MUNGO MacCALLUM. Born to rule and oppose.

Aug 23, 2016


It is really hardly surprising that Bill Shorten is proving reluctant to co-operate with the new government he so nearly toppled.

After all, when the Liberals were in opposition from 2010 t0 2013, they had a policy of remorselessly opposing anything and everything that the government suggested.

Tony Abbott extravagantly sauced Julia Gillard’s goose, and now Shorten is applying a touch of relish to Malcolm Turnbull’s gander; What goes around comes around.

But Turnbull and his colleagues, egged on (of course) by the Murdoch media marauders, are outraged: How dare they act against the national interest? Why, Shorten committed — well, agreed at least tacitly – to $6.5 billion spending cuts, a key first step in the urgent task of budget repair. He must make good his pledge; do election promises count for nothing (don’t mention 2010)?

This is all good rhetoric, but it unfortunately avoids the facts. Sure, Shorten’s platform was for spending cuts, but they were not for the purpose of budget repair; they were to pay for his other policies, most notable the promise to fully fund the Gonski education reforms.

And for that matter, despite all the bluster, Turnbull is not all that interested in budget repair either: his $6.5 billion would only be a down payment for this national economic plan for $50 billion worth of cuts for the corporate sector.

Shorten has said he is prepared to negotiate over the budget, but Turnbull is showing no signs of doing so; despite fulsome (the correct word) overtures to the crossbenchers he has so far offered to give the official opposition nothing.

This is his right: his mandate (and it his only mandate) is to propose his own agenda. But in the circumstances it is hardly helpful, particularly after all his soft words about the need for consultation, consensus and so on and so forth.

Admittedly, he has problems of his own. If he made any concessions at all his recalcitrant party room could cause major ructions; indeed, the hard-liners are already demanding that he and Scott Morrison water down the proposed changes to superannuation in the interests of their own greedy supporters.

Our beleaguered Prime Minister will have a hard enough time holding he line to preserve his own $6.5 billion package before having to deal with the opposition. And it is clear that Tony Abbott is lurking more prominently by the day; his supposedly conciliatory speech last week, saying that his much-lauded (by his retinue) assaults might have been a little too toxic, has been seen as a signal that he is at least attempting a rapprochement with the Liberal moderates.

Turnbull cannot risk giving the right wing any more elbow room. Which means that in the end he will have to be just as hard-line as Shorten, and the hell with the national interest.

It is trendy to lament the lack of a bipartisan spirit in today’s parliament but as a long term observer of the process, I can tell you that it was ever thus. Probably the most bloody-minded opposition in living memory was not that of Abbott (although he gave it a shake) but the coalition that found itself in the wilderness in 1972 when Gough Whitlam took power.

The Libs and the Nats simply refused to accept it as reality; after all, they had sat firmly on the Treasury benches for 23 long years. This was the natural order of things; it was not so much that they were born to rule, but destiny itself had decreed it.

The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly, he ordered their estate. They sang along with it every Sunday – at least some of them did. So it was not only their right but their bounden duty to say no to everything until the natural order was returned.

Despite the many frustrations, Whitlam and his ministers managed to pass a raft of reform measures, but it was a tortuous process. They resorted, when they could, to regulation rather than legislation, thus by-passing parliament. And for the big ones – especially Medibank, the forerunner of Medicare – they went to a double dissolution and a joint sitting of parliament.

This, perhaps, was the inspiration for Turnbull’s crash through strategy, but unlike the example of 1974, it appears likely to crash. And of course that will add another item in the growing list of Turnbullian failures, all gleefully noted by the Abbott camp.

The man is trying; last week his spin doctors trumpeted a major oration, a powerful statement of economic policy and the need to do something about it. But the timing was terrible; not only was the country distracted by the Olympics and Australia’s failure to win the expected tally of medals (which in some strange way will also be blamed on Turnbull – just watch) but protestors drowned out not only the headlines but most of the message.

Not that there was all that much message; Turnbull waxed ominously about the morass in which we were sinking, but did not suggest a remedy except to demand the Shorten pass the afore-mentioned $6.5 billion spending cuts. Even if that happens, and all the signs are that it won’t, it will make bugger all difference.

The only thing that might help is a radical, practical plan from Turnbull that unites not only his own party, or even the parliament, but the entire nation. There was a time that the optimists hoped that he would be the man to do it, but those days are long gone.

And even when Labor announces that there will be no automatic pairing of absent government members, this is regarded as some sort of deceit and hypocrisy: Barnaby Joyce at least admitted that once again the Abbott mob played hard ball when it was in opposition, but hey, two wrongs don’t make a right.

The trouble with that homily is that for some reason it is always Labor that is expected to back away; when the coalition does it, that’s just the rough and tumble of politics. It is as if they, and we, expect higher standards from Labor; bullying and thuggery (and, of course, broken promises) from the conservatives are just a given. And perhaps the only reason we are not getting it from Turnbull at the moment is that he just doesn’t have the numbers.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who for many years worked in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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