Tuesday, 05 August 2014

Why Tony Abbott is likely to learn the wrong lesson from the Budget impasse

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This isn't a bad piece by Chris Berg in The Drum today.

The tag line is: "the Government is unable to legislate its budget policies that voters don't want anyway".

That isn't very elegantly put, but it is basically right, and it says something for the power of a mixed legislature that the mainstream media is wont to write off as "populist".

Populist does not necessarily equal democratic, but what is happening in the Senate is not so easily dismissed as "crass populism" as the mainstream media constantly insists. Despite the views of many elites, there is nothing wrong with the parliament trying to give the people what they want.

In other words, the reason the government is having trouble getting so much of its Budget through the parliament is not because the Senate is obstructionist or populist, but because there is a fairly broad understanding that many people don't like what the Budget is trying to achieve, and that they don't like what it means for their understanding of the sort of country they think Australia should be.

To put it slightly differently, the groundswell against the Budget is about as democratic as you can get.

Anyway, the ultimate problem is likely to be this: the lesson the Abbott Government is most likely to learn is NOT that they have to come up with more "populist" policies (that is, policies that don't violate voters sense of fairness etc), or that they need to be more willing to compromise.

What is more likely is that they will decide they have to be MORE extreme, so that when they are "forced" to negotiate by a "populist" Senate, they will have some bargaining space.

For instance, I bet they wish they had made the Medicare co-payment, say, $20 instead of $7. That way they could've "negotiated" down to $7 and all those people who love the idea of "compromise" and "sensible middles" would've applauded at everyone's reasonableness.

This is why the whole idea that good government is "centrist", that the "sensible middle" is always some sort of compromise between competing views, and that such compromise is the ultimate goal of democratic politics, is so dangerous.

Some things just have to be strangled at birth.

Really, imagine if the government had started at $20 for the Medicare co-payment and had been argued down to $7. We would no longer be objecting to the idea of a copayment per se (which is what we should be doing if we support a universal health care system), but applauding the government's, and the Senate's, willingness to compromise.

Bottom line is: don't be surprised if the Abbott government's demands get more extreme, not less, and watch out for all those who laud "compromise" as the sine qua non of good government, thus encouraging us towards a "sensible middle" that is anything but.

UPDATE

So this morning the AFR has an article up suggesting that the PM is looking to dump the Renewable Energy Target, rather than simply wind it back. This seems to bear out what I was saying above:  

The federal government is moving towards abolishing the Renewable Energy Target rather than scaling it back in a move that will cost almost $11 billion in proposed investment and which is at odds with the views of its own Environment Minister.

The Australian Financial Review understands Prime Minister Tony Abbott has asked businessman Dick Warburton, whom he handpicked after the election to review the RET, to do more work on the option of terminating the target altogether. This was after Mr Warburton’s review leant towards scaling back the RET.

Sources said Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who advocated scaling back the RET as a compromise, has been sidelined from the process and is understood to be unhappy. They said Mr Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann are pushing the issue now.

 A government source said when the government announced its decision, possibly before the end of this month, it was now  “more likely’’ the RET will be abolished under a so-called “closed to new entrants scenario’’ in which existing contracts only  would be honoured.

As the government continues to flounder with its Budget negotiations, the lesson Tony Abbott is learning is not to compromise but to push harder. 

Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop writes regularly for The Kings Tribune, The Drum and other publications. His new book, The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience, was released on August 26.

Follow him on Twitter @timdunlop

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