One could be forgiven for overlooking a key feature of this
government. Several of its most senior and influential ministers used to
be leading “moderates”.
Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne and George Brandis were voices on the
Liberals' left. Yet now they are among the most hardline members of a
highly ideological government.
Tony Abbott seems to have fallen into the same trap as Paul Keating
in 1993. Keating refused to accept that John Hewson had handed him that
win; he insisted on believing it was an endorsement of him and his
Like Keating, Abbott triumphed on negatives. But now he and his
colleagues think they have a mandate to transform dramatically the
society and its culture, going far beyond what people expected.
There’s little sign, however, that the government has the political
skills to match its ambition, or that the community shares its often
uncompromising, black-and-white view of the world.
The senior one-time moderates have become the true believers, marching under standards on all sorts of battlegrounds.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s tight fistedness is not just the necessary
effort to get the budget into good long-term shape but a mission wrapped
in rhetoric to crush the “entitlement” mentality.
Attorney-General George Brandis is preoccupied with alleged threats
to free speech that have mostly eluded the gaze of Mr and Mrs Average.
Christopher Pyne has found the Education portfolio a modern forum for a warrior from student politics.
But there are a couple of problems in the government’s approach. One
is that to get measures operating requires dealing with a Senate that
will be, after July 1, as idiosyncratic as they come.
The minor players have flagged they’ll tear strips off the budget.
Abbott’s pragmatic side will have to re-emerge if he is to have any hope
of getting satisfactory legislative outcomes – and not just on the
The second problem is that the Australian people, aka the voters, are not as extreme as the government is turning out to be.
Allowing the ideologues so much scope is likely to alienate the community.
We have seen people’s reaction to what they regard as the unfairness
of the budget. The government hits back with the case of a single mother
getting some $55,000 from the taxpayer.
When you want to promote change, the consensus approach can be much
more effective than confrontation and demonisation. That was recognised
by Bob Hawke, probably the best PM in recent Australian history, who
presided over extensive and difficult economic reform.
But reaching out is not something that appeals to this bunkered down, them-and-us government.
It has a strong majority and is more than two years from an election but always feels it has to give Labor another kick.
The minor players are vital to it but Senate leader Eric Abetz this
week called Christine Milne “two faced”, saying he was being polite, and
Hockey put down “professor Palmer” in question time.
It has a parliament where the Speaker is encouraged to be barracker rather than referee.
In little things it is mean spirited. Immigration Minister Scott
Morrison somehow missed cutting some funding to the Refugee Council of
Australia in the budget; now he’s gone back to hack it. The dollars were
small – why would you bother?
The government needs to put aside its superiority complex. If it
doesn’t quickly learn some humility, acquire a touch of self-doubt, and
have a political otolaryngologist repair its tin ear, it might end up
transforming almost nothing, rather than changing virtually everything.