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PM-in-wanting Tony Abbott lacks credibility to restore good government

As Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott’s utter resistance and simple oppositionism was designed to make effective government impossible, and to cause the collapse of Gillard’s working agreements with independents and minor parties. Photo: Alex EllinghausenThe modern n Senate, according to the former prime minister Tony Abbott, has ceased to be a house of review and has become instead a house of rejection. As ever when he is making thoughtful and helpful contributions to his determination to see the re-election of the Turnbull government, he has a solution for every problem.
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Abbott still seems to think that he is the person to whom the party would turn if or when it has become obvious that the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull is irretrievable. It is by no means clear that the Liberal Party has such a death-wish (or even that there is coup talk), but Abbott can sustain himself in his hopes and dreams because there are no obvious candidates jockeying for the leadership, or with talents so obvious that the party would necessarily look their way.

Sixteen months ago, Abbott awoke from deposition hangover, and pledged that there would be no undermining of the man to whom the Liberal Party had turned after it had despaired of Abbott. He didn’t mean it then, and he does not now. That does not mean that his every utterance, or every effort to be heard or noticed, is part of a conscious strategy or tactic focused at a return bout. Some of it comes from mere relevance deprivation. Some of it comes from his habitual tendency to pyromania, brainfarts and efforts to demonstrate his unique affinity with, and ear for, what the average n is thinking. Some comes from an effort to protect his reputation and legacy, a project that is made to seem more logical given that Turnbull has made no significant changes, other than in style, to the policies of the old Abbott government.

But anyone who doubts that Abbott is waiting for the call should look at some of his recent rousing speeches, for example Monday’s address to the Young Liberal Party convention, available on his website. Nor would one have to be of the party’s conservative wing to note that however flyblown the rhetoric, he remains a better and more convincing advocate for his party than his successor.

It helps, of course, that Abbott can pick and choose which Liberal policies and programs he defends or questions, and is not the world’s most accurate witness to the style and achievement of his period in office. Or, for that matter, to his record in opposition, of creating a type of hyperpartisanship and oppositionism that has led to what he now describes as a crisis in government.

It may not be entirely due to Abbott genius. The style is very similar to that adopted earlier in the United States, where Republicans decided to block everything put up by the Democrats, willing at times to bring the public administration to a halt, or to simply refuse even to consider negotiation, compromise, or the ratification of appointments. The end point of that strategy is not only the election of President Donald Trump, or the gulf between the major political parties, but deep division in the population, public despair about politicians, elites and the political class, and despair about whether the old system of constitutional checks and balances – which depend on a willingness to compromise – can endure.

No one played the game as hard as Abbott when he was leader of the opposition. All the more so when a minority Gillard government was elected, and, as Abbott saw it, Gillard usurped power by corrupt blandishments to independents who morally ought to have supported him. Abbott’s utter resistance and simple oppositionism was designed to make effective government impossible, and to cause the collapse of Gillard’s working agreements with independents and minor parties.

Abbott failed, in the sense that Gillard was remarkably effective in finding winning combinations with the Senate backbench, and was successful with much of her legislative agenda. Yet he succeeded mightily in creating a constant sense of crisis, embattlement and bitterness, and political illegitimacy, about Gillard. It was hardly surprising that Labor calculatedly decided to return the compliment in 2013, when an Abbott government was elected, if with a renewed Senate crossbench with as much claim as he to a mandate of resisting Abbott’s policies.

The architect of this chaos now insists that governments – he means parties with House of Representatives majorities – must be allowed to govern. Executive government must be allowed to implement the policies it sees as necessary. For Abbott, this is not even something that starts with a mandate theory, because he thinks that governments must also be empowered to respond to fresh events.

“Good government is much harder than it used to be,” he now sees. “We’ve become less like Westminster and more like Washington. Unlike Britain but like the US, the n government can no longer expect to get its legislation through the Parliament.

“In fact, our Wash-minster model has the worst of both worlds: like Washington, there can be no expectation of passing contentious legislation; unlike Washington there can be no expectation of security of tenure for the head of government.

“These days n prime ministers, especially centre-right ones, don’t just have to win elections, make sensible decisions and run competent administrations; they have to negotiate every piece of contentious legislation line-by-line through a Senate with an in-built populist majority…

“It’s almost impossible to win four senators out of six in any state (because that needs 57 per cent of the vote), so it’s almost impossible for the government of the day to have a Senate majority in its own right…

“It’s much easier for crossbench senators (surviving on just 5 to 10 per cent of the vote) to play politics than it is for them to take responsibility for cutting spending, upsetting lobby groups, and reducing taxes on businesses and high-income earners.”

What we need to do, apparently, is to drop the double dissolution provisions in the existing constitution, and to substitute a provision calling for a joint sitting of the existing houses of Parliament if a Senate has twice rejected government proposals over three months. Section 57 of the existing constitution deals with repeated Senate refusal to pass government legislation by having both houses of Parliament dissolved, with a joint sitting of the new Parliament being held if the Senate persists in rejecting the legislation.

The political risk to recalcitrant senators is that long-term senators, looking to a term extending through the next as well as the present Parliament, might become more realistic, pragmatic or willing to compromise if they had to face the risk of losing their seat when both long- and short-term senators are up for re-election.

That is, of course, a risk that must be weighed against the opportunity presented by an election for all senators: in all of the states, if not in the territories, the quota for election halves, increasing the possibility that a senator who has made her or his name might get enough votes to be re-elected. Last year’s double dissolution election is a good example of the risk. The government was returned with a House of Representatives majority of one, a worse position than before. And the population of affirmed their desire for a Senate containing a large (indeed larger) number of ratbags, minor party and independent senators, making negotiation of legislation through the Parliament even more difficult.

If Turnbull has had marginally more success than Abbott did in persuading crossbench senators to support his government’s program, that has not been a result of his double dissolution gamble, which must be counted a failure. It is instead a reflection of the fact that Turnbull government ministers have been more open, consultative and willing to compromise with crossbench senators than was Abbott, who generally only went through the rituals of consultation.

There is, of course, both compromise and surrender. Some Turnbull government successes, in getting through the building and construction industry authority, for example, involved the effective gutting of the government’s original proposal. About the most that could be said after the great compromise was that there, on paper, was the agency that Howard had created, Gillard had abolished, Abbott had threatened to restore, and which Turnbull had tried, rather ineffectually, to make the pivotal issue of the election.

There was another problem, of course. Strictly, Turnbull could have convened a joint sitting, only the second in ‘s history, had the Senate persisted with its rejection of the ABCC legislation. But that was unlikely to get tougher legislation, given that the government’s majority in the House of Representatives was so thin.

“We do need an effective Senate for when governments get it wrong,” Abbott says, lest anyone accuses him of undermining the role of the Senate. “The Senate has a right and duty to hold the government to account.

“But the government also has a right and duty to put in place the policy that the country needs, including – sometimes – policy that wasn’t a specific election mandate.

“Differences between the government and its opponents in the Senate should be resolved by the people at the next election. They shouldn’t be allowed to stop the government from doing what, after due consideration and full debate, it believes is in the national interest.

“In the end, the government of the day has to be allowed to govern – and not with one hand tied behind its back because its legislation can’t pass.

“Do we want an that’s capable of hard-but-needed reform, as in the Hawke-Howard era of relatively amenable senates; or an that increasingly resembles Italy with a revolving door prime ministership and an inability to get things done because of gridlock between the two houses of Parliament?

“The need to negotiate so much past a crossbench of critics and rivals makes the government look impotent if it fails; and weak and unprincipled even if it succeeds.

“It’s no wonder people are losing faith in sensible centre-right politics. To win people back and to restore faith in our system of government, we’ve got to give ourselves more chance to succeed.

“So let’s get on with it, so that our country can have the government it needs and so that in 2017 our political system can start to recover from the trauma of the past few years.”

Somehow I cannot see the idea taking either the Senate or the electorate by storm. Least of all when it comes from Abbott.

But it is worth wondering whether the development of minor parties, governments without control of the Senate, and the increasing acrimony in politics requires some new responses, if only to cut through the logjams. Two-party systems are in decline everywhere except in the US, and even there, something must soon break. Most of the nations of Europe are now governed by coalitions in which parties must continually talk and compromise if practical administration is not to be paralysed.

is unusual for the strength and rigidity of its party discipline. Labor or Liberal, parties do not respect independence of mind or character: elected representatives are expected to vote as one. Yet the unifying principles of the major parties do not necessarily have to depend on everyone being of the same mind about freedom of speech, social legislation, or about climate change, the future of agriculture or the need for submarines. It might well be that there would be much more flexibility, and room for compromise, in modern politics if parties confined themselves to a narrower field in which they insisted that everyone was bound by Caucus solidarity.

It might also help if the House of Representatives, as much as the Senate, lifted its game to be a real debating chamber and forum of idea. It is in the representatives that governments are made and unmade, but in practice, once a government is made, it is the ministry – the executive government – which controls the chamber, the agenda and the parliamentary timetable. A government that placed more focus on the role of the parliamentarian, the backbencher, the argument and the rationale might have more chance of enlisting some sympathy and help from voters and from senators. But I would hardly expect that voters, or politicians, would be looking to Abbott for inspiration for this change of approach.

Jack Waterford is a former Canberra Times editor.

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