Coalition needs a heart transplant, not a facelift / Waleed Aly 

| February 9, 2015 | 0 Comments

WaleedAlyIt’s the repetition that gets me. How precisely every Coalition minister presently denying there is any reality to the current bout of leadership speculation sounds like Gillard’s ministers in 2013. How assuredly the unstoppable backbench revolt makes a mockery of these denials. How Abbott now, like Gillard then, pleads with us to focus on policies rather than personalities – as though we’ve all just simultaneously decided, completely unprompted, that we’d rather our politics took the form of glossy magazines.

But there’s one inescapably large problem with this plea: the government’s in trouble precisely because we have been focussing on policy. That was true for Labor, whose collapse in public support occurred the moment Kevin Rudd decided he no longer thought climate change mattered that much, and it is perhaps even truer for Abbott. In time, his first budget will become legend for the sheer breadth of its political self-destruction. It’s not that the electorate didn’t understand the suite of policies, or was distracted by personality politics. It’s not that it was poorly explained (though on several levels, it was). It’s that the electorate grasped the underlying values of the government’s maiden offering, and found it repugnant. It still does.

That is perhaps the most significant unifying factor between the Liberal National disaster in Queensland and the one now unfolding in Canberra. All the arguments about “federal vs state” factors overlook that these were perhaps the two most similar governments in Australia. Both debuted with monstrous budgets that showed a penchant for austerity politics. Both attacked the public service and declared an unshakeable love for privatisation. Both hacked into health. And both did so without declaring their intentions to the people who had just elected them. The problem is that both ran into the ideological limits of the electorate: limits they simply assumed didn’t exist.

So if it is to be leadership change for Abbott, what then? It’s a far more important question than the one about whether or not a spill is coming in the first place. To see this, let’s return to Labor’s sorry experience. “What then?” is precisely the question Labor could never ultimately answer, and which ultimately condemned it to ignominy. Recall Bill Shorten’s revealing admission in 2013 that he would vote for Gillard’s demise, and Rudd’s return, as a way of protecting Gillard’s legacy. He would deliver us a new King, but in the service of his vanquished predecessor. A predecessor Shorten would slay so she might live.

Got that? It’s a frank admission that Labor’s last coup was merely cosmetic: a facelift, not a heart transplant. There was no policy difference to note and no party renewal to spruik. Having been implored to overcome our shallow obsession with personality, we discovered that this seems to have been Labor’s obsession, too. And of course, it failed.

That doesn’t mean policy was irrelevant. Indeed Labor’s problems arose partly because its policy was incoherent. Gillard’s carbon tax disaster occurred only because she was so desperate to avoid a proper climate change policy that she went to the election proposing a citizens’ assembly that would somehow devise her policy for her. “No carbon tax” was what you said when you had nothing serious to say. It was this policy vacuum that drew her into the broken promise from which she never recovered. From there, the personalities took over, and Gillard was simply in too weak a position to withstand Rudd’s incessant blows.

Whatever happens now, the Coalition cannot afford to be seduced by such facelifts. That is not to say it should rule out a coup: of all the people praying for Abbott’s survival, a goodly portion of them will be in the Labor party. But it is to say that if the government does opt for a new head, it must also seek a new heart. And here, the Coalition has one meaningful advantage.

Abbott’s public critics – from Dennis Jensen and Mal Brough to Andrew Laming – are mounting their attacks on clear policy bases. They’re criticising Medicare co-payments and defence force pay. They’re charging that the policy settings are inconsistent. In short, they’re siding against unpopular policy and specifying the very problems they’d expect a new leader to fix. Abbott, of course, can do nothing about them, partly because it is not in his nature to admit policy mistakes, and partly because any change of direction from him will quickly be dismissed as cynical politicking. But a new leader would have at least a crude blueprint for renewal.

Which is a start. But at this point, it’s also not quite enough. The Coalition needs something bigger, and more fundamental than some policy tweaks. If Abbott has a successor, that person has to give this government a clear, agreeable organising principle. In short, it needs a narrative. It needs an overarching story of the world that makes sense of the pain we’re being asked to wear. It needs to tell us not merely why it wants to charge people more for GP visits, but rather the grander philosophical basis on which it decides who should bear the costs of reform.

It needs this because that is precisely the charge against it. Not that it’s made tough decisions, but that it has made discriminatory and cruel ones. That its philosophy of pain is simply that it should be visited upon people it doesn’t like: poor people, sick people, young people. Despite all the words it has ever said in its defence, the government has never clearly answered that charge. Even now, as Abbott seeks some miraculous reset and his supporters insist there’s nothing to see here except a government listening and improving, it’s a charge that still goes unanswered. At some point, though, the Coalition will have to engage with this. And as long as it doesn’t, it makes not a jot of difference who’s leader.

Source: SMH, 6 Feb 2015

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and winner of the 2014 Walkley award for best columnist. He co-hosts Network Ten’s The Project and lectures in politics at Monash University.

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