CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Opposition needs new policies, not stunts
, March 29, 2008
The job of oppositions is to keep the government of the day honest, and also to prepare for the time they will be in government again.The federal Coalition has quickly assumed the role of a point-scoring and occasionally carping Opposition, but is making a major mistake if it thinks this is the way back into power.
The speed at which members of the former government have adjusted to the conventional Opposition role has been surprising on one level and disturbing on another.
Certainly, for many Coalition MPs the transition to the Opposition benches has been a shock, particularly for those MPs who have only ever known government.
Some former senior ministers have also not made the adjustment at all, with former Treasurer Peter Costello, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile getting into the headlines for being "AWOL" since returning to the new parliament.Moonlighting
Specifically, Mr Costello was on holidays in Bali during the first party-room meeting of the year; Mr Vaile was discovered moonlighting in the Middle East on behalf of a virtual office-space company; and Mr Downer was caught literally out-to-lunch during Question Time.
But these are venial sins of ministers who have retired to the backbench, who are no longer part of the main game, and who are all expected to quit politics over the coming year.
The real action has been with the team leading the charge for the new Opposition, including the leader himself Dr Brendan Nelson, Treasury spokesman Malcolm Turnbull, and the group next in line, including Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop.
They have all settled into the role of niggling the new government, organising stunts such as the cardboard cut-out of Kevin Rudd, and using the protracted Budget process to fly kites and create fear campaigns about possible government cutbacks.
The new Opposition adopted a tone of outrage at the "callousness" of the new Government for daring to propose axing bonus payments to vulnerable carers and pensioners which had been introduced on a one-off basis by the Coalition when they were in government.
These payments ($1,600 to carers and $500 to seniors) were never part of the budget forward estimates. In other words, they were only there because the previous government was flush with cash.
But the ensuing controversy did force Mr Rudd - who is desperately trying to find substantial Budget savings - to lock these payments in as permanent fixtures.
Senior press gallery figures said the Coalition's campaign "on behalf" of seniors and carers worked because it successfully took the gloss off Mr Rudd's prime ministership.
"The alleged threat to carers' and seniors' lump-sum bonus payments was essentially a furphy, but it did not look that way to voters," Laurie Oakes wrote recently.
"Brendan Nelson and his colleagues were smart enough and ruthless enough to exploit it to the hilt. In the end, while there might be argument over whether they had a genuine victory, that was the perception."
Mr Turnbull has been at the forefront of the government attacks, even resorting to verballing the federal Treasury by claiming it had recommended to the Government a specific pay-rise for low-income earners to the Australian Fair Pay Commission.
Treasury Secretary Dr Ken Henry issued a statement denying any such recommendation. This was a humiliating put-down for Mr Turnbull, who appears to be desperate to grab any headline to win points for the Opposition.Desperation
The real question is why the desperation at this stage of the electoral cycle?
Dr Nelson is, not surprisingly, enduring very low opinion ratings. But an election is a long way away and voters, having just taken the rare decision to throw out a government, are not even considering an alternative to Mr Rudd.
The new Opposition needs to attack - and hard - but it also has to be effective and pick the issues which are important.
However, the Coalition is likely to be in Opposition for at least six years.
Kim Beazley almost pulled off a miracle in 1998 when he came within a whisker of defeating John Howard who proposed introducing a GST.
But the historical reality is that governments in Australia change rarely, and it would take an economic calamity of serious proportions for this to happen in 2010.
While the job of oppositions is to keep the government of the day honest, it is also to prepare for the time they will be in government again.
Which means a lot of serious reading, travelling overseas, discussing and writing, policy development, and talking with universities and policy specialists, to find alternative and better ways of doing things.
Opposition is a curse, but the opportunities it brings for politicians are also enormous and better spent than organising stunts to grab headlines and pictures on the nightly news.