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March 10th 2014 print

Peter Smith

Labor’s Small, Dim, Fading Bulb

Even Peter van Onselen seems unable to find anything nice to say about Bill Shorten. Indeed, the next kind word we hear is likely to be the faux praise of party comrades intoning his political epitaph

bill oompaSomeone asked me how I rated Tony Abbott’s performance.  I think his demeanour says it all. Actually stopping the boats must be giving him enormous confidence and it shows. Beating back the clamour to throw away taxpayers’ dollars on Toyota, SPC, and Qantas was a refreshing demonstration of a conservative prime minister on top of his game; putting Australia’s longer-term interests ahead of debilitating populism.

Arguably the two most successful periods of government since Menzies left the scene were presided over by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, then by John Howard and Peter Costello. A key in each case was Keating’s and Costello’s role in combating special interests by putting more conviction into the minds of their respective prime ministers. Times are tougher. We need a prime minister with enough conviction of his own. Fortunately we appear to have one.

On the other side of the political fence, not even the true believers will stick with this union throwback for very long. You read it here first, or at least I think you did. Bill Shorten will be gone before 2014 is out. Who will replace him? I don’t know but doubt Labor will turn to Ms Plibersek so soon after the experience of Ms Gillard or (I am everybody’s loyal guy) Anthony Albanese. Chris Bowen is my favourite.

Peter van Onselen, the thinly disguised poster child for Labor apologists, is one of those doing his best for Bill. But his best is revealing in its ambivalence. I haven’t been brave enough to watch Onselen on the tele. I admit to being psychologically allergic to too much unctuousness in the flesh, as it were, but I have skimmed some articles.

His technique is to drag his left-wing baggage far enough so as to appear to be criticising Shorten before getting stuck into Abbott and the Coalition. For example, Shorten apparently needs to reset his ideological compass so that he can capitalise on the inconsistencies of the new government. See what I mean.

Onselen spots Coalition inconsistencies everywhere. He has to in order to avoid too many column inches being devoted to bagging Bill. Being open for business is inconsistent with rejecting the GrainCorp takeover. Providing $16 million to Cadbury for tourism and $20 million for marriage counselling is inconsistent with not providing $25 million to SPC Ardmona for plant and equipment. Bearing down on entitlements is inconsistent with the eventual intent to remove means testing for the health fund rebate and with the intention to introduce a generous maternity leave benefit. Denying corporate welfare to Qantas is inconsistent with providing drought relief to farmers; and so on.

News for Onselen; consistency is in the eye of the beholder but, as general proposition, can never be found among the policies of any government anywhere. Pragmatism has its way. However, a good test of a government is whether it will live up to its promises and whether its core objective, in this case of reducing the size of government and reducing obstacles to business development, will predominate in its policy decisions. On the whole the omens are much more good than bad.

The telling point is that there is nothing in Onselen’s stuff that I have seen which contains the least complimentary comment on Shorten’s performance. A plague on the lot of them is the most he able to do for his Labor mates.

“Get out of the way” was a devastatingly effective charge on Shorten by Abbott in the Parliament. It hit home, as shown by Shorten echoing the same words incoherently. And why wouldn’t it? Shorten is leading his party to oppose every measure to improve the competitiveness, and therefore the job-creating ability, of the Australian economy. Most perversely this includes the carbon tax, specifically ruled out by Gillard before the 2010 election and which Abbott promised to abolish at the 2013 election. How divorced from reality and the wishes of the electorate can you possibly get?

You can almost read the doubting minds of those around Shorten (‘Oh, God, not another dud!’) as he stumbles his way inarticulately from one indecipherable remark to another. The government should “get out of the way” of Qantas. What sense does that make? None! ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels’ and ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’  have their provenance but are spewed without spottable connectivity to the debate at hand.

Instead of drawing a line under the disastrous polices of the six years of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments he is doubling down. He is locked into a union-inspired protectionist past. He is an economic Neanderthal compared with Hawke and Keating and, to boot, with every indication of having a distinct lack of facility with words.


Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics