Ian McAuley. Economic Management, Lobbyists and the Coalition Government.

Oct 1, 2015

On Abbott’s political departure David Marr wrote in The Guardian “Within days of his fall he’s looking like a prime minister Australia once had a long time ago”.

Most people and organisations who have given him unwavering support ever since his narrow win as Opposition Leader in 2009 were remarkably quick in endorsing Turnbull’s judgement that he “has not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs”.

Of course many independent economists had been saying that and more about Abbott’s economic management – it was indeed disastrous. But the surprising phenomenon was the sudden turnaround by those who had been loyal right up to the end.

This sudden switch was most noticeable among spokespeople for so-called “business” lobbies (as if “business” is some homogenous collection of like-minded people with identical interests), but it was also noticeable on the street. In the Essential opinion polling in early September voters gave the Abbott government strong marks on economic management, but journalists’ roving microphones in the days after the transition found few, if any, people willing to say anything positive about his economic management. As Bob Dylan said of people who so readily switch their loyalty “You just want to be on the side that’s winnin”.

In one of those twists of politics it was only the Murdoch tabloids that maintained some level of integrity in not switching loyalty. Otherwise there was a media scramble to revisionism.

It was reminiscent, in a scaled-down way, of Stalin’s denouncements. Once Bukharin, Rykov and others had been led away after their show trials, it was almost forbidden to utter their names. “Comrade who?” was the polite warning to anyone who made the slip of mentioning those who had been purged.

Of course Turnbull is no Stalin, indeed in his liberalism he couldn’t be further away politically. But the process takes place almost automatically, best described in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which recounts the story of the hapless Winston Smith, whose job is to re-write newspaper accounts that don’t fit with the contemporary political mood. These days his task would be to sanitize web pages. “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”, “We’ve always said Abbott was a poor leader”.

The “right” tried to own Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a comment on Stalin’s dictatorship, but its message was directed much closer to home. He wrote it in 1948 when Britain was involved in all manner of rapidly-shifting postwar alliances. (It is in Animal Farm where he deals explicitly with the Soviet dictatorship.)

Having worked behind the scenes as a public servant and an academic, I can recall many instances when executives in business lobbies have been privately critical of Coalition governments, while publicly giving them their fullest support. So I was not particularly surprised by the sudden turnaround in sentiment last week.

But I would like it if our lobby groups could break from that puerile and hypocritical practice of giving uncritical public support to Coalition governments, and, to quote from the Prime Minister “respect the intelligence of the Australian people”.


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