Coalition cracks show as populism reigns

Posted on August 8, 2010


IT’S an odd thing to say amid one of the most boring, substance-free elections in Australian history, but we’re on the verge of something extraordinary. Tony Abbott has a very strong chance of becoming prime minister, having run the most invisible campaign in living memory. Abbott is not even really playing small-target politics at the moment. He’s playing no-target politics. It’s not “me too”. The government isn’t popular enough for that. It’s just “look at them”.

He can do this because Labor’s campaign – in both its real and fake editions – is doing the work for him. The fact that the government now plays Kevin Rudd as its trump card (the same man who was so toxic six weeks ago that he had to be sacked) illustrates how deep the hole is. Especially when you consider that Rudd sounds more impressive than any of the leaders on offer. Both Gillards included.

But hereabouts things get tricky for the Coalition. Its campaign has Abbott hiding not just from the public, but from himself. For now, it’s fine. Good polling covers a multitude of sins, but let this not conceal that the Coalition is scarcely in gleaming condition. It is ideologically divided and, like Labor, has resorted to populism and the kind of policy inconsistency it could come to regret.

The cracks are just beginning to show. On Friday we learned that if the Coalition wins government, several Coalition MPs, including a Liberal frontbencher, are planning to fight Abbott introducing the parental leave scheme he was trumpeting so boldly this past week. The Nationals are against it, and the policy represents a seismic shift from the Liberal Party’s free-market philosophy.

The Business Council of Australia has slammed it as “policy on the run” and it is now causing consternation in safe Liberal seats.

Meanwhile, the Coalition has been driving the sustainable population bandwagon, conveniently forgetting that since the 1990s it has supported mass immigration on economic grounds. As recently as January, Abbott was telling us that “a higher population has been consistent with a better life for most people”.

Either much has changed in the past few months, or the Coalition is every bit as poll driven as Labor. Hence the policy confusion. Why does the Coalition want to tax the biggest companies to fund parental leave when these are the very businesses that already provide parental leave to their employees? Does it believe that a growing population generates productivity and growth, or not?

If so, why is such an economically minded party pushing for a smaller population? If not, why is it so in favour of the baby bonus, which is basically paying Australians to have children? And why does it say its parental leave scheme is good because it will boost population?

Such contradictions can survive an election campaign as vacuous as this one. But Abbott cannot sustain them for long once in government. By then, invisibility will no longer be an option and one truth will remain: incoherent, poll-driven politics is like Mel Gibson – seductive but dangerous. It seems neither party can resist.

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