Leaks, ‘policy paralysis’ and double standards

At a certain point you realise we should probably stop laughing: this is serious.


The Abbott government has descended into farce levels at such a speed that you have to look at your calendar just to remind yourself it has been in power for just 2 years – a time during which previous government have been in such a honeymoon period that they have gone to an early election to capitalise on their popularity.  

There’s an old saying in parliament that “your best day in opposition is still not as good as your worst day in government”. After two years of many seemingly “worst days” members of the government are certainly testing out that theory.

Last week once again saw Tony Abbott read the riot act to cabinet ministers abut leaking. He told them there would be consequences. The government’s talking points for the week were then promptly leaked, including the line that “our cabinet is functioning exceptionally well”.

New talking points were then leaked on Thursday as well, just to make sure everyone knows there are deep ructions in the government. 

There’s little more fun for a journalist as letting everyone know that they have received a leak about not leaking, but it is also desperately sad. This is our federal government; things should be run better than this.

And yet, we know this is probably as good as it gets.

Tony Abbott lacking any terrorism/national security announcement during which he gets to play at being Prime Minister – or at least the version of Prime Minister that fits his vision of what being Prime Ministerial means – is reduced to finding something else to attack. And this week the target was environmental groups.

The government is seeking to change the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act to disallow third party groups from launching legal challenges to environmental decisions. It was a provision introduced by the Howard government; there is little evidence of it being abused, and the former Attorney General, Phillip Ruddock suggested there was no real need to change it.

When Phillip Ruddock is telling you your laws have gone too far, that’s probably a good time to step back and ponder your actions.

If that wasn’t enough, the Federal Court issued a statement explaining that the current court actions regarding the Carmichael coal mine project were due to an error by Environment Minister Greg Hunt in administering the act, not due to vexatious litigation.

Thus the whole decision to change the act smacks of needing to find something to wedge the ALP, rather than coherent policy.

The only problem is, the ALP is not too worried about being seen to support laws brought in by the Howard government to assist environmental claims.

John Howard may be viewed as a lot of things, but tree-hugging greenie ain’t one of them.

It also shows once again how little policy nous is present in this government.

The line that the law needs to be changed to stop greenies preventing development occurring might make some sort of logical sense if the government wasn’t also doing all it could to ensure that anti-green groups are able to stop the development of wind farms.

Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott have both kowtowed to Alan Jones on the topic, making it clear how much they hate the sight of wind created energy. The Prime Minister went so far as to say that he “would frankly have liked to reduce the number [of wind farms] a lot more”.

The government even held a Senate review into wind turbine noise and has vowed to appoint a wind commissioner.  

Some green tape, it would seem, is good; and some development is bad.

The media are now for the most part in death-watch mode.

Unlike with Gillard it’s not a case of having a single challenger backgrounding against the PM. Here it is a case of pretty much anyone slowly walking down the halls of parliament house being considered a worthy replacement given the complete inability of leadership being exhibited by Tony Abbott.

At the start of the year all the leaking was about Peta Credlin – done in a rather pathetic attempt to saddle her with all the blame. Now no one is bothering to target her: openly defying Tony Abbott is the name of the game now.

This week Tony Abbott’s main duty in Question Time was to defend Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon in the face of pretty weak defence by Heydon himself – that he had “overlooked the connection” between the organisers of the Sir Garfield Barwick lecture and the Liberal party.

But what comes across most strongly is not that Abbott is adopting a poor political strategy – for really there isn’t much else he can do than defend Heydon – but that Abbott’s defence of Heydon is weightless.

The Prime Minister’s word carries no heft – so limp was his response he needed to resort to telling Labor MPs that it was “a criminal offence to attack a serving royal commissioner”.

The Royal Commission was set up to be a political attack, and that the political fix is now being put under a harsh light is not only poetic justice – it also reveals that when the political construct of the Prime Minister’s position is revealed, so is the absence of any other reason for his government.

Tony Abbott is perhaps the purest political animal in parliament. Liberal MPs stuck with him not because of any great policy drive but because they believed his political smarts would get them into power. So inept was the ALP, Abbott succeeded, but now the Liberal Party can’t even depend on the ALP’s lack of ability to be enough to get them over the line.

At the start of the week Senator Michaela Cash on Sky News tried to get the focus on the policies. She told Sky’s David Speers that “You may not like us as individuals, but look at the policies.”

It is never a good sign when a government takes that line.

Campbell Newman tried it in Queensland once it became clear he was on the nose. The LNP was flogged at the following election.

Paul Keating in the last part of his final term held the view that voters might think him a bastard but he was a bastard who got the mail delivered and the people respected that. The ALP went to the 1996 election essentially pitching, as Don Watson tells it, the line “You might want to punish Keating, but don’t punish yourselves” .

The ALP was flogged at the following election.

I make no predictions that the Liberal Party will be flogged at the next election, but it is getting harder to see the Liberal Party sticking with Tony Abbott till then to find out if history will repeat itself. 

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.