hockey then linked bi-partisan support for the Iraq engagement to bi-partisan support for his budget (which has yet to pass the legislature). Once again, forcing Tony Abbott on the defensive, and to furthermore publicly support leader of the opposition Bill Shorten as a “patriot” with whom he stands “shoulder to shoulder” concerning the Iraq issue.

This is what political freelancing looks like. The political machine of the Coalition is either unwilling or unable to impose political consistency upon the government. Accordingly, there is no clarity of purpose, no predictability to policy, no commitment to public statements, and no contingency planning in the event that things go wrong. And alarmingly, the aforementioned are but a select sample from a much larger political trend – a trend that has become the modus operandi for the Coalition government.

Though the wounds are probably too fresh to afford greater objectivity, Australia’s previous leader, Julia Gillard and the Labor Party were a relatively proficient and competent government. They were, however, complete political failures at both coordinating and selling their message – a condition that effectively obscured many of their policy successes. Political mis-step after political mis-step eventually surrounded the Party with an aura of incompetency, and the voting public ultimately stopped listening to them.

Rather than supplying Tony Abbott and the Coalition with a first-hand cautionary tale, it seems that the failure of their predecessors merely left the current government with a false sense of accomplishment: a permeating sense of hubris masking a vacuous political environment. Two more years of the status quo will leave the Coalition exactly where the Labor Party found itself at the last election – void of political capital, with a public that refuses to be re-engaged, and heading toward a heavy electoral defeat.

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