The New Opposition

Monday, 2 November 2009 

I’m not the Government, Tony. I’m here to hold the Government to account.

Tony Abbott on Lateline 27 October 2009

A few weeks ago on Q&A, Chris Pyne was giving his usual battered performance, when he suddenly got a laugh out of the audience by reminding Albanese that since they were in government, it was up to them to sort the asylum seeker problem out. It could be a good tactic against a government that has always been more about a political strategy than a programme. So good in fact, that the Liberals have hung onto it like grim death throughout the asylum debate ever since.

No doubt the Liberals have told themselves that they need to try and not make themselves the issue, but keep attention focussed on the government. More importantly, avoiding giving an alternative in the asylum debate allows the Liberals to keep pretending that going back to Howard’s policies might be an option, when in fact it is not. However, in the case of the asylum debate, while it may help the Liberals wriggle out of a tricky position, it doesn’t do much against the government.

The media are still talking as though this is a political crisis for the government and still missing the politics of why it is not. The political issue is not whether the influx of refugees boats is under control or not, but whether the government is held accountable for it. Everyone keeps saying how the focus shouldn’t be on the few asylum seekers coming by boat compared to the far greater numbers by plane, but nobody explains why it is. It is because those coming by boat directly challenge the myth that Australia can decide who approaches its borders.

The political importance of Rudd’s Indonesian solution that has been missed is that it has turned the debate away from what the government should be doing about refugee boats to what the region should be doing about it. Continuing Howard’s pretence that “we decide” who approaches our shores was not sustainable. Now the issue is seen not purely as a government failing but a problem between the Indonesian government and the provincial government etc. etc. This is what gives the government its ‘patience’ – it has lowered expectations about what it can do and is under no political pressure to act.

Least of all from the Coalition. In following the media in its U-turn over the last fortnight the Coalition has ended up in a totally contradictory position. On one hand it is saying the 78 refugees on the Oceanic Viking are the government’s responsibility, while at the same time arguing that of course they are not Australia’s responsibility and should not be entitled to come here. In fact, the more they play up the treatment of refugees, the more it undermines the validity of their hard line when they were in office. You could see Abbott appreciating this on Q&A this week when he tagged along with the audience’s disquiet over those on board the Oceanic Viking, but in doing so left himself so exposed on the Howard government’s own record that even Bill Shorten could slap him down at the end.

With the Coalition all over the place on the asylum issue, it has brought out a discernable shift between the role of the media and the parliamentary opposition. The Coalition’s “we are not the government” tactic, and its refusal to put down an alternative, has left it trailing a media through its twists and turns as it searches for a morality tale. Because if the Coalition’s role is, as Tony Abbott says, not to provide alternative policy, but merely hold the government to account, can’t the media do that?

In fact, very much on the asylum issue, the media thinks it can. Having decided that in the first few weeks that the issue is not that the government is not tough enough but perhaps too tough, it has led the way and created a ‘political crisis’ for the government without actual political pressure from any politicians. On Insiders, Paul Kelly and the journalists talk about the government walking a fine line between powerful political forces without describing what they are.

Favourable comparisons have been made between the state of the Coalition and the ‘discipline’ within the Labor caucus on the issue. But that is just a flattering word for the political defeat of the Labor left, summed up, as the press has finally noticed, by the prominent role the leaders of the left have taken in this government and supporting its policies. In fact, it would be advantageous for Labor if there had been some speaking up from the left, so it could play its historic role in getting everyone to think about what Labor could be rather than what it actually is. So just in case we don’t get the message, helpful reporters like Chris Uhlmann take up the cause to fill the gap left by the political class.

The Labor left had their defeat during the last Labor government, whereas the Coalition’s right were flattered during theirs – so they still think they have a future. What was striking about Nick Minchin’s recent warning that the Coalition could reject the ETS amendments, even if the government agreed to them, is not that he made the comment but why he thought he had to. It was always clear that Turnbull had to return any amendments to the party room and why would that be if not that they still had to be agreed? Minchin did it because, like Joyce, he needs to keep making it a public issue to create a constituency that clearly is not already present.

As the right’s struggle for the party’s ‘soul’ comes not from its natural business constituency but its own justification for existence, it is an ideological fight and again, the media plays a critical role. So what we have are not only the right-wing cultural warriors taking on the serious task of forging a new right (usually using climate change), but even getting involved in the minutiae of internal party debates to encourage them along. This seems less a media role of reporting political developments, than making them. In fact, so enthusiastic they seem about it, and so disparaging are they of the Coalition’s efforts so far, why don’t they just cut out the middle-men?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 2 November 2009.

Filed under Media analysis, Tactics

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3 responses to “The New Opposition”

  1. Steve 1 on 4th November 2009 3:20 pm

    To see the glee on Turnbull’s face when he was asked about the Newspoll was astonishing. Basically, all the Libs have is racism and Turnbull is willing to give up everything he has believed in just to grab that last straw. So at the next election, it appears the Libs will campaign against the ETS to try and retain their core constituency and border protectionon to shake the tree. Not things you would have expected a Turnbull led Liberal Party to pursue

  2. hannah on 5th November 2009 11:27 am

    If this is not a political watershed (if not crisis just yet) for the Labor Govt, why did Rudd go running around doing multiple interviews explaining or attempting to the govt’s position and why is he down in the polls due to this issue. Lefties may want to think illegal immigration is now a non issue. They are wrong.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 5th November 2009 6:56 pm

    I don’t think it is a left-right issue.

    If it was just about Rudd being seen to be soft on asylum seekers, then Colin Barnett must have made a political death wish by wanting Australia to take responsibility and bring the Oceanic Viking back to be processed here.

    You would also think there would be more support for Rudd being ‘tough’ by refusing to bring them back.

    The issue I see it is not ‘tough’ (right) or ‘humane’ (left), but in control. Rudd’s media blitz shows how sensitive they are to looking in control. That has always been the issue here.

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