There is a German saying “The less the people know about how laws and sausages are made, the better they sleep at night”.
In his book Credlin & Co (Black Inc 2016), an exposé of the political relationship between Tony Abbott and his loyal Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, Aaron Patrick of the Financial Review takes us inside Abbott’s sausage factory.
At one level it’s a story that’s been around for 500 years, which is when Machiavelli warned about the folly of the prince who surrounds himself with a protective guard to flatter him and protect him from his critics. When at Oxford Abbott must have skipped over that part of The Prince.
But at another level it’s about the dysfunctional nature of the Liberal Party. Patrick describes the party’s factions and alliances, and the values some of its power-brokers hold strongly – social conservatism, a dogmatic faith in the intrinsic virtue of “small government”, loyalty to the Queen of England, a belief that’s what’s good for “business” is good for Australia, and denial of climate change, to name a few.
Reading Patrick’s work it’s apparent that the only unifying thread in the Party is a compulsion to keep Labor out of office. To the Party’s members it’s an imperative akin to protecting Australia from smallpox – so self-evident that it needs no explanation or justification.
And that’s where Abbott excelled, from the day in late 2009 when he knocked off Malcolm Turnbull as Opposition Leader. Abbott and Credlin were faithful to the Party’s mission – and understandably they would be resentful at being turfed out after having been so true to the Party’s mission.
Patrick exposes a party that’s so arrogant and sure of itself that it attributes any setbacks or defeats to a failure to get its message across. If only Abbott and Hockey had explained the 2014 Budget it would been far better accepted. If only they had handled the Senate cross-benchers better they could have succeeded in cutting age pensions and raising university fees. If only Campbell Newman had been a better political strategist the LNP would not have suffered its humiliating defeat in Queensland.
Patrick acknowledges that Abbott went overboard on terrorism, and that awarding a knighthood to an already honour-overladen prince from one of Europe’s offshore islands was rather stupid, but by and large he does not suggest that there was anything wrong with Abbott’s t policies.
Apart from criticising Abbott’s ineptitude, Patrick’s account is largely non-judgmental. His book flows easily (journalists can write well when sub-editors don’t mangle their work .) I doubt whether he set out to expose the Liberal Party’s weaknesses. He tends to take the Party’s policy justifications at face value.
What he exposes, inadvertently perhaps, is a party that cannot learn from its policy mistakes. Abbott and Credlin cut themselves from the rest of the Parliamentary Party, but that is similar to the way the Liberal Party has cut itself from the Australian people. Abbott and Credlin are scapegoats for a malaise that affects the whole party – a paternalistic “born to rule mentality”.
No politician, however canny, could have “sold” the 2014 budget to the Australian people. Those who are skilled in political leadership can convince people that when economic times are tough some short-term shared sacrifice is necessary for the common good, but almost anyone can see through a policy that imposes costs on the most vulnerable while protecting the privileges of rent-seekers. The problem for the Abbott Liberal Government was that people did understand its policies.
The Liberal Party’s strongest manifestation of paternalism is in its “small government” obsession. Although we have the smallest public sector and are the most lightly-taxed of all prosperous developed countries, the Party is unwavering in its idea that “small government” is good for us. Indeed, its articulation of beliefs says “businesses and individuals – not government – are the true creators of wealth and employment”. That statement is grossly offensive to every doctor in a public hospital, every teacher in a government school, and every cop on the beat, as well as being just plain stupid economics.
So, when people demand more funding for health, education, urban transport, and environmental protection, the Party’s response is to disrespect people’s preferences, and to assert, paternalistically, that the Party knows better.
Nowhere is this paternalism more evident than in privatisation. It’s reasonable that people should object to paying high prices for their electricity or public transport when those businesses become featherbeds for overpaid and underworked trade unionists. But that doesn’t mean they want these same utilities sold to the private sector so that high prices are subsidising overpaid executives and shareholders. They want their utilities – the utilities in which they have invested their taxes – to be run well, not sold off to opportunists. Privatisation is a lazy substitute for reform.
Even if people haven’t studied the economics of market failure, they understand that certain matters – health insurance, school education, energy and water utilities, roads – are far better handled by governments than by the private sector.
And people know what is meant by “business interests”. Patrick points out that the Abbott Government had lost the support of the “business community”, as if that was unquestionably a bad development. But there is a fuzzy line between “business friendly” economic policy and cronyism. If we were to find the ACCI and the BCA – lobby groups that speak mainly for corporate executives and (largely foreign) shareholders – were 100 percent behind any government’s policy, we should be truly worried that the government has lost sight of the public interest.
For anyone interested in seeing inside the sausage factory – at least the Liberal Party section of the factory – Patrick’s book is an excellent exposé. Readers may find it hard to swallow his uncritical approach to the Liberal Party’s paternalism, and statements such as his claim that the ABC and the Fairfax media are on the “left”, but that is the world view of one who has been close to the Liberal Party powerbrokers, and it’s the world view into which Australians are slowly drifting.
More important, in exposing the Liberal Party’s weaknesses, it should be a guide for a confident Opposition, ready to engage in a mature and honest way with the electorate.