Abbott’s pandora’s box of populism

Abbott has unleashed a pandora’s box of populism which, having wrecked havoc in Victoria and now Queensland, is threatening to unravel his prime ministership.

But first, how did we find ourselves here? Let’s hear a little story about ourselves:

Australia and the age of reform or what I like to call “the golden 80s”

With our rose-tinted glasses we look back on the 1980s as the golden age of reform. Reforms were hard, but they happened. Leaders were brave. They made the tough choices, they landed the hard sell.

But it was also a golden age of reform led by Australia’s elite. And by the mid 1990s, people were fed up with people being told what to do by ‘elites’. It was potent fuel for what we now simplistically remember as the creation of the “Howard Battlers”.

The reform era reached its peak in 1991 with the release of Fightback!. Hewson released his policy detail 18 months before the election, and succumbed under the weight of trying to defend a complex and radical reform agenda.

The lesson that politicians learnt was was: “do not try explaining difficult things in opposition”, which over time simply became “do not try explaining things” in opposition. Instead, wait till you’re in government to spring your agenda on voters, hold your nerve during the  backlash, because the ‘iron laws’ of Australian politics is that governments get two terms.

But that was then.

Now back to our current day problems…

As opposition leader Abbott excelled. He was disciplined, on message and brutally effective at exploiting the weaknesses of the ALP. From keeping the political focus on refugees arriving by boat and the Carbon Tax, to adroitly half agreeing with the government on issues to neutralize them as political issues, such as the NDIS and the Gonski education reforms. Abbott mastered the art of speaking in plain language and offered appealingly simple solutions to Australia’s woes. Let’s also not forget what a gift the ALP’s ability to render itself unelectable was for the Coalition.

As part of his strategy, Abbott became a populist par-excellence. At every turn, he sanctified reflecting and channelling the will of the people whether it was evoking the people for his plan to repeal the carbon tax,whining about the cost while waving through increased spending on social welfare or accusations of class warfare for modest cuts to family tax benefits or his evocation of the people’s right to hire and fire leaders. As opposition leader he regularly made popular support the ultimate virtue for a policy case.

As he campaigned for the Prime Ministership, Abbott promised to be Prime Minister that listened to the people. Abbott rejected the elitism of a government, which had said one thing before an election but then proceeded to do another afterwards. He elevated a broken promise to the highest of political crimes. He famously promised as he announced his victory election night that his would be a “government that says what it means, and means what it says” and a government “of no surprises and no excuses”. Statements which are hard to reconcile with the government’s now infamous  set of broken promises.

But when he was finally elevated to a position of power, Abbott transformed into an elitist Prime Minister. Now he told people what they needed, even if they didn’t like it or want it.

If you remain unconvinced, consider the ease with which Abbott and his government had rebuffed breaking their promises. Alongside the fact that it was obvious even before they were elected that their sums didn’t add up, suggests that these promises were never going to be kept in the first place.

Abbott’s crisis is entirely of his own making. It was Abbott that elevated and then sanctified the people’s will as the most important thing in politics. He promised to be a people’s champion (the unkind word for this is demagogue) and he promised to govern as a moderate. But upon being elected transformed himself back into the knowing patrician of the elite delivering medicine against the population’s will, but for its own good.

Having unleashed populism from pandora’s box, we can see as its gone around the country eating up the Coalition’s standard play book (surprise at the state of the books left by the ALP, commission of audit, tough medicine) and its governments too. For a government whose agenda has always struggled to be coherent and relevant  to Australian life, it finds itself particularly vulnerable: it is neither a competent elitist government or an effective populist one.

Having unleashed populism, the question remains whether Abbott can out run it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

We have learned the wrong lessons form Fightback! (Budget 2014, Part 2)

In the last post I discussed the impact of the government’s cynical approach to breaking is election promises, in this post I explain…

How did we get here? 

To find out we need to go back to the early 1990s…

Australia was experiencing the worst recession since the 1930s, the Liberal Party had just finished spending seven years tearing themselves apart and a new wunderkid had taken over the Opposition.

Yes, it was John Hewson, who went on to develop  the most comprehensive and sophisticated policy package ever produced in Australian History.

Fightback! was radical, it was innovative and if implemented would have been transformative. It was also (mostly) coherent and internally consistent.

It was also successful. At least for a time.

Fightback! people forget undid the Hawke Prime Ministership, and ultimately forced Keating into a series of promises in the 1993 election campaign (L-A-W Tax cuts, anyone?) that  would be his unraveling.

But it was also a big target. For that reason it was hard to defend against an opponent with all the resources of government. Most importantly, the Liberal Party could not come to grips with the size of the task of selling the package. They lost the 1993 election.

Fightback! now commonly derided as ‘the longest suicide note in Australian political history’ is regularly used as lazy shorthand for not talking about ideas. For not needing to sell them and increasingly, to not even reveal them.

This is a genuine problem

because it is actually really difficult for oppositions to craft policy when government is so complex and when its so easy to run a scare campaign about new ideas.

Think about this, we’re talking about a group of around 100 people, most of whom are not experts in any field, supported by about 50 or so staff, many of whom are not experts in any field, attempting to come up with an alternative platform for governance in world’s 12th largest economy.

It is a daunting task.

However, it’s not impossible. There is now more technical support than ever with the arrival of the Parliamentary Budget Office, interest groups and think tanks are generally always interested in bending the ear of the opposition and Australian parties have a long history of a cross fertilization between academia and political parties. In some ways the task is more about curating rather than literally formulating policy from scratch.

But, politicians have forgotten how to talk about ideas 

The other reason that Fightback! was discredted  was that Howard went on to win the 1996 election with considerably less detail. Instead he used his headland speeches to outline his values and what kind of a government he would lead. He didn’t provide a lot of detail. And he won.

It was called a small target strategy. Labor tried it on and off for 10 years, and finally got elected using the broad formula in 2007. So did Abbott in 2013.

However, people forget that Howard had spent 15 years talking about policy and ideas. People knew a lot about John Howard and what he stood for already. In 1996, he reassured voters that he had dropped the stuff they didn’t like so much (his opposition to Medicare and his comments on Asian Immigration) and just as importantly, the country was ready for a change.

Howard’s small-target wasn’t really that small. The top ministers in the Howard Government had spent more than a decade learning to talk about ideas, something that both the former Rudd-Gillard and the Abbott Government haven’t had as much practice at, and have really struggled to do well in government.

So where are we?

What politicians say and argue for seems to matter less and less, and this is reflected in the parties’ own thinking. In relation to the government’s debt levy an ALP ‘hardhead’ was reported as saying

part of the task in opposition is learning that you can bag the sh*t out of something and still wave it through

This was precisely what the Coalition did in relation to its “class warfare” rhetoric on the then Labor government’s indexation of family payments. And it seems the ALP will do the same.

What it means, is the parties think they don’t even have to feel any responsibility for any of their positions to add up. It elevates even further emotive rubbish to the front stage and more importantly still, political tactics over actually arguing the case.

It means that our political discourse is continually dumbed down and reduced to the lowest common denominator. What’s more its discouraging for that part of society that has traditionally participated in politics, and that we’ve relied on to feed and nourish civil society and the political process.

More than anything else, it means that when governments try argue the case for reform, its that much harder, because the opposition knows it can “bag the sh*t out of something and still wave it through”.

We need to learn talk about ideas again

Politics is about more than just about raw power and maintaining control. It should be about using power for some end goal. And those end goals should be contested and aired in public.

Politics needs to be about ideas again, not just slogans.

Posted in Abbott Government | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Budget 2014: We learnt the wrong lessons from Fightback! (Part 1)

Budget 2014 is about more than broken promises or whether the Coalition has the right strategy to fix Australia’s long-term fiscal health.

The Coalition’s much criticised creative treatment of the truth,  is the culmination of a long-term trend in Australian politics. A trend, exacerbated by both major parties, that emerged in the wake of John Hewson’s failure to win the 1993 election with his policy manifesto Fightback!. 

Truth in politics

Since the great reckoning that was Tuesday’s budget, there has been a lot of discussion about truth in politics and the value of promises. Lenore Taylor asked whether truth had finally just become another tactical tool and Lyndal Curtis asked deeper questions about the media’s role in all of this.

Perhaps more disturbingly, last week business commentator  Peter Switzer said that Abbott in effect had to lie. Otherwise there was ‘no way in the world’ he would have been elected.

Alan Kohler rather blithely argued a similar line, but made a broader point about the fact that politicians say a lot of rubbish trying to get elected but then act responsibly by listening to the clever technocrats in the bureaucracy once in power. For Kohler, the system works.

The question was even posed to Joe Hockey on Q&A but, frustratingly, we didn’t get an answer.

This argument just doesn’t stack up for me. And I’ll explain why.

Message rich but substance poor

This is about the overall quality of our democratic discourse.

Notionally, voters (that’s us) exist in a ‘market place’ of ideas and they choose the party whose policies, values and principles most align with their world view or interests.

But  how do voters do this if they don’t have adequate information?


An increasingly shallow public discourse that exists in a world of gaffes, magic pudding economics, and ridiculous and impossible promises is not enough to sustain a healthy democracy and an active and engaged citizenry.

The space for public debate for citizens engaged with politics, or who even care a little, is growing ever smaller. In its place is an endless discussion about the effectiveness of the telegraphed political tactics and strategies of the parties. Or partisan commentary that is regularly divorced from our complex world.

This is of course a generalization. But the incentives and rewards are generally pointing one way. And its something we are all complicit in.

Without accurate information, or even partially accurate information, and without a real cost to politicians for acting deceptively, what is to stop this cycle continuing?

Why do we bother voting?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know politicians lie, politicians break promises and that they’ve done this since the dawn. of. time.

The rise of small target strategies by oppositions (of all colours) with their over reliance on weasel words and tricky formulations has eroded the quality of debate, particularly around elections. Along side this, the cynical approach the government has taken to deny it has broken election promises, raise questions about the whole point of asking citizens to elect governments in the first place.  The sheer volume of double-speak is eating away at the contract between citizens and government.

If we can’t be trusted to make rational decisions, or even decisions; if its just too hard to convince us of what’s right and proper; why bother to ask us at all?

Seriously, if we’re going to be governed in a this-is-good-for-you-but-I-couldn’t-tell-you-before-you-signed-the-contract kind of way, why have politicians at all? In this kind of world, what is their purpose? And if that’s the case why bother to vote?

Why not just have teams of partisan technocrats. Each side gets two terms and then its sides-away for the crazy hi-jinks of that other irresponsible mob. What could possible go wrong?

Sounds ridiculous, I know.

But, given how little opportunity the public is given to have a say, to engage and to be given the opportunity to be persuaded, would it really make a difference?

“Life wasn’t meant to be easy”…

Yes, crafting and advocating policy from opposition is damn hard, and I’ll explore that in the next post and how we got here after Fightback! and the ‘Hewson experiment’ in the 1990s.

But this doesn’t change the fundamental fact that its actually politicians’ jobs to represent constituents and to advocate and explain ideas, principles, and philosophies.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Thanks Bob Carr for writing your diaries

Unpopular as it is to thank a politician — I know! — but here it is: Thanks Bob Carr for writing your diaries.

There has, shall we say, been an awful lot of hububfizzoutragepseudo tearing of hair about Bob Carr’s diary. (Though to be fair, not everyone feels the same way).

Turns out Bob Carr isn’t just like you and me.  Who knew?!

He has, according to his own admission, foibles, obsessions even. Turns out he’s a fitness freak. Turns out he likes to complain about not travelling first class. Turns out the man doesn’t like sleeping in a suit.

But in all the smug talk about first-world-problems and being hopelessly out of touch haven’t we forgotten something?

We have.

Every time a politician writes a diary — especially a real time, uncensored, creepily revealing diary — they do us all a favour.

We all learn more about how government works, how power is fought over within government and — and this is true of nearly all diaries — how boringly mundane their lives and interests are.

As Carr says so himself, it’s these messy bits that make diaries so much more valuable than memoirs. They’re written as events are unfolding, while things aren’t quite clear, where there is still time to be wrong.

They include those humanizing details that remind us that our elected officials might not be just like us, but they are human.

For a polity that is constantly whinging about a lack of substance, or boring one dimensional politicians that lack intellectual frisson, Bob Carr is the antidote.

You don’t have to like Bob Carr, but he definitely was one politician never cowed by the 24 hour media cycle. A cycle that has had a panopticon effect on politicians and the way they communicate. Bob had the ability to say things that were interesting, even if he really wasn’t saying much.

In a world where the level of scrutiny on politicians is ever present, nothing is ever forgotten on the internet, where vast numbers of citizens are equipped with ready access to video cameras and recording devices and numerous politicians and public figures have been undone or seriously embarrassed by secret recordings, we can’t kid ourselves that this hasn’t had a conditioning effect on their behaviour.

The incentives to be interesting, original, and ahead of the pack are actually quite low. Especially, given that promotion in Australian politics is so heavily tied to towing the line because of strong party discipline and a small parliament size. (More on this in a future post).

I say we should celebrate the good, bad and the ugly when it comes to anyone prepared to be honest.

In cases like this, the content is in some ways less important than the fact that it’s available at all.

So come, join in with me:

“Thanks Bob Carr for writing your diaries”!


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

In the footsteps of sisters: Ladies Lavatories at Old Parliament House

Who knew that toilets would have such a complicated history?

It all started at the beginning of  a summer scholarship at Museum of Australian Democracy or MOAD (Old Parliament House). I spent much of the first week soaking up the atmosphere, walking in the footsteps of the heroes and villains from my research.

But then on a perfectly unremarkable trip to “the ladies” in the working part of the building. I noticed a set of lights above the door.


The light would flash when a division was called in either chamber.

It seems nowhere was safe from the call of the chamber and duty. When a division was called, either the green or red lights would flash summoning MPs or Senators to decide and be counted.

But of course, the history of the lavatories of Old Parliament House has inspired more scrutiny and newspaper ink than you might think.

Especially for the women in the building.

As I wrote in a previous post, the first women were elected to Parliament in 1943.

Yet, it appears that the first ladies’ toilet was not established until 1974. Thirty-one years later.  

What did Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney do while in Canberra you ask? Were there no female toilets at all in Parliament House?!

Well of course there were. But they weren’t for female parliamentarians. They were for junior staff or service staff.

So the implication of this was that Dame Enid Lyons, Australia’s first female Cabinet Minister (though without a portfolio), and Dorothy Tangney, who has a seat named for her, were not entitled to the same privileges as their male colleagues.

The situation finally changed in 1974, when Kathy Martin (Lib) and Ruth Coleman (ALP) complained about the lack of amenities for female senators.

At which point, one of the urinals in a toilet on the Senate side was boxed in.


The urinal was closed in, signalling that this was indeed only for ‘ladies’

And it became the “LADIES TOILET”.

20140120_153218 (1)

Finally, only 73 years after federation: a ladies toilet


Other Working Women in OPH

At about the same time, women were claiming their rights in other parts of the building.

Up in the press gallery, which is on the House side of the building, I found this curious placard. The finer text which read: 


The toilet was originally for men only but that changed in the early 1970s.

It is said that Gay Davidson of The Canberra Times came across one of the female teleprinter operators, who had a broken leg, hobbling off on the long hike to go to the nearest female toilet. Gay offered to stand guard outside the men’s toilet instead, and over the next few days used and encouraged other women to use the facility herself. She eventually told the Serjeant-at-Arms what was happening and the toilet officially became unisex.

So simple a thing as going to the loo was a problem in this place. Everywhere.

And on it flows…

Indeed, the toilets of Parliament House continued to be a point of fascination. In 1978, a reporter for The Canberra Times noted that there was now a proliferation of names for the toilets in the building. From the ‘dignified doors’ labelled Gentlemen, to the Ladies Powder Room.

Saturday 18 Nov !978 Canberra times (ladies loos)

18 November 1978, The Canberra Times

The issue was obviously burning  enough that it received a mention at the end of  this article about Susan Ryan, the ALP’s first female Minister!

  (ladies loos)

17 April 1983, The Canberra Times

















Senator Ryan recalls her early days in the male-dominated Federal Parliament.

One recollection which illustrates that the domination was the way in which lavatory doors on the Senate side of Parliament were marked. “They used to be labelled Senators and Ladies,” Senator Ryan said. “After a couple of years they put male over the Senators, so they are Male Senators and Ladies.”

Women and Politics at the Time

When Kathy Martin and Ruth Coleman, the Senators that secured the first lavatory for Women Senators, entered Parliament this is how they were described in the Australian Woman’s Weekly. 

June 19 1974 page-001

19 June 1974, The Woman’s Weekly

First Kathy Martin:

Although only a neat 7½ st., Kathyrn Martin, of Queensland, evidently packs a man-sized punch in the political scene.

Slim, with blond cropped hair and an attractive figure and legs, Miss Martin won a Senate seat for the Queensland Liberal Party.

At 32, once married but divorced some years ago, she devotes most of her time to politics.

Or for Ruth Coleman:

Green-eyed effervescent Ruth Coleman came to politics via her second marriage in 1967, to Jim Coleman Secretary of the Western Australian branch of the Trades and Labor Council. As the wife of a prominent trade union man, she naturally joined her local ALP branch.


It may not be surprising to read this kind of commentary about female politicians from this era, but it still remains shocking. If anything, it underlines the point that it took 31 years and some noisy complaining to get something as simple as a ladies lavatory.

We need to remember…

the women that went ahead before us. For the big and small things they achieved just by being there. For the things they fought for.

Including toilets.

20140120_153311 (1)

Yes, I’ve purposely made this too small for you to read. Meaning, you’ll have to read it in person to know what is says.

And the museum has done this. In a special exhibit just for ladies located in THE LADIES lavatory.

If you’ve got time, and you’re a lady or have a lady-friend, go and check it out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

From the vault: First day of Parliament 1943

First day of Parliament 1943, SMH

This article shows just how much reporting of parliament has changed in 60 years.

Today is the first day of the 44th Parliament.

I thought we might go back through the vault using the wonderful Trove newspaper search engine.

In the spirit of majority governments triumphing over hung parliaments lets look at the first day of 17th Parliament as reported in The Sydney Morning Herald.

The last time when had a hung parliament was sixty years ago, from 1940-1943. Robert Menzies, then leader of the United Australia Party (UAP) was  initially  able to form a government. But his government collapsed had by 1941, after two independent members withdrew their confidence from the government. The UAP went on to receive a drubbing in the 1943 election, which saw the party collapse. From the ashes, eventually, sprouted the Liberal Party that we know today. 

In the wake of all this parliamentary chaos, John Curtin formed a government for the Labor Party, and went on to win a majority in his own right at the 1943 election. So, unlike today, the first day of the 17th parliament did not see a new government sworn in.

And so it was on 23 September 1943, that the re-elected Labor Party took its seats on the government benches. There were a number of moments of levity, such as  when the Speaker confused a member of the government with the opposition.

A moment later Mr. Forde rose to speak. Inadvertently, Mr. Rosevear called him “the Leader of the Opposition” instead of Deputy Prime Minister. There was loud laughter, in which Mr. Rosevear joined.

This day was also notable because the first two women parliamentarians were also elected. In the Reps, as a member of the UAP (later the Liberal Party) Enid Lyons, wife of Former Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, and Australia’s first female Cabinet Minister. From the Labor party, Dorothy Tangney, was elected to the Senate from Western Australia. She served for 25 years and now has a seat named for her.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged | 1 Comment

Has Abbott’s media media strategy reached its use-by-date?

Are cracks appearing in the government’s strategy of silence?

Criticism of the government’s tightly controlled media strategy built up considerably in the last week. There were reports of MPs pulling out of television appearances at the last minute and veteran journalists describing the Coalition’s attitude to releasing information to the public as ‘disgusting’. Yet, it was Friday’s less than flattering footage of the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, and General Campbell refusing to answer questions about the events surrounding the asylum seeker boat on the high seas that has really called the strategy into question. Why is it that more information is available in the Indonesian press than from our own government, journalists ask? 

This is how Tony Abbott justified the government’s tight lipped strategy back in September, arguing:

It is very important that the Government speaks with a united voice. It is very [important] that the Government responds cohesively and consistently to the various issues of the day and in Opposition, before my senior colleagues did media, they normally called in with my office. It was a very good arrangement in Opposition, it is a very good arrangement in Government and it is one that my colleagues have always been happy to comply with.

But how much longer can it last?

Well, even the Spectator thinks it can’t last forever. Columnist P. P McGunniess, praised the strategy, but argued that the incoming Senators will suck up the available media space, and drive debate from the backseat. We can no doubt look forward to the colour, and for the political junkies out there, chaos, that the new Senate will bring.

Leaving aside the mixed merits of the strategy, which I will look at later in the week, there are other, real politic or structural issues that can’t be ignored and that will ultimately win out.

Parliamentary sittings raise the value of political news for media organisations and it is significantly harder to keep parliamentarians away from the media in Parliament House, where they share the same building.

As a successful opposition leader, Abbott knows the 24 hour news cycle favours the opposition (we will explore this in a future post). But the reality is, the government can’t afford to vacate the media space entirely, especially when the Opposition is in Canberra in full force.  To do so, would allow the Labor Party too many opportunities to disrupt the government’s message and momentum.

We should also consider that the interests of the Liberal Party and the interests of ambitious MPs and Senators aren’t quite the same when it comes to the media.  Although emerging politicians need to show loyalty to the party, they also need the media to build their profile. And they need to do this not only with the public, but also – and just as importantly – internally, within the party and amongst journalists. 

Cable TV is a key way for politicians to built their ‘insider’ profile. These daily political sparring shows on Sky,  ABC 24 and even Fairfax media’s online broadcast, are largely watched by, and for the benefit of, political insiders.

Politicians need opportunities to cut their teeth and build up their media skills. Even more so now that Parliament is no longer the training ground it once was in the 1960s, or even the 1980s. Denying MPs the opportunity to do media interviews because it might potentially be embarrassing is not good for the long term success of MPs or the Liberal Party.

The degradation of communication skills — the ability to explain things simply and clearly — was readily apparent in the former Labor government’s struggle to get its message across.

With Parliament’s first sitting tomorrow  for two weeks, we’ll have ample opportunity to see if the pressure cooker of Parliament House produces any changes in the government’s media strategy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment