What do you do after six years out of power when the government you replaced brought in policies that had very bad consequences. I refer to dismantling a boat-person regime that worked, and worked well, to replace it with hand-wringing and not much of anything. And I refer to a world-highest carbon tax that is lowering the world’s output of carbon dioxide by, well, close to a statistical zero and the temperature by the same sort of thing. Close to zip.
It would seem that Australia divides into those on the one hand who think that by having this sort of carbon dioxide scheme that we will set ourselves up as a moral exemplar and ultimately alter the rest of the world’s conduct – they will look at our selfless moves to up the price of power and drive industry off-shore and they will follow suit. And on the other hand there are those, like me, who think that is all nonsense — that our carbon tax will be ignored outright in China and the US and many other places, and paid only lip-service even in the European Union.
Take your pick, because our carbon tax makes no sense on any basis other than the ‘we are showing the world the way’ as a sort of moral exemplar. So what do you do if you’re a new government saddled with one?
And then there is the high spending and rather massively increased public spending and deficit that was inherited from the former government. Oh, and those spending pledges on education. And the need to do something about existing inroads on free speech. And more besides.
So the question is: Do you come out swinging and take on issue after issue or do you opt for a sort of ‘slowly, slowly’ approach where you try to establish your core competence and then after that take on these issues?
Many might be tempted by the latter approach. But I’m not so sure. You see it’s precisely that latter approach for which the Stephen Harper Conservative government in Canada opted. Mr. Harper first won two minority governments, in 2006 and 2008 (which, to be fair, gave him little choice other than the ‘slowly, slowly’ option), before winning a majority in the last Canadian election in 2011.
But his government is now languishing at very low levels of support, in the mid-twenties percentiles. And a good deal of that lack of support comes from the right of politics — his former supporters, in other words. Many, many, many of his natural supporters think that after seven years in power he really hasn’t accomplished anything much that those on the centre-right of politics expect.
Take the deficit and debt. It’s not been any source of pride under Harper. Sure, he governed through the GFC. But no one could accuse this government of being a ‘small government’ government. No one. Yes, the Tories are on track finally to eliminate the deficit, maybe next year. But is that really why you elect a Tory government three times? So that after 7 years it can finally get rid of the deficit? (We won’t talk about the debt. There is not much hope on that front.)
And of course this is the Stephen Harper who tried to shrug off the regular and sometimes vitriolic attacks from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (sound familiar?) by continuing to increase its funding year after year. Until recently, when the government finally cut the CBC budget by 10% (still leaving it miles ahead of where it was when the Tories took office). All that did was bring out of the woods the chardonnay-sipping metropolitan elites who now paint him as the PM who is taking down Canadian civilization as we know it.
But they rather thought that anyway. Trying to appease this group in some sort of ‘let’s all be reasonable adults’ sort of way simply didn’t – and doesn’t – work. This is a group with an entrenched and unbending hostility to anything going against their own smugly held moral convictions. They always hated and and always will hate Harper, just as their Australian counterparts always will hate Abbott.
Mr. Abbott should move immediately to force some modicum of even-handedness on their ABC. That means two hosts per big political show, with one clearly from each side of politics. And the PM should also consider privatisation. I don’t really care what the ABC might broadcast if it were spending its own money. But it’s not. It’s spending my money. I object to Mr. Scott’s huge, $700,000+ salary. I object to the total lack of any top program hosts – not even a single one — with any right-of-centre genealogy. They all come from the left of the political spectrum. And I think Mr. Abbott will be making a mistake if he doesn’t take this issue on soon.
But back to Canada. Did Mr. Harper take on the Canadian top judges, who are amongst the world’s most activist in over-ruling the elected legislature? Did he appoint a single Supreme Court of Canada judge who was interpretively conservative or who saw the written constitution as anything other than a ‘living tree’ whose meaning could be changed by judicial fiat at any point in time the judges thought fit? No, not a single one. In fact all of the Supreme Court of Canada appointments made by Harper since he took office, all of them, could have been made by the left-of-centre Liberal Party. Hmm, not much to like there. (That said, the former Howard government went off the rails on this front too towards the end of its time in office.)
OK, Canada’s Mr. Harper has been good on foreign policy, very good. And he did stand up to the green extremists and rule out any sort of expensive carbon dioxide scheme.
But to be honest, from an Australian perspective (and I say this with sadness as a native-born Canadian presently on sabbatical over here), in many ways the Harper government has been to the left of Australia’s Labor Party, at least if we ignore the awful, Labor monstrosity propped up by the Greens that ran from 2010.
So in Canada ‘slowly slowly’ has to too great a degree meant ‘not at all’. It’s a strategy that’s been found wanting. The politicians I like are the ones who go into politics to do things. You don’t go into the game just to win a few elections and leave things pretty much as you found them, at least not if you came in thinking things needed changing. And I’m assuming that Mr. Abbott does think things need changing on the free speech front, on immigration and boat people, on the carbon tax.
So we all understand the need to get laws passed and to work with a recalcitrant Senate. But we also want to see commitment – and to things other than big-spending day care and Gonski plans. We want to see a commitment to do things that may prove difficult.
Mr. Harper entered politics in Canada as one of the most committed small government adherents in 75 or more years. He has manifestly fallen short on that front, on what he said motivated him to enter politics. He has fallen short on the ‘improving democratic input’ front too. (Indeed the unelected Senate in Canada, the Upper House Mr. Harper at one point in his life wanted disestablished, is ironically causing him untold troubles at present because some of the hacks he appointed – and all the unelected Senators in Canada are by definition really just hacks – have been playing fast and loose with their expense claims.)
If anything, there are grounds for being sceptical of the ‘slowly, slowly’ Harper approach, at least as a global tactic. I think that you ultimately end up being captured too much by the status quo you hope one day to change. Who knows?
But it’s a lesson worth pondering, Mr. Abbott.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, now on sabbatical at Osgoode Hall law school, Toronto