'No' is never a policy

With its relentless negativity, the Coalition could well be wasting its time in opposition.

With its relentless negativity, the Coalition could well be wasting its time in opposition.

IN THE early 1990s, federal Labor was convulsed by internal crises. Tensions ran high between then prime minister Bob Hawke and his ambitious treasurer, Paul Keating. Many supporters bemoaned the party's so-called capitulation to neo-liberal ideology.

At the 1990 election, which it narrowly won, the party's primary vote dipped worryingly below 40 per cent.

Labor's troubles were hardly confined to the federal sphere of politics. Between 1990 and 1994, several state Labor governments were swept from office. As Labor marked its centenary in 1991, the party was in crisis in virtually every corner of the recession-gripped nation. Existential angst permeated the ranks. Sound familiar?

Then, as now, Labor's capacity for navel-gazing was inexhaustible. Whether it is allocating Greens preferences or the perennial leadership question, Labor is obsessed with obsessing over itself.

The arrival of Tuesday's Newspoll, which showed Labor's primary vote at a staggeringly low 28 per cent, can only exacerbate these tendencies.

Continuing Laborite introspection threatens to scupper Julia Gillard's admittedly slim prospects of retaining office at next year's election. One imagines Coalition strategists waiting impatiently for the thud of the morning newspapers telling of the latest calamity. By making itself the issue, Labor is the political gift that keeps giving.

All this inevitably means the Coalition continues to fly under the political radar. Yet if any side of politics ought to be justifying alliance arrangements between a major and minor party (yes, Virginia, the Nationals are a minor party) or the viability of its leader (Abbott's popularity, according to the same Newspoll, is at rock-bottom) it is the conservatives.

Ever since Gillard appeared with Bob Brown and co to sign off on the Labor/Greens party parliamentary agreement during September 2010, her foes in Parliament and the media have sought to paint the junior coalition partner as the real power behind her throne, implementing a radical social agenda by stealth.

The chutzpah of these critics (and this in no way excuses the Greens' sanctimony-without-responsibility approach to politics) is breathtaking. At the 2010 federal election, even combining the National and Queensland Liberal National Party House of Representatives first-preference vote produces a figure short of that won by the Greens.

Currently, the National Party room effectively boats six senatorial representatives, well below the current contingent of nine Greens. Yet the Nationals, in the event of a likely Coalition victory at the next election, will automatically claim the deputy prime ministership and key cabinet positions.

Setting aside questions of democratic justice, few Australians would even know the name of their potential acting prime minister. It's Warren Truss, for what it's worth, and if the rambunctious Barnaby Joyce has his way, gaining preselection for and then winning a lower house seat, he won't be in that role for much longer.

Beyond questions of representativeness, the Nationals arguably rival the Greens in terms of extremism and buffoonery. The Queensland LNP, an organisation dominated by ex-Nationals, recently voted to abolish Abstudy support payments to indigenous students. If ever the silly "faceless man" label deserved to be applied, it is with mining magnate Clive Palmer's influence upon the LNP.

Labor's navel-gazing, moreover, obscures the fact that very little policy has been generated on the other side of politics in the 4? years since the Coalition lost office. Conservative politics is arguably experiencing a crisis of personnel, policy development and ideological torpor every bit as severe as Labor's.

For all his negativity, Tony Abbott, along with shadow minister for finance and deregulation Andrew Robb, is the only member of the Coalition since 2007 to have published a book. Even then, Robb's Black Dog Daze took the form of a brave (and important) memoir detailing his private battle with depression.

Alternatively, one might expect conservative think tanks and commentators to generate a positive agenda. Instead these folks sound like a broken record. Gerard Henderson recently denounced left-wing "sandal-wearers" for the 786th time sometime this week economist Judith Sloan will argue that low wages (flexibility) are Australia's only salvation.

Indeed, for the best part of a decade now, the right has defined itself negatively. After announcing his retirement from politics, Liberal senator Nick Minchin declared that he went into politics with the express purpose of preventing Labor from taking office. Alfred Deakin and Robert Menzies must be rolling in their graves.

With virtually every single opinion poll suggesting that Abbott will become Australia's 28th prime minister, this state of affairs should be of concern to all Australians, regardless of political affiliation. Neither sloganeering nor obstinacy will help negotiate the lingering global economic malaise or any other serious policy challenge.

In his 2009 John Button lecture, with Labor entrenched in office federally and in every state bar Western Australia, then federal finance minister Lindsay Tanner warned: "The seeds of terminal decline are usually sewn at the moments of greatest success." And so it came to pass. Conceivably, Labor will be out of office in every Australian jurisdiction come 2014.

Yet, just as Labor arguably wasted the Howard-era years of opposition, failing to do the hard policy yards or pursue meaningful internal reform, so, too, conservatives might see Abbott's reign as a lost opportunity. For now the siren song of power seduces even the most astute Liberal. Existential angst must wait for another day.

Nick Dyrenfurth is a lecturer in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and the author or editor of several books on Australian political history, including Confusion: The Making of the Australian Two-Party System.

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