Pragmatic, not pretty. That's the relentless art of opposition
I will donate $100 to the HSU's next Chinatown long lunch if Julia Gillard can get through the next week without using the expression ''Mr Abbott's relentless negativity''. But should the Opposition Leader change tack?
I will donate $100 to the HSU's next Chinatown long lunch if Julia Gillard can get through the next week without using the expression ''Mr Abbott's relentless negativity''. But should the Opposition Leader change tack? I will donate $100 to the HSU's next Chinatown long lunch if Julia Gillard can get through the next week without using the expression ''Mr Abbott's relentless negativity''. But should the Opposition Leader change tack?Labor's critique of Abbott has been forced to morph since the early charges of ''extremist'', ''erratic'' and ''out of touch with mainstream community values''. His signature policy at the last election was a generous paid maternity leave scheme.Australians have curiously found Abbott to the left of Labor in his unwillingness to cast off asylum seekers, including children, to Malaysia. Abbott has resisted admonitions to reopen the industrial relations debate from the right of his party.His views on climate change turn out to be much closer to those of middle Australia - willing to give it the benefit of the doubt but no interest in splendid global isolation.When Labor adopted John Della Bosca's solid plan for national disability insurance, Abbott embraced it immediately, arguing only that it should start sooner.After a masterclass in discipline from Abbott in the election campaign - where the Prime Minister went through a personal identity crisis over the ''real Julia'' - the ''erratic'' tag won't stick. So the one card Labor has left is ''negative''.While I wish I could wave a magic wand and command the lion to lay down with the lamb, I regret to inform my dear readers (both of you) that the swords of Australian politics are not about to be melted into ploughshares. I understand the impulse of those who wish for a more ''constructive, collaborative and inspiring'' debate, but they are not about to get it and frankly, Abbott is not to blame. Look instead to the relentless, unyielding laws of Westminster democracy.Under our system of government, it's a winner-take-all arrangement. The opposition does not get to test and prove its arguments in a parallel universe - it gets one shot at the title every three years.Unlike the US, we have no term limits. A government could, conceivably, continue forever. My father spent 17 years of his life in the NSW Parliament - 14 of them in soul-destroying opposition. The titles, ministerial salaries, uplift in retirement benefits, views, white cars, staff and the status - all the butter is on one side of the bread. Much more importantly, so is the power to do the good things that motivated every MP to join a political party and run for office in the first place.The opposition's place in the workplace seating plan announces to the world, ''I am a loser''. So the first job of any self-respecting party leader - on behalf of colleagues, the party and their cherished vision for a nation - is to win the next election.There is a memorable scene in the movie Zulu, depicting the 1879 Defence of Rorke's Drift in Natal, where vast hordes of black and shimmering natives come charging towards the silent troop of doughty but terrified British soldiers. As the sound grows to a thunderous roar, Sergeant Frank Bourne gives a repeated command - ''Hold ? hold ? hold ? '' - to ensure the limited available shot, in laborious single-load rifles, is not wasted by firing too early.An opposition leader faces a similar challenge. If he releases good, detailed policy too early, a government will copy it and assume credit for it. If it has defects or can be misrepresented, it will be subject to a sustained campaign of smear with all the resources of the state.One may say: ''Surely it's in the national interest if a bad government adopts your good policy.'' The opposition leader will reply: ''Yes, but even better if I can use my good policy a year from now to help replace the bad government with a better one.''The next principle of opposition is a strategic insight from Napoleon Bonaparte: ''Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.'' It is much harder to create political capital than to destroy it. The goodwill of the people is earned in inches but lost in miles. A government can damage its own cause much more easily than the opposition can build a credible alternative narrative - which is why we say ''oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them''.It follows that if the government is actively destroying its own credibility, the opposition should do as little as possible. I confess that I don't fully understand how or why this government lost the Hawke/Keating legacy of competent program execution, but Abbott is right not to deflect attention from that underlying reality.The thing an opposition can do most constructively is assure the people their government will be kept on its toes, that its claims will be tested, that taxes will be spent wisely, mistakes exposed and reforms implemented. In multi-party Western democracies we have made a very deliberate choice - to tolerate higher levels of dissent and occasional discourtesy in our public discourse to secure more accountability and personal freedom. This is not an excuse for mindless contrariness or boorish behaviour and does not justify cat-calling or juvenile stunts, but it does mean conflict and scorching critique is an essential element of our system.In order to deserve to govern, the Abbott-led Coalition will need to produce a detailed suite of credible policy prescriptions for Australia's circumstances in August 2013. They will.If you want to understand Abbott's policy direction now, read his book, Battlelines - 187 pages of mature reflection and achievable solutions to some of the country's biggest problems. There is nothing approaching that level of policy thought published under the hand of Gillard, Swan, Crean, Combet or Shorten.Tony Abbott's only real job is to get his team a credible shot at the Treasury benches. Whatever his strategy so far, it appears to be working.Ross Cameron is a businessman and former Liberal MP.