Wednesday, September 2, 2015
But that's not the game Tony Abbott is playing.
He doesn't want agreement, he wants disagreement, but with the government on the majority side and its opponents on the minority side. That way, you get re-elected and maybe, as a bonus, there's some benefit to the country.
Pretty bad? Here's the worst part of my early-hours revelation: the other side's no better.
This is the way both sides have been playing the political game for years. It's just more obvious now because Abbott doesn't play it with as much finesse as his predecessors.
In Canberra, the game is known as "wedging", but is better described as "wedge and block". Whoever's in government thinks of issues acceptable to their side – and popular with voters – but inconsistent with the other side's values and thus likely to divide it. Ideally, the others oppose you and so get themselves offside with most voters.
Failing that, the pragmatists on the other side – who see perfectly what you're up to – reluctantly go along with you, but a more principled minority don't, so you've sown dissent among your opponents. Always a bad look to the electorate.
If the practitioners of expedience get their way without noticeable demur from the keepers of party principle, the wedge has been successfully blocked and you have to go away and think up another one.
How do you come up with a good wedge issue? You consult those polls that regularly ask voters which party is better at handling particular issues. Study these results and you find voters have highly stereotypical views about the parties' strengths and weaknesses.
The Liberals are better at what you'd expect a penny-pinching bosses' party to be better at: managing the economy, fighting inflation, keeping taxes and interest rates low and controlling the budget. And, of course, keeping the country safe from threats to our security.
Labor, on the other hand, is better at what you'd expect a big-spending workers' party to be better at: unemployment, social security, health, education, the environment and industrial relations.
In the months leading up to an election, each side manoeuvres to establish as key election issues problems the voters regard them as better at dealing with. They try to neutralise – block – those issues the other side is pushing that would leave them at a disadvantage.
The sainted Julia Gillard wasn't too saintly to use her two most popular (and expensive) measures to try to wedge Abbott at the 2013 election.
She proposed a 0.5 percentage point increase in the Medicare levy to help pay for the national disability insurance scheme, hoping Abbott would object and so could be accused of opposing greater assistance to the disabled.
She delayed the Gonski reforms to school finding, hoping Abbott would defend private schools and she could make it a key election issue.
Abbott blocked both wedges. He quietly agreed to the tax increase which, becoming uncontentious, was never mentioned again. On the Gonski reforms he belatedly professed to be on a "unity ticket" with Labor. But the delay meant many Liberal state governments declined to sign up to the scheme so close to an election.
Abbott's efforts to wedge Labor have come thick and fast in recent days. He asked President Obama to ask us to join in the US bombing of Syria because he was hoping Labor would object to such an ill-judged move. It didn't.
In another effort to increase public concerns about national security, he propose stripping certain Australians of their citizenship, hoping Labor would object and so allow him to accuse it of being "soft on terrorists". It didn't.
Abbott is anxious to portray his government as big on "jobs and growth". He cooked up a story about greenies using the law to block a new coal mine in Queensland and proposed amending the federal environment protection act to counter "green sabotage", hoping Labor would object and he could accuse it of putting the environment ahead of jobs.
As became clear at last week's reform summit, there's now widespread agreement that superannuation tax concessions to high-income earners are too generous and need to be cut back, with big savings to the budget.
Earlier this year, Joe Hockey had Treasury working on super changes when Labor announced it would take such a policy to the election. Abbott immediately embarrassed Hockey by insisting the government would countenance no changes to super or any other tax concessions.
Labor may stand for higher taxes, he told us, but the Libs stood for lower taxes. He made it clear last week that, come hell or high water, the government would go into next year's election promising tax cuts.
Great wedge. One small problem: all Labor has to do to block it is promise to match it – just as it did when John Howard tried the same thing at the 2007 election.
Bad policy, but what of it?
If you wonder why our politicians don't seem interested in good government, their addiction to playing the wedge-and-block game explains a lot.