Opinion

Chris Wallace
Abbott’s military pretensions amid echoes of Howard’s prattlers

The past is a foreign country and they do things differently there – except in Australian politics, it seems. Narrative lines and key cast members from the Howard years reverberated through the theatre of the Abbott government this week. A struggling prime minister grabbed hold of a big tax idea to try to solve a political problem. A greedy office-holder came under investigation by a department headed by a secretary with a record of sitting on politically costly information. And the opposition leadership, ahead of this weekend’s national ALP conference, was the subject of negative front-page media attention.

First, the prime minister. Tony Abbott gathered the state premiers to discuss fiscal policy and federation – or who pays for what and how – and the setting’s symbolism was telling. John Howard draped his long-running prime ministership in khaki and cricket whites, and Abbott, struggling to find his feet in the top job, has latched on to and amplified the military theme with a vengeance.

Abbott started by militarising the public servants regulating Australian borders, putting them in uniforms of such a dark blue they might as well be black. There’s no mistaking the symbolism. It’s not as though there’s a practical reason for Australian Border Force public servants to wear near-black shirts – our northern border is tropical and light-coloured cloth would have been cooler and more effective if one had to have a uniform at all.

Living the theme, Abbott lays his head down at night on a pillow in the Australian Federal Police College in Canberra. He increasingly appears in the media in military or quasi-military settings, often wearing military-style gear. But Abbott took this to a new extreme this week, holding the retreat with premiers at an actual military base, Sydney’s Victoria Barracks. What next? Commissioning and publicly appearing in a prime ministerial uniform? There are precedents for this kind of behaviour, none of them good. Symbolism counts and Abbott’s becomes more disturbing by the day.

As for the GST and Medicare levy policy discussions, New South Wales Premier Mike Baird played his role perfectly, leading his state counterparts in putting a tax hike on the table for Abbott – a move the prime minister set up in his $80 billion-over-10-years cut to health and education funding for the states announced in the 2014 budget, designed to enable him to say, “Not my idea, but the premiers!” Abbott shows no interest in, or aptitude for, the kind of policy discussion major changes to the taxation system merit. He just wants to plug the fiscal hole created by his inability to negotiate fair budget repairs with senators with whom he is neither willing to talk nor find common ground. Taxpayers are being set up to pay, literally, for Abbott’s lack of skill or sophistication to manage anything beyond government by diktat. Because that is what the changes canvassed this week mean: higher taxes for you and me.

Second this week, “Choppergate” continued grinding its way through the Department of Finance, which is examining how one greedy parliamentary office-holder – Speaker Bronwyn Bishop – lightened taxpayers’ pockets to fund high-cost helicopter rides to and from a party fundraiser. Sprung, Bishop repaid the money. While confirming his confidence in her, the prime minister put Bishop on “probation”. You don’t get put on probation if you’ve done nothing wrong.

The guilt implied by Abbott’s probation puts Department of Finance secretary Jane Halton in an interesting position. Halton caught the Australian Federal Police hospital pass when they referred the problem to her late on Friday last week, after the ALP had referred it to them. Forty-eight hours before that, at a “Women in Focus” cocktail party held by Commonwealth Bank for selected customers at the National Press Club on July 15, Halton spoke about her experience as a female leader in the male-dominated bureaucracy. The Choppergate story had broken that day. Halton used it as an example of sexist double standards: she dismissed its significance, suggesting that had Bishop been a man, the helicopter claims would probably not have been a story. At the time it had not occurred to Halton that Choppergate could, depending on how Bishop claimed the expense, give rise to a possible offence, let alone that her department would end up ruling on it.

Even that early in the Choppergate saga, Halton’s dismissal of Bishop’s pricey, party-driven helicopter ride struck some of Commonwealth Bank’s cocktail party guests as surprising. Against the backdrop of Halton’s history in relation to the “children overboard” affair, however, her point about Choppergate’s potentially sexist dimension is interesting to consider. Halton’s silence about the Howard government’s children overboard lie helped it win the 2001 election, arguably one of the great political disasters of postwar Australian politics. Had Howard lost, Australia could have been spared the farce of Mark Latham’s opposition leadership, the toxicity of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership and the traumatic spectacle of Julia Gillard’s besieged one.

Halton’s silence was a big deal and it is no understatement to say that her name is synonymous in Canberra with children overboard. On reflection, though, it is striking that it is her name that has become synonymous with it when there are several male public servants of the era equally guilty of that silence – men whose names are not synonymous with children overboard despite possessing the same knowledge at the same time. One subsequently was given a diplomatic posting and went on to enjoy government consultancies under both sides of politics. Another was the beneficiary of a plethora of government honours and appointments. Halton’s career did not suffer either – but hers is the one bureaucratic reputation permanently dented by that inglorious episode of conservative political duplicity. There is a definite asymmetry there, and sexism is as good an explanation of it as any.

As for Bronwyn Bishop, she’s more a brassy Abbott government bonnet ornament than parliamentary speaker – the quintessence of an administration obsessed with power and its spoils over sound policy and good governance. That’s not sexism but fact. With 393 of the 400 MPs ejected from parliament under Bishop’s speakership being Labor members, her partisan pollution of the precious independence of the office is a matter of public record. She’s the natural complement to a prime minister who every day looks more and more like a hollowed out Howard on steroids. Behind the scenes even Howard is depressed by it.

Lastly, the week saw the Labor leadership return to the front pages. It was there on the cover of The Australian, whose raison d’être was ruined by the 2013 ALP rule change that raised the bar on leadership changes between elections to nigh on impossible. Other media outlets have enjoyed playing that game in the past too, but The Australian is really in a class of its own, making the Labor leadership a semi-permanent story fixture until the ALP decided News Corp’s fun couldn’t go on forever. Because of the rule change, Labor MPs’ efforts now are in pretty much perfect alignment with making the leader of the day the most successful they can possibly be – and if that leader falters, they’ve got only themselves to blame.

But the coincidence of deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek and former treasurer Wayne Swan being at the same UN development conference in Ethiopia triggered a conspiratorial front-page splash in The Australian. Ethiopia is, of course, the natural place from which to plot a leadership coup (irony intended). The first iteration of the story missed that Gillard was another conference attendee. Heaven knows how exciting it might have become had this been realised.

The Australian is right about one thing. Swan is a Plibersek fan. So are most of the rest of caucus, where she would win a ballot hands down if Bill Shorten fell under a bus tomorrow – unless, that is, another Left candidate ran and split the vote, delivering victory to whoever stands for the Right. Sadly, the moment has passed for Anthony Albanese, who won the popular rank-and-file vote last time around and would now be leader had his own faction united behind him. Instead, several fellow faction members put settling old anti-Albo scores ahead of beating the Right – and many would say ahead of backing the best candidate. Albanese would have made a wonderful, fighting-on-the-front-foot leader in this term of opposition. But it was not to be. Labor is now looking to the future, to those not marked by and likely to carry on the old battles of the bleak past. For the Right’s part, the same old battle scars will disfigure the hopes of those such as shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, who were up to their armpits in the Rudd–Gillard wars.

In any case, one should not rule out the very serious prospect of prime minister Bill Shorten moving into a newly renovated Lodge next year. Labor’s two party-preferred 53-47 per cent advantage in Newspoll has consolidated. After many months shrinking into himself, Shorten emerged this week looking better and brighter than he has since winning the leadership. He survived his grilling at Dyson Heydon’s anti-union royal commission and has just armed himself with a decent renewable energy policy. If Shorten charges with relish into party debate at this weekend’s ALP national conference, the outline of a future Labor prime minister may finally emerge into view. His decision to press for “turn back the boats” being one plank in Labor’s overall refugee and border security policy ensures that it, not marriage equality, will be the biggest stoush of the weekend. Shorten will have to be on his mettle.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2015 as "Abbott's military pretensions amid echoes of Howard's prattlers". Subscribe here.

Chris Wallace
is a Canberra journalist and biographer of Germaine Greer.

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