Sometimes a chance comment changes everything -- the scales fall from one’s eyes and everything is clear again.
One such comment, that I’ve been running past sources of all political stripes in past weeks, comes from a Canberra insider: “There are two types of conservatives in the Coalition -- those committed to a conservative economic vision, and those who just think the ‘wrong kind of people are in charge’.”
It’s a criticism that could just as easily be applied to the left, where there are plenty of examples of politicians and union leaders who put the economy second to their visceral hatred of the Chris Pynes and George Brandises of the world, and just don’t want those guys in charge.
Senator Conroy did a pretty good impression of that kind of leftie with some of his ill-judged comments during the recent round of Senate Estimates hearings. His performance made Scott Ludlam’s last speech to the Senate look positively friendly (Ludlam’s smackdown: The new social media campaign trail, March 6).
Over on the right, the thought of union bosses pulling strings from the safety of bowling clubs, as Bill Ludwig supposedly did during the Rudd/Gillard wars, or thuggish union reps intimidating middle-managers in factories or on building sites, produces a similar rage: the wrong kind of people are in charge! And that’s before you add in the sandal-wearing, beard-sporting, same-sex-obsessed, latte-sipping, work-shy, tax-payer-funded, obscene-art-viewing, inner-city degenerates etc.
But as Labor has been chased from office, and at present looks confused about which way to head to get back in (Voters will punish Shorten’s lack of vision, March 11), let’s use the wrong-kind-in-charge prism to decode some of the mystifying moves of the Abbott government’s first six months in power.
The first thing to note is that there are plenty within the Liberal Party whose economic stance is consistent -- people who burn with passion for a stronger economy rather than with hatred for some imagined leftie archetype.
Take backbencher Alex Hawke, for instance, who in slamming Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme before the election, noted: “A commitment to economic liberalism requires real policy rigour. With the electorate and the media paying heightened attention to poor policy, those ideas that fail important tests must be thrown overboard before they become core policy.”
(Note that while Hawke prefers ‘liberalism’ to ‘conservatism’, and although they are philosophically distinct, in the current Australian context they are next to interchangeable -- Hawke, himself, is in most respects a conservative.)
Then there’s Kelly O’Dwyer, who has argued cogently against continued auto subsidies. She wrote last November: “It is far better to focus on permanent changes across the economy to restore our competitiveness and drive increased productivity ... The government’s role is not to be a piggy bank for uncompetitive industries. It is to create the policy framework to give all businesses the best chance of success and the best chance of all employees having a secure long-term future.”
Both Hawke and O’Dwyer belong to a parliamentary group, the Society of Modest Members, which was revived in 2011 to pressure their own party into a consistent economically liberal stance. The original group, founded in the 1980s, was instrumental in bolstering economic dries within the party.
So where have the Modest Member forces succeeded? Clearly not on the paid parental leave scheme.
However, they have mostly won on the industry assistance front. Treasurer Joe Hockey is today crowing that his government made the right call on SPC Ardmona, though no doubt the workers in Shepparton think Premier Dennis Napthine made the right call in stumping up $22 million to get their factory refitted with a $78m cash injection from parent company Coca-Cola Amatil.
The commission of audit, which for the time being is ‘secret’, will likely be seen as a victory for the dries -- just don’t leak it before the Western Australian election! Tony Abbott has been promising money to fund homelessness project in WA, but won’t reveal anything else from the audit that might cut expenditure from the budget in May.
On both tax reform and industrial relations, the dries are frustrated that the best they can achieve is to suggest conservative policies to take to the next election.
So all of that is part of the coherent conservative agenda. Now what about the wrong-kind-in-charge elements within the party?
Well for a start, Senator Brandis stands accused by the Greens of a “degrading capitulation to the surveillance state”, by arguing that privacy and public interest must be balanced in setting the levels of surveillance by security services.
Further, Brandis recently attacked the Greens for supporting whistleblower Edward Snowden -- a man he says “through criminal conduct and treachery has put Australian lives at risk”.
There’s a stand-off. The Greens think Brandis, and the surveillance state, are the ‘wrong kind’, while Brandis sees Snowden and his supporter Scott Ludlam as the wrong kind. Sort it out, fellas.
In industrial relations, the rebooting of the ABCC is a win for conservative forces, with penalty rates looming as the next big battle. No more workplace thuggery, and no more indolent overpaid teenagers shutting down cafes on weekends!
But the really big one is revealed in a Fairfax Media story today.
Coming into power last September, one of Prime Minister Abbott’s first moves was to sack three department heads, and tell Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson to start winding down to be put out to pasture in mid-2014. (A day or two later Malcolm Turnbull sacked the entire NBN board, though that’s another story. See Abbott’s great mistake will haunt 2016, September 24, 2013)
The story now goes that both former PM John Howard and former Treasurer Peter Costello thought this was a mistake. Martin’s not only a decent chap, but a bloody economist, it would seem.
And though both Hockey and Abbott accused his department of massaging figures for Labor going into the 2013 election, Howard and Costello really didn’t see it that way. We need Parkinson, it seems, and there now looks to be a chance he’ll stay.
Both sides of parliament spit chips, from time to time, telling this columnist about their loathing of the wrong kinds of people in charge.
The important point, through it all, is that we don’t threaten SPCA because the wrong kind is giving union pep talks in the lunch room, while at the same time investing in Cadbury -- presumably run by the right kind?
And we don’t boot out the nation’s top economic advisers based on a gut feeling that they were too friendly to the previous government.
Whatever our personal feelings, in this time of economic transformation, the economy and Australian jobs must come first.