There’s nowhere to hide in Question Time

What will Prime Minister Tony Abbott do if the Opposition runs a concerted Question Time campaign against a weak minister? A post for ABC’s The Drum.

Next week, while most of Australia is already counting the hours until the first ball of the Ashes, political aficionados will be tuning in to watch the Abbott Government’s first parliamentary session.

Some will do so for the pomp of the official opening. Others will be looking for a bit of biffo during Question Time. And those with the acquired taste will settle in for the often surprisingly entertaining Senate Estimates proceedings.

But mostly, these democracy diehards will be looking for evidence that the weeks since the September federal election were merely a disappointing hiatus and not a disconcerting sign of things to come.

Of principal interest will be how the Coalition adapts its low/no information approach to the demands of parliamentary scrutiny. It’s no revelation that very few of the new ministers are strong parliamentary performers. While it’s one thing for the Prime Minister to keep newbie ministers away from the risks of media events and other public appearances, it’s more difficult to protect them from a brace of ex-ministers on the opposition benches bristling with knowledgeable questions.

What will Prime Minister Tony Abbott do if the Opposition runs a concerted Question Time campaign against a weak minister? How would Environment Minister Greg Hunt cope, for instance, under sustained and systematic questioning from Labor MPs on the impacts of climate change and his previous support for an emissions trading scheme? Being not that great a debater himself, the PM may see more risk in stepping in for his minister than leaving him to fend for himself.

This then raises the question of the extent to which Abbott will willingly expose himself to scrutiny while Parliament is sitting. On the basis that he would only hold press conferences when he had something to say, Abbott has considerably reduced the frequency from Rudd’s daily epistles since the election. His interviews with the ‘serious’ media have pretty much ceased altogether.

And there is no indication the Cameo Appearance Prime Minister has any intention of veering from this approach during the parliamentary session. Considering that Question Time is the only period when Abbott is moderately exposed to scrutiny, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility the Coalition will shorten its duration or revert to the roster system once favoured by Paul Keating, which saw him face questions only a couple of days each week.

Political observers will also be watching next week for reassurance that Coalition reform agendas indeed hold ‘no surprises’ as Tony Abbott vowed before the election. Like the monster under the bed, the longer the reforms remain unseen the greater their beastliness will grow in the imagination of voters. Glimpses of the reform elements during the post-election period have only made things worse, leaving those voters who are paying attention to wonder what the Business Council of Australia’s role in the Commission of Audit might mean for unions and workers or the GST, how the nation can afford tax cuts when there is a deteriorating budget bottom line, and what happens if electricity prices don’t go down when the carbon price is scrapped?

In the absence of ministerial answers or statements next week that comprehensively explain these reforms, it will be fair for voters to assume the Government intends to proceed with the post-information regime it established immediately after the election. Any unwillingness on the part of the Prime Minister to be subjected to questioning or provide illuminating answers will be taken as confirmation.

What then of Labor? Political observers look to the first sitting of the new Parliament to witness the emergence of the revitalised, united and democratised Labor that candidates Albanese and Shorten promised during the leadership campaign. The appearance of such an entity will dispel fears that opposition MPs have been missing in action over the past month because they’ve been collaborating on a strategy to systematically deconstruct the Abbott Government, and not just squabbling over office space and staffing allocations.

Clinically astute performances by shadow ministers in Question Time and opposition senators in Estimates will consolidate that view.

But perhaps most importantly of all, an opposition brought into full battle mode for Parliament next week could quickly and effectively fill the information vacuum deliberately created by the Government.

This would disrupt not only the Coalition’s efforts to manipulate the media cycle but thwart their efforts to accustom Australians to expect less information – and explanations – from their elected representatives.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum. 

Once there were moderates

Once there were moderates in the Liberal Party.

In those good old days the moderates advocated progressive policies, attempting to find a balance between market forces, freedom of the individual, social justice and protection of the environment.

It was so long ago that the names of those liberal warriors evoke less recognition today than the latest batch of Big Brother competitors.

Once there were moderates in the Liberal Party.

In those good old days the moderates advocated progressive policies, attempting to find a balance between market forces, freedom of the individual, social justice and protection of the environment.

It was so long ago that the names of those liberal warriors evoke less recognition today than the latest batch of Big Brother competitors. Some of those liberal luminaries – the ‘wets’ they were called – were a product of the Fraser years.

Peter Baume was at different times Malcolm Fraser’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Health and Education. It was his strong sense of social justice that caused him in later years, as Shadow Minister for the Status of Women, to cross the floor to support a bill giving equal employment opportunity in some government-owned bodies. Baume left parliament a few years later to promote progressive values in public policy, taking on roles in academia and medicine, as well as Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.

As Immigration Minister in the Fraser Government, Ian Macphee was instrumental in promoting multiculturalism. He oversaw the migration of Indochinese refugees to Australia and introduced a family reunion scheme for them. Later as Communications Minister he helped establish the SBS. In opposition, Macphee crossed the floor in support of a government motion targeted at his Leader, John Howard, that race or ethnic origin should never be a criterion for becoming an immigrant to Australia. He lost preselection for his seat to the Liberal conservative (or dry) David Kemp early in the following year.

Macphee’s summary disposal was the beginning of the dearth of liberalism that we see in the Liberal Party today. During John Howard’s second term as Opposition Leader and his time as Prime Minister, progressive Liberals were given a stark choice – get with the (conservative) program or be left to wither on the backbench.

For the most part, the successors to the Fraser liberals weren’t about to be brow-beaten. Petro Georgiou (once the Director of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs that Ian Macphee helped to establish), Bruce Baird, Judith Troeth, Judy Moylan and Mal Washer have all stood their ground against their right-wing peers, but mostly to little avail.

Others decided to dance to their master’s tune or – to quote the Cybermen – be assimilated. It’s almost impossible to contemplate that Phillip Ruddock was one of the two other MPs who crossed the floor that day with Ian Macphee in protest against John Howard’s comments on Asian migration. Yet he and Amanda Vanstone, another moderate, later ran the Howard Government’s hard line policies on asylum seekers.

The list of known ‘moderates’ in Tony Abbott’s kitchen cabinet is equally counterintuitive. Chris Pyne was serially overlooked for promotion by Howard because he was/is a progressive (and a Costello supporter). Yet he was rewarded by Abbott for doing the leadership numbers against Turnbull and is now a Cabinet Minister. Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt and George Brandis are all moderates and none did particularly well under Howard. (Anyone remember The Rodent?) Yet now they all are in the Abbott Cabinet, reciting the lines of the day.

If your mind is not yet boggled sufficiently, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is a moderate too (although apparently he attends the faction dinners of both the wets and the dries).

Is the day of the Liberal moderate well and truly over? Is liberalism dead or is it just playing possum?

According to reports the desiccated wets have – despite their assimilation and no evidence that a single word of social justice or equity has spilled from their lips – formed a cabal around Tony Abbott.

This has apparently caused disquiet in “Coalition ranks over what right-aligned MPs believe is an aversion to any policy that is not consistent with the populist agenda of certain powerful ‘moderates’ with the Prime Minister’s ear.”

Excuse me while I laugh, or cry …

If only. If only it were true.

The post originally appeared at SBS Analysis and Opinion.

Coalition women take nastiness to a new low

Last week’s extraordinary attack on finance minister and senate leader Penny Wong by Liberal senator Michaelia Cash raises a number of questions that all women should consider in light of Julia Gillard’s removal from high office.

Cash’s tirade was ostensibly part of the Senate’s debate on 457 visas, but she took the opportunity to vociferously denounce Wong as part of an apparently hypocritical and bloodthirsty “sisterhood” who, in voting to return Kevin Rudd as Labor leader, had stabbed one of their own in the back:

The sisterhood stabbing one of their own in the back. You’ve always got to like that, don’t you? When the sisterhood stab one of their own in the back … I wonder how loud former prime minister Gillard screamed when her own sisterhood knifed her in the back and took her out – minister Wong is now sitting reaping the spoils of the victory, drinking from the chalice of blood …

Putting aside the astonishingly vitriolic abuse levelled at Wong – a woman who has unassumingly notched up so many firsts (first climate change minister, first female Senate leader, first openly gay minister, first Asian born federal minister) – it’s nevertheless fair to question whether it’s more important for female ministers to resign in protest, or stay on to further progress the interests of women and all other Australians. I saw Wong’s decision similar to that of Tony Burke: loyalty to the party and the nation outweighed that to Gillard. It was a tough choice, and I wouldn’t have liked to be in her position.

Cash’s outburst, however, raises another far more troubling question: why do female Coalition MPs descend to such levels of spiteful abuse?

No one was surprised when departing independent Tony Windsorappeared on Insiders yesterday and labelled Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella the “nastiest” member of parliament. Admittedly, this may have had as much to do with an independent running against Mirabella this election as the Liberal MP’s reputation for confrontation in parliament. Nevertheless, the shadow industry minister has a long rap sheet, including having suggested that late-blooming progressive and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s stance on the war on terror left him open to caricature as a “frothing-at-the-mouth leftie”, ridiculing Gillard for her childlessness, and telling a fellow Coalition member to “pop your Alzheimer’s pills”.

More troubling than Mirabella’s behaviour is that she is not the exception. In what appeared to be a deliberate Coalition strategy since opposition leader Tony Abbott was tarred with a misogynist brush, and one which is based on the deeply flawed logic that a parliamentary attack on a woman by a woman is somehow more acceptable than one by a man, deputy liberal leader Julie Bishop has regularly been wheeled out to attack Gillard (you will also remember her cat claw gesture). And now Cash has joined the ranks of the Coalition’s female attack force.

Sadly, neither of the major parties is innocent when it comes to strategically deploying aggressive female parliamentarians for maximum impact. Labor’s “handbag hit squad” (dubbed so by another of the Coalition’s own attack force, Kelly O’Dwyer) were ruthless in wielding their gender to emphasise Abbott’s misogyny.

But Coalition women have now taken nastiness to a new low. And it really does have to stop. When high-octave abuse and the parliamentary equivalent of girl-on-girl jelly wrestling becomes the accepted way of making a political point, what hope does the average Australian ever have of again respecting our democratic institutions?

This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.

Will Abbott’s ‘campaign of no’ make him PM?

For political analysts and pundits alike, Tony Abbott is the Impossible Opposition Leader. Never before have we seen an alternative prime minister run such a relentlessly negative campaign for so long.

Big on three-word slogans but small on policy detail, Abbott has single-mindedly focused on running Labor into the ground since he beat silvertail Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in December 2009. With this slender mandate, Abbott lurched the Liberal party to the right of the middle ground, being uncomfortably straddled by Labor as it tried to appease not only its labour antecedents, but also an idealistically progressive rump.

Since then, certainty and competency have been the names of Abbott’s game. At a time when voters are unsure who the Labor leader will be tomorrow morning, or which promise they will break next, Abbott offers them a beacon of dark light with simple pledges of negativity that do little more than emphasise the government’s key failings.

The “stop the boats” rhetoric not only dog-whistles the community’s xenophobes and bigots, but signals that Labor can’t protect the nation’s borders. “Scrap the carbon tax” comforts not only those who think climate change is crap, but reminds how Julia Gillard broke a promise to form a devilish pact with the Greens to secure A minority government. Perhaps most transparent is Abbott’s new pledge, “no surprises and no excuses”, which paints the government as chaotic and irresponsible.

The consequences of Abbott’s “campaign of no” are all too clear. Political discourse in Australia has descended into megaphone territory, with partisans using any and all platforms to besmirch, ridicule and aggressively denounce those who don’t agree with their party’s line. Skirmishes and biffs constantly break out on social media and talkback radio, while confected conflict masquerades as news on tabloid television and in the print media. We are all the poorer for it.

Meantime, Abbott has also paid a price. Not since the Liberal’s twice-risen soufflé, Andrew Peacock, has a leader of the opposition had such a high disapproval rating while simultaneously delivering a strong primary vote for their party. Granted, with a disapproval rating higher than Abbott’s worst (67% compared with 63%), Peacock still took the Coalition to within a bee’s ding of victory at the 1990 federal election, securing 20,000 more votes but nine seats less than Labor. We’re much further out from the election than Peacock was when he scored that career-high disapproval rating just two weeks before polling day, but it’s instructive to note the Coalition enticed back 4.5% of voters in those last few days.

Support for the Coalition is much stronger today, but there are still enough soft voters currently “parked” with the opposition to change the election outcome if they decided their disillusionment with Gillard was insufficient justification to vote for Abbott.

Abbott and his strategists know this, and are determined to avoid the Pox On Both Your Houses effect that delivered the balance of power to a motley collection of Greens and Independents at the 2010 federal election.

Recognising this, Abbott has thrown the switch to Statesman. The daily Question Times rants have disappeared, or been relegated to shadow ministers. The look is more polished, the language more considered, and the message has evolved from one-dimensional chants about stopping the boats and scrapping the tax to incorporate a positive element with pledges of hope, reward and opportunity.

It’s too early to tell whether a navy suit (which is meant to engender trust) and a less hectoring tone will be enough to convince us that Abbott is prime minister material.

The transformation is at least entrancing the federal parliamentary press gallery. In a celebration of “savviness” that would make Jay Rosen’s head spin, the gallery’s breathless reports of Abbott’s budget reply focussed less on the substance of his budgetary measures than the audacity of him outlining them at all. We’re yet to see whether the transformation to Statesman Tony™ has even registered with the voting public, let alone whether they buy it.

Strategically deploying new suits, blue ties and slogans, Abbott is making this federal election about certainty and competency. Some days, the government seems to be doing everything it can to help him.

The last time an opposition leader took such firm control of the election agenda, it was Kevin07. Rudd masterfully shaped the entire election campaign by pledging to be just like John Howard, but with bonus features like the ratification of Kyoto and scrapping of WorkChoices.

And hey, that worked out so well, didn’t it?

This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.