Dec 3, 2014

You can’t win the battle of ideas without any ideas – Opinion – The Guardian

Those great philosophers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, wrote and sang in 1965: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Australian voters might be reminding themselves of this today, as they consider the disappointment known as the Abbott government.

This is a government defined by disappointment, deceit and incompetence.

The opposition leader who promised so much has morphed into a confused prime minister – a man rapidly sinking into the quicksand of his own negativity.

The source of this government’s dysfunction is the cynical opportunism of its period in opposition.

Most parties in opposition focus on holding governments to account and on rebuilding their credibility by developing new ideas. Like Dan Andrews did in Victoria, they make themselves participants in the battle of ideas.

When the Abbott government was in opposition its only focus was on attacking the former Labor government. As opposition leader, the prime minister built his entire case for power on anti-Labor hatred and three-word slogans.

Everything was about politics and nothing was about policy.

That is why the Tories have retreated to their comfort zone today. Without positive ideas they have been forced to lean heavily on Tony Abbott’s regressive and punitive personal ideology – one that values individualism ahead of equity and opportunity.

Abbott’s negativity did make him a formidable opposition leader, but it makes him a pretty bad prime minister. We now see that negativity is all he ever had. It is his only weapon. He is a one-trick Tony.

You cannot win the battle of ideas if you have no ideas; you cannot run an economy on three-word slogans; you do not create jobs by saying “no” to everything; and you do not inspire people by misleading them.

Before the election, the prime minister promised no cuts to health, education, pensions, the ABC or SBS. He promised no new taxes. In government, he has cut $80bn from health and education, slashed funding for the ABC and SBS and created new taxes whenever people visit a GP or fill up their car at the petrol bowser.

Rubbing salt into the wounds, he has since insulted the electorate’s intelligence with Monty Pythonesque claims that he has not broken any promises.

The Prime Minister is on the wrong side of history; his place defined not by leadership and forward-thinking but by a sad yearning for a less equal and less progressive past – a place where average Australians pay a Medicare levy every week only to be told they have to pay again to visit a doctor; where education is about entrenching privilege, not spreading opportunity; where climate science is derided; and where a visiting US president’s praise for the splendour of the Great Barrier Reef is attacked by those opposite as an affront to our national sovereignty.

It is a place where our renewable energy target has been so successful that it has to be scrapped; where we have only one woman in the cabinet; where radio shock jocks and partisan newspaper columnists set the government’s political agenda; where bigotry is a right; where people communicate over ageing copper wire rather than 21st century fibre; and a place where the long-faded trappings of our colonial past are revived through the reintroduction of the British honours system.

The Abbott government has misread the egalitarian nature of Australian culture. Australians care about the fair go.

Australians support measures to improve the Budget, but they are not stupid.

They know that when a single income family on $65,000 a year will be $6000 a year worse off every year, while corporate tax cheats are a protected species, that Budget repair is being used as a cover for an ideological agenda. The 2014 budget was not a plan for the future but an attack on the gains of the past. Australians know it is unfair and they are demanding better.

In my own area of infrastructure, the Prime Minister has treated his election promises like plates at a Greek wedding.

The government said it would preserve the independence of Infrastructure Australia. What they have done is try to remove that independence through legislation – an attempt abandoned only after pressure from Labor and business groups, including the Business Council of Australia, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and, indeed, Infrastructure Australia itself.

The government said they would reappoint Sir Rod Eddington as the chairman of Infrastructure Australia but they appointed a former Liberal party minister instead. They said they would not invest in infrastructure without cost-benefit analysis to ensure value for money. Then they took money from Infrastructure Australia priority projects that had had cost-benefit analysis done and reallocated it to the East West Link, Westconnex and a Perth freight link.

The government said there would be cranes and bulldozers at work on new projects within 12 months of their election. But there are no bulldozers, just bull dust.

They said they would pay money to states for infrastructure projects in stages, based on the achievement of milestones. Then they gave the Victorian government a $1.5billion advance payment for the East West Link, a project that has not commenced construction.

They pretend they are investing in new infrastructure, but they continue to travel the nation on a magical infrastructure re-announcement tour, seeking ownership of existing projects funded by the previous Labor government.

Worst of all, the few new road projects in the Budget are being funded by cuts to all Commonwealth investment in public transport projects not under construction.

The Prime Minister, in his manifesto Battlelines, wrote:

Mostly there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car and cars need roads.

That is an absurd proposition for any national leader to make in 2014.

I do not remember a more cringeworthy moment than when he had an opportunity to speak to the world’s leaders about a vision for the future at the recent G20 meeting in Brisbane.

Abbott’s contribution involved whinging about Australians not supporting his GP tax and proudly declaring he had removed a price on carbon.

There is no issue too big for Abbott to show how small he is. Serious world leaders want to act on climate change and envy our system of universal health care.

The problem is not that Abbott is stuck in the past. It is that he wants the rest of Australia to go back there and keep him company.

Australians are sick of the negativity this government has brought to national political debate.

They want a government to focus on what really matters: them, jobs, access to health care, equity of opportunity through access to education; cities that are productive, sustainable and liveable; healthy communities that value diversity; and an integrated transport system that includes both public transport and roads.

Above all, Australians want a government that governs in accordance with Australian values, like that of the fair go.


This article appeared in today’s edition of The Guardian Australia.