Dr No

I never really bought into the 'relentless negativity' narrative when it was truly in vogue last year. Certainly Coalition policy was thin on the ground and there were a lot of attacks on the government being launched. In the year after an election, though, that's essentially par for the Opposition course. My objection to Tony Abbott's conduct last year was not that it was negative but that it was just dumb. "The carbon tax will create perverse incentives for companies, be regressive and largely ineffective" is not really less negative than "great big new tax"; the former is clearly a much more helpful contribution to policy discourse.

Recently, though, Abbott and several of his front-benchers have moved into a zone that really is pointlessly destructive and ridiculous. It's one thing to criticise, even in a stupid and irritating way, a policy which you actually oppose (well, currently oppose, at least.) It's a different thing altogether to criticise any policy or any action just because of its origins. This is the hatred-driven kind of thinking that's behind Republican hatred of Barack Obama's health reforms. It's intellectually incoherent and politically pathetic.

I think that there are two kinds of (proper) criticisms that can be levied at a government. First, to be negative about a policy, which is at heart what the numbing mantras of 'stop the boats' and 'great big new tax' are. Second, to be critical of a government in a more broad and existential sense: "knee-deep in dishonour"-style.

Let's pause for a moment. Keep in mind that these two criticisms are distinct. One is about the set of appropriate policies. One is about the set of appropriate administrators. Each can exist without the other: I could think that the Howard government ran a close-to-optimum set of policies, but was made up of immoral or otherwise objectionable people who I don't want to be in charge of the country. Equally, I could think the Obama administration is full of upstanding and reputable people who are exactly the type of officials who should lead the US, but that they are implementing largely terrible policy.

Obviously it is possible to present both charges against the same government. They remain, however, distinct.

Why is this important? Well, because it should mean that the assessment of a policy is more or less independent of the assessment of the government's general competence and character. So the Coalition, whilst maintaining that the Labor government is bad and should be voted out, should still support a policy which it thinks is good. Its own policy, for instance:
LEIGH SALES: If Labor puts up a package, that is what you've asked, they drop Malaysia, they embrace Nauru and TVPs, do you guarantee that the Coalition will support it?
SCOTT MORRISON: None of that has happened, Leigh. None of that has happened.
 It is true that none of that had happened. That doesn't strike me as a good reason for Scott Morrison to refuse to endorse his own policy.
LEIGH SALES: But if you can't even agree that you would support your own policy if they put it to you, then, you know, where are we?
Firmly in the realm of political satire. In fairness, the Opposition did try to present a justification for turning on what was effectively its own policy as soon as the government adopted it:
"this government has become incapable, I think, of delivering any solution because they have lost all credibility on this issue"
Come on now. Either the policy works or it does not. The identity of the Prime Minister has no impact on the way immigration and navy officials deal with asylum claims and boat arrivals. But let's accept for a moment that government credibility is an actual factor, which is at least vaguely believable for refugee policy. Credibility doesn't exist in a vacuum - presumably the government "lost all credibility" because it implemented bad policies, and the Opposition intends to establish its credibility by implementing better ones. There might be some marginal difference between 'credibility' that springs from the consistency of their party positions - but the bulk of that credibility must come from the seriousness and effective, no-exceptions implementation of a policy. In other words, a large part of the reason the government lacks the credibility Morrison so idolises is that his party won't let it establish a cogent policy.

The second example is on a related issue. The notorious Captain Emad was named as a people smuggler by Four Corners and shortly afterwards left the country; he was identified by customs and AFP officials (and their computers - important for derision below) at the airport but not detained. At this point Tony Abbott intervened:
There is something wrong with our system – I don't blame the police, I do blame the government. It is the government that is responsible for this problem, it is the government which created it, it's the government which has failed to fix it. I think it's very hard to take our government seriously when a computer can catch these guys but the government can't.
This quote is a masterful example of pronoun use: "something" morphs into "this problem" which is subsequently stood in for by two "it"s, all without ever having to go through the tiresome step of saying what this problem might actually be. But back up! The reason Captain Emad wasn't detained was that the officials lacked sufficient evidence. It's hard to see how anything the government did could have affected the ability of police to gather evidence. Logic then tells us that "this problem" must be the rules of evidence and the minimum thresholds for prosecution. Either Tony Abbott is proposing a radical overhaul of what rule of law means in Australia, or he is saying incoherent things with a view to blaming the government for literally anything in the country that seems to be going even slightly wrong.

That's not all. Craig Emerson singing was pretty stupid, let's be clear - he made a fool of himself and probably quite seriously misjudged the state of public sentiment on the carbon tax. That political error, though, was about the extent of it. To hear the Coalition talking about it you would be forgiven for thinking this was the most egregious moral offence in the nation's living memory. It was a dumb stunt, but hello? A dumb stunt is not indicative of a deep ethical failing in the government, at least within any existing understanding of what politics is about. Either the Opposition want to reshape the face of parliamentary politics, or they are portraying any perceived slip as a fresh catastrophe in the interests of destroying a government for their own ends.

Or take this, from a little while back. GDP figures were released; Australia's numbers surprised basically everyone. Joe Hockey:
Imagine how well our country could do if we had a good government.
Sure, Joe, but if economic performance is no longer a way we can tell whether a government is good, then what's to stop me levelling that same charge at your beloved Howard years? Imagine how well that enormous boom could have gone, if only we'd had a good government... It writes itself.

I posed a couple of either/ors earlier, and I wanted to say 'place your bets'. But nobody sensible would offer you a market:
the problem now is just not their policies and what they do, it's them themselves.
That's Scott Morrison again, and it reveals just how shameless the Coalition is right now. Not just their policies - not a criticism of the first kind. Not what they do - so not the second kind. By this measure, if the Labor government adopted all of Tony Abbott's policies and administered all aspects of government directly at his command, they would still be no good. Simply because they are themselves.

That is negativity, to the point of absurdity, and it doesn't help anyone.


  1. Interesting that you think the relentless negativity is "intellectually coherent".

  2. Ha, typo. But I don't think negativity is necessarily incoherent. As I sort of pointed out, the reason I wrote this was that I -don't- think negativity is necessarily incoherent but that recently the Coalition has gone in that direction. There's nothing incoherent about saying there's a great big new tax destroying the econoy - coherence is a different test to correctness...


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