Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Magic Pudding Policy

Tony Abbott’s choices for his new shadow cabinet line up have been described as a triumph for climate skeptics. Obviously, hard line climate doubters such as Nick Minchin and Barnaby Joyce have come out as winners, being given important frontline portfolios. Senator Minchin has been made shadow minister for energy and resources, while Senator Joyce has been made shadow minister for finance. Both of these portfolios have a direct and significant impact on climate change policy. But the choices made by Tony Abbott have much wider implications than climate change policy alone.

The new line up has also been described as a sharp turn back to the political right, a return to the Howard era, and a signal that industrial relations reform is back on the table. The mere fact that the reshuffle has seen the return of significant figures from what might be described as the old guard, is in itself enough to inspire comparisons to the Howard era. But it’s not just the personalities that are significant, but the policy ideas that are seen to represent. For example, Kevin Andrews was a central figure in the design of Work Choices, as well as the immigration minister who presided over the Haneef affair. Now he has been given the shadow portfolio of families and community services. Does this mean he has the opportunity to show his more compassionate side, or does it mean we can expect harsher policies for welfare recipients?

On several fronts the new line up could be seen as a throw back to a bygone era with former ministers back on the front bench, more right wing policies, and a more skeptical position on climate change, but it can also be seen in a different light. It can be seen as a return to core Liberal Party principles and a move to make a clear differentiation from the centrist Labor government. And if the support for the Liberal candidates at last weekend’s two by-elections is anything to go by it’s a gamble that might seem to be working. Tony Abbott himself has said that if he wins the next election his front bench choices will seem to be an act of genius, but if he loses he is likely to become political roadkill.

If nothing else, Tony Abbott is a realist in that respect. That’s because he knows the political game as well as or better than anyone else. In the end however, that is also the weakness. Tony Abbott’s choices are more a reflection of politics than of policy. In fact, at the moment there is no policy, just a promise to develop a policy which will appeal to the populist instincts of the electorate. From a political point of view that can be a winning strategy, just so long as nobody has the hide to stand up and reveal that the emperor is wearing no clothes, and that’s only a matter of time.

Right now it appears as if peace has broken out within the coalition parties. But beneath the surface, divisions remain. Tony Abbott’s plan depends upon being able to please both the climate change believers and the skeptics in his own party with a yet to be devised policy which cuts emissions without affecting the economy. Whether you call it a paradox or a magic pudding, it is an illusion which cannot be sustained for any length of time, which is why Tony Abbott may be more likely to go down in history as political roadkill than as a genius.