24/07/2015 - 06:01

Absence of leadership at federal level

24/07/2015 - 06:01


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Political parties’ focus on the polls, and winning power for its own sake, have led to an absence of mature policy debate in Australia.

BLOW: The government’s marginalisation of the wind industry has some doubting Tony Abbott’s leadership credentials.

It's becoming clearer by the day that, with the Australian economy under severe strain, there is a leadership vacuum at the federal level. Neither Prime Minister Tony Abbott nor opposition leader Bill Shorten is cutting the mustard.

That presents a serious problem.

When the nation is desperately in need of a statement showing a clear vision for the years ahead, Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten only seem to be able to see as far as the next opinion poll.

The malaise places a question mark not only over the leaders, but the roles of the two major parties. A measure of their decline is the rise of the Greens, which has a strategy to win votes but no responsible plan for government. How has this been allowed to happen?

From the government's side, it appeared that Mr Abbott had learned from his near-death experience in February when he was challenged in the Liberal party room. For a time there was less combativeness and he appeared to focus on the big picture.

But that has evaporated. There was no better example than his confrontation with the ABC over the controversial Q&A program involving Zaky Mallah, who had served time in jail for threatening Asio officers.

The prime minister went in boots and all, seeing the ABC's mishandling of the issue as an opportunity to settle some old scores with the national broadcaster. After gaining a back down, which should have been chalked up as a win by the PM, Mr Abbott wanted more. The ban on ministers appearing on the program was clearly over-reach.

The discussion on Q&A can be extremely productive, but it's not everybody's cup of tea. When one of the guests is promoted as a 'Melbourne comedian' or a 'Sydney atheist', it's clear the discussion is likely to get a bit quirky. Some call it entertainment, while others see it as simply sludge.

Mr Abbott bags the work of the 'lefties' in the ABC. However the national broadcaster is a multi-headed organisation. I worked in the Perth office of the ABC

for 20 years, equally divided between the radio and news divisions. In radio there is a contest of ideas. The goal is to be even-handed; never easy, of course. ABC news is pure gold.

Is the ABC perfect? Certainly not. But Mr Abbott's decision to prolong the dispute was clearly politically driven.

Then there was the decision to sideline government support for new wind turbines for power generation, apparently initiated by Mr Abbott's negative impression when he saw the wind turbine at Rottnest Island some years ago. Spare me.

No wonder public approval of his leadership – or lack of it – is lagging.

This should give Labor an ideal opportunity; but Mr Shorten hasn't been up to the job. Of course the trap set by the prime minister in the form of a royal commission into various trade union activities hasn't helped, but it does reveal something about the opposition leader's limited background experience.

From his early days in the labour movement, with the Australian Workers' Union in Victoria, Mr Shorten was identified as a to watch. But he was a different sort of an AWU man. Not the Clyde Cameron or Mick Young

type of official who came up through the shearing shed. Mr Shorten was the recipient of a scholarship to Melbourne's exclusive Xavier College.

He graduated in law and worked in various Labor ministers' offices before a brief career as a lawyer. Then it was in to the AWU, first as Victorian secretary and then national secretary, before being elected a federal MP in 2007.

During his time with the AWU he came to Perth unannounced to address a protest rally organised by the Police Union at Parliament House during the term of the Carpenter Labor government. Alan Carpenter was far from impressed.

Earlier I had met Mr Shorten at a dinner organised by former Labor premier Brian Burke, attended by some political journalists and various Burke acolytes. Naturally enough he was a figure of interest. But in politics, there is no substitute for experience – and his is limited.

Mr Abbott is from a similar mould. During a brief journalistic career with The Bulletin magazine in 1987, he wrote a glowing account of Mr Burke while premier, noting he found Mr Burke "likable, plausible and credible" and that "a lot of people in the party believe he should be the next federal leader".

Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten have brought plenty of energy and cunning into politics, but where are the goals for Australia's future? Where's the consistent narrative? Too many MPs in safe seats similarly lack the necessary employment experience to develop a clear idea of reforms needed for future growth.

Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten still have time to lift their games; otherwise it will be a race to the bottom.


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