At sea and Rudderless

My family and I are lucky enough to be in a position to apply for Australian citizenship in another 7 or 8 weeks. We are presently both Canadian and New Zealand citizens who arrived from New Zealand four and a half years ago. Unlike most Kiwis we got a permanent residence visa – which means they put something in your New Zealand passport that ensures you are pulled out of the customs line every single time you leave and come into this country – and this will lead on to citizenship, at least if my wife and I can manage to pass the test now that ‘Bradman’ is not the answer to every second question. (With almost superhuman restraint I will forego the usual joke here about having to get a criminal record before becoming an Aussie citizen.)

Our Kiwi friends here ask us why we bothered. It’s not an inexpensive process. And it’s a bureaucratic one, though to be fair once you’ve experienced life in an Australian university it doesn’t seem all that bureaucratic.   And it takes a fair bit of time.

The main reason we did this, because there really is an amazing degree of free trade of people between New Zealand and Australia under the CER treaty, is that we want to vote in Australia. Sure, we want our kids to have an Australian passport against unknown future contingencies. At least as important to us, though, is the chance to vote.

Alas, our timing hasn’t been great. After all, what is there at present to like about the Coalition?

I don’t mean that question in the same way your typical media left-of-centre, chardonnay-sipping commentator or 2020 Summit attendee would mean it, with the world filtered through a Fairfax-United Nations Human Rights Council lens where bumper sticker moralizing is the order of the day and any hard-headed cost-benefit analysing of issues (where often no choice is a particularly palatable one) is wholly shunned and nearly always frowned upon.

No, I am asking what is to like about today’s Opposition Coalition from the vantage of someone who very much liked the Howard government. Of course I never thought it perfect. It did a lousy job with the universities, leaving in place and even aggravating a horrific managerialism with paper pushing, target setting, one-size-fits-all junkies running a much overrated show. 

And I think it was a mistake not to have overhauled Australia’s ridiculously complicated tax system, one only accountants, tax lawyers, and cowardly politicians could love.

But we all realise that living in a democracy means you can’t get all your druthers. It is absurd to think you will be on the winning side of every policy dispute or issue of principle. And on balance, the Howard government always struck me as the pretty much the best any economically liberal, sceptical of the supposed benefits of that sort of internationalism that is driven in the language of judge-controlled rights, Hobbesian supporter of a strong military, and favourer of a modicum of redistribution of wealth towards hard working families was likely to get – here or anywhere.

But I couldn’t vote back when that option was on the table. I will be able to vote soon though, the fates and my ability to pass a test willing.

So let me repeat my question. What is to like about today’s Coalition Opposition? The answer, I’m afraid, is not very much. In fact, even for someone like me who follows politics fairly closely, it’s hard to think of all that many ways in which the Turnbull Opposition stands for different policies than the Rudd Government.

More liberal labour relations? Nope, sorry, sold the pass on that one.   A bit of scepticism about the rights-based internationalism flowing from the UN and its egregious Human Rights Council maybe? Well, I haven’t detected any.   How about some of that refreshing Howard-era standing up to the humourless politically correct brigade, a crowd that seems averse to anyone who might question their deeply felt pieties? Alas, Mr. Turnbull seems more prone to this guff than the union wing of the Labor Party, where one can still find a sense of humour.

I suppose the Turnbull Opposition takes a harder line on Cabinet ministers taking free trips to China, and it tuts-tuts about the Prime Minister’s supposed sexism on long-haul flights, and it is quietly making the case that this home grown stimulus is not self-evidently a good idea. But the first two amount to nothing and the latter seems to put you in the invidious position of hoping for an economic meltdown to make any traction.

I sometimes wonder if the people now leading the Coalition remember that the party only lost the last election 53-47, and this after nearly a dozen years in power and with a leader who was polarizing – you loved him or you hated him.

After that kind of loss, surely the central, fundamental rule in developing post-election policy is to do some basic accounting. If we abandon policy X in favour of policy Y, are we likely to gain as many new voters (plus one) who favour Y as we will lose who liked X?

The Coalition appears not to have done this. No matter how trendy and palatable to inner city ABC journalists and university lecturers it becomes, it simply will not win many of their votes, or of those of like-minded others. A favourable editorial in The Age, assuming we can imagine such a thing, will translate by my reckoning into, well, let me think, ummm, NO NEW VOTES for the Coalition. Zero. Not one.

Let me be blunt. What is the point of mimicking Rudd policy, with an imperceptible tweak here or a barely audible reservation there? This is not some tired government that’s been too long in office, with voters actively looking for reasons to vote it out. It will not lose to a ‘Me Too’ alternative (barring, I suppose, a complete and utter financial meltdown).

What is needed is an Opposition that opposes, one that tells people bluntly that they were wrong about re-regulating the labour market back at the last election and that they’re really, really wrong now that recession is upon us. And maybe sound like they mean it. And we need one that spells out in detail, and repetitively, that Mr. Rudd is no economic conservative – and why that will make each voter poorer in the long run than he or she would have been under the Coalition. And we need to return to a bit of insouciant scepticism about the 2020 Summit pieties of the day, the truth being largely that tut-tutting on the ABC does not translate into lower poll numbers for a centre-right political party.

And how about a strong commitment to keeping the size of government under control, and to the protection of national sovereignty, and to appointing top judges who believe in democracy and are not in favour of making things up at the point-of-application when they happen to feel their views are morally preferable to those of the elected legislature? (Here’s a quick test for you. Can you imagine Malcolm Turnbull appointing an Ian Callinan or Dyson Heydon to the High Court? Try as I might, I can’t.)

Today’s Coalition seems implicitly, by its post election actions, to have walked away from much of the legacy of a near-on dozen year successful government. Why?

Let me finish by going back to that basic sort of electoral arithmetic or accounting where you at least aim to bring in more voters than you lost with every policy shift. How many readers would bet their mortgage that if the Coalition mirrors Labor on carbon trading, on labour relations, on Ruddite-style internationalist preening, on the best way to improve life for indigenous people, and even hints, sotto voce, at one day mirroring it on the republic, that it can win enough new voters to its side because of its slightly more nuanced takes on the above issues, or by pointing to too close China ties of certain Cabinet ministers, or due to its less stimulatory economic positions?

Who knows? Maybe the Coalition is counting on compulsory voting to help it in a way non-compulsory voting cannot help opposition parties in Canada, the UK or the US. Disenchanted voters, including former supporters, simply stay home on voting day in those countries. In Australia the disenchanted, disgruntled voter still has to vote.

Maybe the Turnbull team is hoping for those disaffected former Howard supporters to hold their noses and vote Coalition? Indeed, that seems as plausible an understanding of what the Coalition strategy is as anything.

Frankly, however, I don’t rate such a passive, defeatist strategy as having much prospect of success.   Heck, when and if I get the franchise I’m far from certain I’ll be voting Coalition if things stay as they are. Better by far, at least in my opinion, is to say what you believe in, defend your moral and political positions, and not worry overmuch that the ABC, Fairfax Press and most of those in the universities are against you. In short, have the courage of your convictions. 

My fear is that what we’re seeing right now isn’t cowardice. It’s that these are the Turnbull convictions.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.

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