The dog and Tony show
It’s easy to be too hard on first-term governments. Commentators have to have something to say, and the truth is that most governments have no idea what they’re doing at first. The press duly note this fact, and it seems for a while as if the new government is utterly hopeless and will be ever after.
I’ve heard Annabel Crabb describe these newly elected outfits as being like puppies: crazily overexcited and prone to leaving messes all over the place. She’s right, of course.
Thankfully, somewhere along the way most governments pick themselves up and learn what governing is all about, or at least learn enough to disguise the fact they don’t actually know what governing is all about.
The tricky question that arises from all this – at about, say, the 20-month mark, or where we are now – is whether the true character of a government is best reflected by those first heady days of feckless clutziness or by the first period that suggests the government may have grown up a little.
A couple of months ago the Abbott government decided it was sick of being a puppy: it was ready to be a grown-up dog. (I don’t mean that pejoratively, I’m just sticking with the analogy.) It quietened down. It got on with its job. It started reflecting the concerns of the electorate, not in a hysterical rush but piece by careful piece: vaccination, national security, food labelling, foreign investment. (Yes, I’m agreeing with The Australian here.) It was doing things but, for the most part, the prime minister was finally delivering on his pre-election pledge: taking politics off the front page. The budget, which came and went like a summer shower, just as the PM wanted it to, was the peak of this strategy. The government was rewarded in the polls.
This week began with a continuation of that approach. The government had decided the issue of the week would be combating terrorism, usually safe ground for governments, especially conservative ones. It lined up a series of announcements and prepared to roll them out.
First we got senior diplomat Greg Moriarty appointed to the newly created position of national counterterrorism co-ordinator. (Sherlock fans, I regret to inform you that Moriarty bears much more resemblance to Mycroft than to his evil namesake.) Justice Minister Michael Keenan got the new title of minister assisting the prime minister on counterterrorism, and then Philip Ruddock and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells got new posts aimed at tackling radicalisation.
At this point all seemed well. The government continued on its course, flagging plans to strip dual citizens suspected of terrorism of citizenship, as well as plans to strip solely Australian citizens of citizenship.
This was the first hint that perhaps Abbott Government Mark I was not quite dead, buried and cremated.
The measures were taken to cabinet on Monday night, after which the PM confirmed there had been “vigorous” discussion, one of those euphemisms that does not so much hide the truth as minimise it to a size at which it can barely be glimpsed.
The Fairfax papers had the actual goings-on, which turned out to be that half-a-dozen ministers had spoken against the second measure, some fearing it would leave Australian citizens effectively stateless. Malcolm Turnbull had also asked Abbott if The Daily Telegraph had been briefed on the announcement ahead of time, effectively pre-empting cabinet, to which the PM said no. But somebody had certainly briefed the paper: its report the next day was detailed and confident.
None of this was a crisis for the PM. An attentive cabinet is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it can be quite a useful thing to have around, saving a leader from all manner of stupidity. But it does suggest the PM hasn’t internalised the lessons many of us thought he had after the February near-spill: consult your colleagues, don’t pre-empt cabinet on matters of obvious significance and complexity, and don’t think a good headline makes up for weak substance.
Of course, the PM was only one part – albeit a major part – of the government’s manifold problems last year. Joe Hockey was the other big factor. And while he hasn’t gone error-free in the past few weeks, he’s done about a million times better than last year.
Until Monday night. On the ABC’s Q&A, Hockey was asked about the GST on tampons. Seemingly taken by surprise on this 15-year-old issue, the treasurer agreed the tax should be removed. Abbott and Hockey then proceeded to send out conflicting messages on tampons for the next 48 hours.
On the same program Hockey was asked about changes to superannuation tax. Earlier that day, Abbott had ruled out any changes – not just during this term, but after the next election, too. Hockey, however, said he didn’t believe in “never, ever”, and suggested the commitment remained only so long as super returns were low.
Now, I happen to think Hockey is right on both counts. Tampons are a unique product in that they definitively apply to only half of the population. (A lot of commentators have called for condoms to be included in the GST rather than tampons excluded, but I really don’t think they’re the same thing: women buy condoms, too. I don’t know many men who buy tampons.) It is also clear that significant loopholes exist in super, and should be fixed. So Joe was doing the right thing.
But Hockey’s comments were still ill-disciplined, and that ill-discipline points to ongoing problems in the government – problems many people, myself included, thought they had largely fixed since February.
First, there is a consistent pattern of Abbott and Hockey contradicting each other. It’s okay for PMs and treasurers to disagree – but most of that should happen behind closed doors. The way they currently go about it, both the public and the Liberal backbench get confusing signals about just what the government’s policy is. That in turn suggests either genuine tension between Abbott and Hockey, or a failure to get their media strategies lined up. Either is a problem.
Second, Hockey’s performance adds to the impression already in the air after Monday’s cabinet meeting: senior members of this government are not above policy-on-the-run.
While we’re on the topic, Hockey made one other mistake this week: an indefensible tactical decision to use parliament to go after a Labor staffer, rather than the usual practice of attacking other elected MPs. He was roundly admonished for it, and rightly so. Sadly, this is becoming something of a pattern in the Liberal party – I can think of several staff, including junior staff, attacked by politicians in just the past few years. It was dirty personal behaviour from Hockey, and a poor political choice. The staffer had simply done his job and prepared press material based on independent modelling. Bill Shorten was right to call Hockey a “low-rent goose”.
Anyway, the point is this: if the government wants us all to believe it has changed, then it needs to stop reminding us of the awful messes it used to make. The best way of doing that would be to not make any more.
Finally we come to gay marriage. The Irish referendum result was always a chance to drag the focus away from terrorism – and it did, but not without some clever work from Labor and the Greens.
On Tuesday night Shorten announced he would introduce a bill next week to legalise gay marriage. A few hours earlier the Greens had announced they would bring forward senate debate on their own marriage equality bill.
This is one of those moments when the right thing to do is also the politic thing to do – but so what? Both Shorten and the Greens believe that the time has come for gay marriage in this country – and it has – and both were keen to put their stamp on it. You can waste time being cynical about it, and several Liberal MPs did, but I think that’s misguided. All politicians have one eye on the politics. When they do the right thing they should be congratulated nonetheless.
Liberals complained about Shorten’s move, saying any pressure on them reduced the likelihood of a free vote in their party. That sounded like rubbish, and pretty soon the PM as much as confirmed it was, saying: “A big decision on a matter such as this, it ought to be owned by the parliament and not by any particular party. I would ask the leader of the opposition and all members of parliament to consider this as we ponder these subjects in the weeks and months to come.”
While the PM’s language was carefully selected for opacity, it appears to suggest that a free vote in his party room is now inevitable, and that the bill that finally passes the parliament is likely to be a cross-party piece of legislation.
And that in turn means that gay marriage will be law in Australia by the end of 2015.
Whatever sort of government this government turns out to be – puppy, labrador or rottweiler – that will be a moment to remember.
Paul Bongiorno is on leave.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "The dog and Tony show". Subscribe here.