Is trench warfare the answer? John Menadue

Dec 18, 2013

Sensing concern about the government’s performance in the first 100 days, Tony Abbott reportedly told the Liberal Party caucus to ‘prepare for trench warfare’ when parliament resumes in 2014.

I would have thought that the last thing that Australia needs is for the government to embark on trench warfare. I sense that the public is looking for considered and conciliatory leadership.

Defenders of Tony Abbott’s 100 day performance point out that John Howard had a rocky start, but that he then recovered. That is true, but Tony Abbott needs to learn quickly or the pattern set in the first 100 days will become entrenched. And the polls are certainly showing an early disquiet with the government. I suggest that the disquiet about Tony Abbott was always there, but the divisions with the ALP leadership took focus away from that concern. The last election showed that oppositions don’t win election. Governments lose them.

There are several reasons for the disquiet.

The first is that the  lack of a considered policy agenda was disguised by one-line media grabs – ‘stop the boats’, ‘axe the tax’, ‘pay down the debt’ and ‘eliminate the deficit’. Not surprisingly in almost every respect the government’s performance in these areas falls a long way short of what the one-liners suggested. The care and consideration which goes into good policy development was just not there.

Secondly, it is clear that there is no clear ideological framework. Conservatives traditionally believe in markets, choice and enterprise. But it was clear in the GrainCorp decision for example, that the government had retreated from its traditional free-market approach. Tony Abbott says that private health insurance is part of the Liberal Party’s DNA, yet he supports continued massive government subsidies to PHI. I have also drawn attention to Tony Abbott’s policy of Direct Action to reduce carbon pollution. This policy is the antithesis of a market approach. Malcolm Turnbull described Direct Action as a fig leaf when you don’t have a coherent market-based policy.

A third problem is the failure of the government to manage the transition from opposition to government. I wrote about this in my post of December 6 ‘Being in government is different to being in opposition’. The NSW Premier put the problem succinctly when education policy was being emasculated by Christopher Pyne. The Premier said that the Abbott Government should start governing and stop acting as if it were still in opposition.

Another issue which the government must address is the competence of its cabinet and ministry. I drew attention to this problem when the Coalition was in Opposition. See my blog of July 3 ‘The C team versus the Shadow Cabinet’.  The former NSW Liberal Premier and Commonwealth Finance Minister, John Fahey, commented only last week ‘Tony has picked the team that got him over the line as Opposition leader. A number of them were never going to make him look good in Government.’

A former Conservative Prime Minister in the UK, Harold Macmillan, when asked what he feared most as Prime Minister, allegedly said ‘it is events, my dear boy, events!’. Tony Abbott is not showing that he has the policy or ideological framework – or perhaps temperament – to handle ‘events”

Instead of facing up to these glaring problems, Tony Abbott says that there is more trench warfare ahead. A good example of this is the decision to appoint a royal commission on pink batts. It will be to attack and settle old scores with the Rudd Government. Should a victorious Prime Minister really be doing that? Where does it stop?

But the government has 1,000 days to prove itself. It may yet do that but the first 100 days have not been promising. The last thing we want is more trench warfare.

A vision for the future would be much more appealing.

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