Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Abbott's answer is blowing with the wind

LAST year, a month before he was catapulted into the Liberal leadership, Tony Abbott spoke to a group at Melbourne University on Aboriginal policy. It was a low time in his life. He was stuck in opposition, in a portfolio he didn't want, while Malcolm Turnbull drove the Liberals in another direction.

Abbott was honest, idealistic and relentlessly pragmatic. He frankly conceded the Howard government's intervention in the Northern Territory would never have solved the malaise of Aboriginal communities. "It was authoritarian. It was top down," he said. "It was based on mainstream Australian rather than Aboriginal values."

But it was essential to try again, to work with people in remote communities to restore some form of authority, to try to end their "permissive paralysis, where anything goes and nothing really happens".

"What we need are people who can make decisions and get things done, and overcome the fear of offending," he said. This meant working to change "the expectations that Aboriginal people have of themselves . . . [to end] this general expectation of a life on welfare".

Since his days as a junior minister, Abbott has crusaded to stop paying Aborigines "sit down money" and start working to equip them to hold jobs in the mainstream economy. One of the best parts of his book Battlelines puts it starkly:

"If the fundamental object of government policy is to preserve Aboriginal culture, it will fail. Only Aboriginal people can do that . . . Government's job is to try to equip Aboriginal people to participate in wider Australian society.

"Under the ideology of self-determination, an exaggerated respect for Aboriginal culture has coexisted with a kind of abandonment of Aboriginal people . . . Building more Aboriginal housing in places where there are no jobs . . . makes people's lives easier in the short term, but, in the long term, traps them in welfare villages."

This was Abbott at his best: direct and honest, sharp brain and generous heart, focused on issues and outcomes, and ready to challenge conventional wisdom to achieve them. But then he became Opposition Leader. And instead of seeing those qualities rising to the top, that Tony Abbott disappeared.

Instead, we now have Abbott the populist, who tells swinging voters whatever they want to hear. Day after day, the man who was such a creative wordsmith now repeats mind-numbing mantras such as "great big new tax". He is now focused solely on winning votes. And to do so, he has dumped policy after policy he supported when he was guided by principle.

Take immigration. Abbott used to go out out of his way to endorse high immigration, the last time in January in Melbourne when he declared: "My instinct is to extend to as many people as possible the freedom and benefits of life in Australia. A larger population will bring that about, provided that it's also a more productive one."

But that was January. By July, Abbott had swung around to become an anti-immigration campaigner, fanning a scare campaign by declaring immigration out of control. He now wants to cut net overseas migration to 170,000 which, taken literally, could mean turning back Australians returning home from overseas jobs, or blocking their partners, or New Zealanders, since all of them come within that cap.

Abbott hinted that he is prepared to restrict the enrolments of foreign students to achieve it. To win votes, a major party leader is suggesting he might reverse the growth of a key Australian export industry. We're in Peron's Argentina here.

The reality is that Chris Evans as Immigration Minister has pushed through a set of reforms to end the rorts of student visas and temporary work visas, but keep the goals of immigration policy constant. Immigration has been well handled. It is not out of control. Julia Gillard, despite some silly rhetoric, has kept her policy options open. Why couldn't Abbott?

Then there's climate change: the most crucial economic reform facing Australia. The only way to tackle it cheaply and effectively is to put a price on carbon so investors and consumers have an incentive to move to low-emission alternatives. Yet Abbott vows "never" to introduce a carbon price and his views on global warming swing around 180 degrees depending on whether he is talking to Alan Jones or Tony Jones.

Get real. Last year was the second-hottest year Australia has recorded. The past decade was the hottest ever recorded, in Australia and globally. This is the kind of issue that defines the courage and integrity of a nation's leaders. Ours fail.

Or take the $24 billion of Coalition "savings" Abbott says will pay for his new spending. Of that, $9 billion would come from scrapping the programs Labor plans to fund from the mining tax. But the Coalition won't get the revenue from the mining tax. And you can't save money you don't get.

There is no grey area here. When you won't receive that $9 billion, to pretend it can be spent on other policies is either a lie or utter incompetence. Whichever it is, how can we trust a leader like that?

The principled Abbott was one of the best and fairest in the game. The populist is not. And his rivals are Gillard, another populist whose key message is that he is worse than she is, or the Greens, a team of dreamers yet to forge their ideals into the steel of pragmatic reforms.

Many of us out here want leaders who are honest, idealistic and relentlessly.