Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Understanding Tony Abbott

FROM the progressive Left that loathes him to the right-wing free market lobby that distrusts him, Tony Abbott's political character as cautious, conservative and pragmatic remains the source of denial and alarm.

Abbott has been the most misunderstood leader of a major political party for many years. Blunder after blunder has been perpetrated by his opponents because they have failed to see what is in front of their eyes, and what Abbott represents.

The two great myths are Abbott as extremist and Abbott as ideologue. The Australian public shuns such traits and Abbott's poll ratings affirm this is not how the public sees him. The effort to paint Abbott as extremist and ideologue, once Labor's central strategy, has failed so far.

Labor, however, cannot give up. Undermined by its own dysfunction, it will keep playing the Abbott card because it has few other options and is convinced he is a destructive force unfit to become prime minister. Labor's last hope remains a bet against Abbott's political character.

This week Peter Costello, who understands Abbott better than most, rapped him over the knuckles for being too soft and cautious on industrial relations reform. Costello's complaint is that Abbott ruled out individual statutory contracts, a policy legislated by the Howard government in 1996 on Coalition and Australian Democrat votes, long before Work Choices. Abbott, in short, has positioned himself to the left of the Australian Democrats circa 1996. Sound extreme to you? No wonder Costello is unhappy.

In his book Battlelines, Abbott attacked Work Choices as "a catastrophic political blunder". Indeed, he was one of the least enthusiastic ministers when the Howard cabinet agreed to the policy. Abbott is making crystal clear his attitude in office to industrial relations - he will operate within Julia Gillard's existing laws. Radical IR reform is simply off Abbott's radar. The employer groups will need to get their heads around this reality.

Costello's pot shot follows that from Abbott backer and former finance minister Nick Minchin in the partyroom in May accusing Abbott of failing the "good reform" test by not supporting a Labor excise increase. In short, Abbott was too soft and cautious for Minchin's taste on fiscal discipline.

Such critiques penetrate both to Abbott's style and substance. Abbott, in case you missed it, does not seek a fifth term for the Howard-Costello government. As far as Abbott is concerned, that government is over. Abbott runs for a first-term Abbott government. It will be different in policy and style, even though John Howard remains his model.

How will it be different? Well, Abbott's first-term game plan is on the table now. It will be dominated by four items that reflect Abbott's conservatism applied to the times: the dismantling of the carbon price scheme (the most substantial and risky dismantling of any policy in Australian history), the scaling back and re-defining of the National Broadband Network, the removal of the mining tax and hefty spending cuts to achieve the promised fiscal consolidation. How much detail the Coalition provides on the fiscal side remains to be seen and it refuses to get its policy costed by any government agency. This agenda is heavily negative, but Abbott's retort is the public doesn't buy Labor's reform edifices and wants them dismantled.

Abbott's instinctive reply to Minchin in their partyroom exchange was memorable. He said faced with a choice between "policy purity and political pragmatism, I'll take pragmatism every time". It is the antithesis of ideology.

As for tactics, Abbott is tracking Howard's 1996 campaign. Just as Howard dismissed any GST, so Abbott dismisses IR reform to counter Labor's inevitable Work Choices scare. Abbott will give Labor nothing - no opening, no break against him. Abbott operates on the assumption of Kevin Rudd's possible return thereby reviving Labor's vote. How dumb would Abbott be to devise bold and risky policies against a weak Gillard only to gift a resurrected Rudd fresh weapons to use against him and reverse the political equation? For the record, Abbott won't be that dumb.

Much of the current debate misses the way Abbott frames the political future. His objective is to win and win big. Abbott wants the Australian people to mandate his judgment against Labor and to authorise his dismantling of the Gillard-Rudd legacy. The next election is the opposite of 2010: it will be a turning point poll between radically different programs.

Abbott now says his agenda may require two elections, an initial victory and then a double dissolution election to abolish Labor's carbon pricing scheme. Abbott can only prevail with an overwhelming majority in the country. Consider the situation he would face as PM: a hostile Senate, an antagonistic Labor Party and Greens, opinion-making forums horrified that Australia would repudiate carbon pricing, reject the international campaign for emissions trading and repeal such a pro-market economic reform.

Above all, Abbott knows his prime ministership would be destroyed unless he delivers on his promise to repeal carbon pricing. It is his first, second and third priority. Abbott's rejection of carbon pricing, the platform on which he won the leadership, remains his greatest gamble. The verdict on it will come from global events, notably whether the world moves towards or against emissions trading.

Meanwhile the bigger, disputed question remains: who is Tony Abbott?

There are three truths about Abbott. First, he has a conservative set of values that he champions yet his policy outlook is highly flexible and pragmatic (witness his famous changes of mind on multiculturalism, hospitals, carbon pricing and paid parental leave, among others).

Because Abbott is seen to stand for enduring values he gets away with multiple policy switches with impunity.

Second, unlike leaders of the past generation Abbott is not defined by economics and does not wear free-market economics as his badge. This is a sharp break from Paul Keating, John Hewson, Costello and even Howard. If Abbott wins, it will become a departure point for Australia. Abbott told me back in 2003: "I have never been as excited about economics as some of my colleagues." An understatement.

Throughout his life, Abbott's social philosophy has been paramount. He is a libertarian in neither personal nor economic terms. Abbott has never hidden this truth, declaring that while many Liberals stress the "individual" and "choice" his message is always "individuals as part of the social fabric".

For Abbott, it is society, family and community that count. Individualism must always be seen within society. This is the powerful legacy of his Catholicism. It has been apparent at each stage of his life, trainee priest, journalist, community volunteer and MP.

It is what makes Abbott a different Liberal leader and what makes the Abbott Liberal Party different. Such philosophy is likely to be popular with the public but hardly encouraging to free-market reform.

Third, Abbott is a community based politician rather than an inside-the-beltway policy wonk. He is bright enough and arrogant enough to think he doesn't necessarily need to genuflect before the latest policy advice or conventional wisdom (think carbon pricing or mining tax).

Abbott is a natural populist and has materialised into something Labor never imagined - a potent threat to its voting base.

The only basis for seeing Abbott as a radical lies in the fusion of his populism and social values. The feminists preaching his infamy are clueless, with Abbott easily batting away their attacks: "Am I worried about the extent of abortions and family breakdown today? Yes, I am worried. Do I intend in office to legislate against abortion and family breakdown? No, I don't." With this formula he projects his values yet claims immunity from imposing them.

Where Labor was convinced Abbott would narrow the Coalition's appeal, the opposite has happened with Abbott widening its appeal, a point verified by applying this test in terms of regions, class and values.

The Coalition is strong in the resource states of Queensland and Western Australia, much of NSW, manages to hold its own in the southern states.

Analysis by class shows Abbott is stealing the working-class vote through his persona and ability to re-mobilise the so-called Howard battlers. On values, Abbott embodies the large-scale transfer of the Catholic vote from Labor to Liberal. This is symbolised not just by his Democratic Labor Party origins but by the December 2009 Liberal leadership contest involving Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, each of them Catholic, a situation inconceivable in the Menzian Liberal Party and testimony to the widening of the conservative net.

Abbott's political character has long been obvious: he is a conservative who shuns government-engineered schemes to remake the existing order, from carbon pricing to the republic.

Where does Abbott's conservatism lead him on the economy? The answer lies in the basics: low tax, small government, fiscal surplus. It is part of the Howard-Costello legacy (not always delivered) that Abbott accepts and would pursue in office.

Does Abbott work as a political package? So far he has exceeded expectations for many of the above reasons. It will be hard for Labor to halt Abbott's momentum from this point. The bigger question for the country, however, is whether the Abbott package works in office or becomes the train wreck that Labor expects.


Sectarian rant against Abbott is full of holes, despite QC's excitement

The designations QC [Queen's Counsel] and SC [Senior Counsel] invariably suggest a barrister [trial lawyer] who is considered and skilful in cross-examination. Court reporters usually take note when, in answers to tough-minded questioning from a QC or SC, a defendant or respondent replies that he or she simply cannot remember the circumstances of a certain event.

The tables were turned on Friday following a series of tweets from the prominent Melbourne barrister Julian Burnside. First up, Burnside tweeted that Susan Mitchell's Tony Abbott: A Man's Man , which was released on Saturday, was a "great book". Burnside concluded: "Abbott will lead the country back to the dark ages." Soon after, the Melbourne QC sent out a tweet: "Paedos in speedos". Not surprisingly, the tweetdom interpreted Burnside's comment as linking the Catholic Abbott with the paedophile scandal in sections of the Catholic Church.

Burnside then issued a tweet which declared: "This is an unprompted apology to Abbott. He is NOT a paedophile and I was not referring to him. He has many flaws but that is not one of them." Asked by The Weekend Australian whether he was replying to a tweet which asked: "Are sexist abbotts like predator priests?", Burnside replied that he could not recall. Well, now.

Mitchell's 196-page tome is essentially an anti-Catholic sectarian rant of a kind prevalent in Australia a century ago. Mitchell's message is that Australians should not elect the Coalition led by Abbott because he is a conservative Catholic who has "never left the Catholic Church". Mitchell, who did not attempt to interview Abbott for her book, presents the Opposition Leader as a "mad monk" and an immature "zealot" who is ingrained with "sexism and misogyny" and who does not acknowledge the separation of church and state.

In the author's view, Abbott has been reliant on "a series of older male mentors throughout his life". They include, wait for it, "his father, who once hoped to become a Catholic priest". Shame. Then there are the Jesuit priest Father Emmet Costello, John Howard, Cardinal George Pell and the late political activist B.A. Santamaria. All except Howard are Catholic.

Henry Rosenbloom, who runs the book's Melbourne publisher, Scribe, has allowed a number of factual errors to remain in Mitchell's text. I will detail these in my Media Watch Dog blog on Friday. The essential criticism of Mitchell and Rosenbloom is that they believe it is acceptable to describe Abbott as "dangerous" on account of his Catholicism.

Louise Adler,who as chief executive of MUP published Abbott's book Battlelines, wrote in the Herald on Saturday that "the gap between Mitchell's reading and my acquaintance makes me reflect on the disjunction between the public performance and the private reality". Adler is a not a conservative.

The fact is that Abbott, both in government and in opposition, employed a number of senior women on his personal staff. He is politically close to such senior Liberal Party MPs as Julie Bishop and Bronwyn Bishop.What's more, according to the latest Newspoll, Julia Gillard leads Abbott by only two points - 39 per cent to 37 per cent - when females are asked who would make the better prime minister. The evidence suggests that, unlike Mitchell and Burnside, many voters do not regard him as a dangerous misogynist intending to create a Christian theocracy in the Antipodes.

Abbott critics fail to understand he is a pragmatic politician with the ability to communicate in a direct language which virtually all Australians can understand. With the next federal election unlikely before late 2013, there is no point in the opposition releasing detailed policy and setting itself up as a target as John Hewson did in the early 1990s.

In his influential Herald column last week, Peter Costello suggested Abbott's economic and industrial relations policies have been unduly influenced by Santamaria's legacy and that of the Democratic Labor Party, which went out of existence in 1978 when Abbott was 19. Three leading Coalition figures - Abbott, Andrew Robb and George Brandis - have had some relationship with Santamaria and/or the DLP.

Costello also mentions three others educated in the Catholic school system - Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Barnaby Joyce. Yet there is no common position among this lot on economic or social policy. Some are ardent economic reformers - Robb and Hockey come to mind. Others are quite liberal on social policy - for example, Brandis and Pyne. Moreover, Santamaria was a protectionist and a social conservative who attempted to talk Abbott out of becoming a Liberal MP.

According to Costello, the "DLP was good on defence and the Cold War but not up to much on economic issues". Fair enough. But the DLP was also the first parliamentary party to oppose the White Australia policy and its principal influence on social policy was to achieve government funding for non-government schools which, in time, benefited the families of both Catholic Abbott and Protestant Costello and many more besides.

Abbott's political success has surprised many commentators. The key to understanding the Opposition Leader is to play down ideology. Mitchell's sectarian rant obviously excited Burnside. But it is unlikely to have much long-term effect.


Does it all boil down to a question of colour?

by: Barry Cohen

I ATTENDED my first conference of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Canberra in the mid-1960s. I had joined the Labor Party in 1963 and become involved in FCAATSI because I was appalled at the neglect of the Aborigines since the arrival of the First Fleet.

The conference was attended by about 150 people, mostly Aborigines, but with a sprinkling of whites from politics and academe. Spirited debate took place on a variety of issues, particularly the referendum due in May 1967. Among the prominent speakers were Charlie Perkins, Joe McGuinness, Faith Bandler, Gordon Bryant and Ken Brindle.

A newcomer to Aboriginal politics, I was fascinated by the views expressed by a group of speakers who could best be described as "whiter than white".

I remarked to a veteran activist: "Those are funny comments from white people." He replied: "They're not whites, they're Aborigines." I responded, a little naively: "You're joking." He answered with a terse "No."

"Forgive me for asking, but how do you decide who is an Aborigine, and who decides?"

"If someone says they are an Aborigine and they are accepted as such by the Aboriginal community, then they are an Aborigine." (Some years later they were also asked to provide proof of their Aboriginal ancestry.)

For years I wondered what would happen when someone loudly proclaimed they were Aboriginal and their claim was rejected. It happened in Tasmania and caused quite a brouhaha.

The bomb went off recently when the pin was pulled by Federal Court judge Mordecai Bromberg. The good judge claimed that prominent journalist Andrew Bolt had "sought to convey the message that certain people of a certain racial mix should not identify with a particular race because they lack a sufficiency of colour and other racial attributes to justify the racial choice which they had made".

No one apparently had alerted him to the fact you could choose your religion or your nationality but not your race.

Bolt responded in what must be the understatement of the century: "This is a terrible day for free speech in this country" and "It is particularly a restriction on the freedom of all Australians to discuss multiculturalism and how people identify themselves".

I don't intend to discuss the details of the case brought by the nine pale plaintiffs for the obvious reason I could well be the next one in the dock. Oddly enough I had been planning to write an almost identical article to Bolt's.

What I will do is examine some of the ramifications of the judge's ruling keeping in mind that in all the parliaments of Australia there is now a considerable array of legislation and administrative decisions that apply specifically to Aborigines. That's why we fought so hard to change the Constitution in 1967, so that the federal government could pass legislation to specifically help Aborigines. It's called affirmative action.

I'm not aware if Justice Bromberg had any background in Aboriginal affairs but I suspect not. And I doubt whether he realised he had given a new meaning to the phrase "can of worms". He doesn't appear to have considered how his ruling will affect the decision-making process that entitles Aborigines to special assistance by virtue of affirmative action.

The judge, however, raised important points. How, in a multiracial society, does one determine one's ethnicity? Our family is an interesting mix. My paternal grandfather was an impoverished weaver from Russian-occupied Poland. My maternal grandfather was from an affluent Anglican family who owned woollen mills in Bradford, Yorkshire. On my wife's side there was a whaling mariner from Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and from Ireland came a surveyor from County Cork who had 13 children, which was surprising as he had planned to become a Jesuit priest.

All of this raises the question: are we Poles, Polish Jews, Irish, Scottish or the best of British stock, Yorkshiremen (or women)? We are none of the above. We are Australians, but it doesn't matter because our ethnicity doesn't entitle us to any special privileges.

And that's the difference between us and the Aboriginal people. We have singled them out for special treatment because of our failure to give them equal rights for about 200 years.

When Australians were asked at the referendum whether Aborigines should be counted in the census and for the federal government to be able to take responsibility for Aboriginal affairs, almost 91 per cent voted yes. It was an amazing vote and it was interpreted as an instruction to the government to tackle Aboriginal neglect. Successive governments, Labor and Coalition, have done just that. While we are not there yet, we have made great strides.

What is disturbing many Australians who have no Aboriginal antecedents is why many people, who don't appear to be Aborigines are treated, in the media, as if they were. Those who ask such a question are immediately branded racist.

What determines who is an Aborigine? Does one's Aboriginal great-great-grandparent qualify them to apply for special entitlements, particularly when they have a job, a good home and living standards similar to mainstream Australia? Most Australians believe benefits should go to the needy whatever their race, colour or religion.

What can be done about it? Very little unless we want to end up like South Africa under apartheid or Germany after the Nuremberg laws. I don't think Justice Bromberg realised he had opened a Pandora's box when he made his recent findings. Unfortunately, the usual suspects are carrying on a treat about how Bolt got what he deserved.

However, the brawl has just begun. If the law is not changed, Bolt will be spot-on about freedom of speech going down the gurgler. More and more people will be scared to speak their minds. If that happens, the goodwill that has continued since the 1967 referendum will gradually disappear, and that would be a tragedy for all of us but particularly for the Aboriginal community.


Three bureaucrats for each doctor in Queensland Health

THE mammoth imbalance between the numbers of doctors, and managerial and clerical staff employed by Queensland Health has been revealed for the first time, with the ratio topping one to three in some hospital districts.

The huge discrepancy, revealed in documents obtained by The Courier-Mail, has triggered calls for an urgent audit of the Queensland Health workforce.

Managers and clerks outnumber doctors in all hospital districts but the gap is particularly severe in the central west, south west, Torres Strait and Cape York regions, all recording ratios of at least three to one.

The documents, dated September 19, show that in the Cape York district, 69 managers and clerks are employed, compared with the equivalent of seven full-time doctors and three locums.

In the Torres Strait, 86 managerial and clerical workers outnumber the 15 medical staff, including two locums.

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Richard Kidd said the huge imbalance in some areas was unacceptable. "It's ridiculous, just terrible,'' he said.

"When you've got seven times as many managers and clerks in some areas as doctors, there's clearly a problem. "We've known that the managers and the clerks grossly outnumber doctors and, from a clinician's point of view, it's a terrible waste of money. "The ratio is completely back to front. It's a matter of getting the balance right.''

Rural Doctors Association of Queensland president Ewen McPhee joined Dr Kidd in calling for an audit of the Health Department workforce. "The number of clinicians on the ground is outweighed by the number of managerial and clerical staff, there's no doubt about that," Dr McPhee said. "From a core-service-delivery model, I think a certain number of them are not contributing to the delivery of patient care."

The plea comes as doctors on the frontline are struggling to treat record numbers of patients within tight budgets. Dr Kidd was also scathing of the numbers of locums hired in some regions, as highlighted in the documents. The Central Queensland district hires 57 full-time equivalent locums. Another 53 are employed in the Wide Bay region and 44 in the Cairns and hinterland district.

Dr Kidd said each position cost taxpayers about $1 million a year, with locums earning $2000 a day, after flights, accommodation and employment agency fees were paid. "It's twice the cost of getting a permanent medical officer there," he said.

The documents also show the numbers of nurses in health districts. Metro North (5865), Metro South (4515) and the Gold Coast (2230) had the most nurses. Torres Strait (117) and Central West (119) had the least.

Opposition health spokesman Mark McArdle said the necessity for the number of non-clinical staff employed by Queensland Health needed to be scrutinised. "When I'm speaking to doctors, they're always astounded at the increase in the number of bureaucrats in central office at the same time they're being asked to cut more and reduce services to the public," Mr McArdle said.

"These figures highlight again that delivery of health services by doctors, nurses and allied health professionals is only a secondary consideration for Queensland Health."

Queensland Health deputy director-general Neil Castles said between June 2007 and June 2011 frontline staff increased by 12,734 to 58,280, while non-frontline staff increased by 3513 to 9668. "That means more than 86 per cent of staff employed during the period were frontline staff," he said. "The overall portion of staff who were in non-frontline positions rose by just 1.5 per cent during that period, from 12.5 per cent of all staff to 14 per cent of all staff.

"Further, this year, corporate office has committed to cutting its expenditure by 5 per cent and Queensland Health has recently sought expressions of interest from non-frontline staff willing to participate in a Voluntary Separation Program which will reduce the number of office staff dramatically."


No comments: