Friday, 24 January 2014

Governing Like an Opposition

Last night Tony Abbott treated the world to the unedifying spectacle of his use of a global forum (the World Economic Forum in Davos) to criticise his Labor opponents

There's a lot else to dislike about his speech.  It was a classic of simplistic dry economics - low taxes, deregulation.  He also made the breathtaking claim that "stronger economic growth is the key to addressing almost every global problem", conveniently ignoring the fact that decades of growth have done no such thing.  If you keep doing the same thing, you will get the same results.

However, I was most interested in the way he used the speech to criticise the Labor Government's economic stimulus program, suggesting that this program was unnecessary and caused the economic problems we are facing now by pushing the government into debt.  Doubly interesting when in the same speech he urged the US to exercise caution in winding back its much more ambitious stimulus program. 

You could see this as simply a government making a transition, still getting into the headspace of being in government.  After all, it's only been three months since the election.  However, here in Queensland we've had the same stuff grinding on for the two years since our last state election.  The not-so-new LNP government never misses an opportunity to sink the boot into its Labor opponents.

Health Minister Laurence Springborg is one of the worst offenders.  Here's an example from a press release this week on the ongoing efforts to fix the Queensland Health payroll stuff-up.  In the midst Tuesday's press release about the government's supposed success in recovering overpayments to staff which were the less dramatic part of the problem (the real drama was about staff not getting paid), we find this.

Mr Springborg said under the former Labor Government overpayments reached a staggering $120 million dollars.  “The human consequence of Labor’s payroll debacle was that while some staff received overpayments, many went without pay for weeks on end,” Mr Springborg said.  “This was not fair to Queensland Health staff and was not fair to Queensland taxpayers."

At least Springborg is talking about a problem that occurred under the watch of the Labor government, although after two years we are entitled to wonder why the LNP has still not fixed it.  But how about this from a press release on Monday from Communities Minister Tracey Davis, in a press release announcing funding for the Council on the Ageing Queensland?

“Unlike the former Labor Government which historically funded the most vocal groups, we have used an open and transparent tender process to select the best organisation to partner with, to improve frontline services for seniors.”

Or this, also from Monday, from Acting Treasurer John McVeigh.

Mr McVeigh said while good economic policy was delivering growth for Queensland, the state’s finances were still being constrained by Labor’s $80 billion black cloud of debt.

You don't have to look very far in the State Government's press releases to hear this sort of stuff.  It's like the steady dripping of a tap, a relentless background noise that has you on edge, an obsessive hatred or resentment that poisons everything.

Of course Labor politicians are not immune to this.  Bill Shorten was not slow to call Abbot's speech "embarrassing".  Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen also leapt on the bandwagon.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said Mr Abbott's speech suggested he was ''addicted to being leader of the opposition and [hadn't] adjusted to being Prime Minister''.

''What we saw from the Prime Minister in this speech was a pretty tired old recitation of . . . slogans, and frankly, continuing attacks on the Labor Party for domestic political purposes,'' Mr Bowen told ABC radio on Friday.

Perhaps its always been like this and I'm just noticing it more, but I find it increasingly disturbing that politics is framed as a competition.  The object is to beat your opponent.  Nothing else matters that much.  If you are in opposition, the aim is to destroy their credibility by attacking them at every opportunity.  Once that has succeeded and you have won the election, the object is to keep them down as firmly as you can.  Everything else is secondary.

Perhaps I'm overly idealistic, but I like the think that actually the purpose of politics is to govern.  It is to set policy and direction for your country or state, to administer the services it delivers in the best way possible, to protect the weak from the strong, ensure the rule of law and appropriately manage the financial resources needed to do all that. 

This means that in government, of course, you should be focused on what you are doing and why that is good for the people.  In opposition you should be focused on the same thing - what is best for the people of this country?  In government, a party is obliged to use the levers of power to these ends.  In opposition, they are obliged to keep the government honest, critique them when they go wrong but also praise them when they do right, suggest better or fairer ways, present a different viewpoint.  A good government will leave a legacy of good governance and social fairness for their state or nation.  A good opposition will contribute to this.

As Aeschylus said, truth is the first casualty of war.  The war doesn't have to involve actual shooting for this to be the case - only a state of partisan conflict in which one party must win at the expense of the other.  In a war ordinary people always lose out and certain elites win.  I don't think that's what we want.  I'm waiting for an alternative to vote for which doesn't deliver us this outcome. 

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