By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra
ONE could be forgiven for overlooking a key feature of this government. Several of its most senior and influential ministers used to be leading “moderates”.
Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne and George Brandis were voices on the Liberals’ left. Yet now they are among the most hardline members of a highly ideological government.
Tony Abbott seems to have fallen into the same trap as Paul Keating in 1993. Keating refused to accept that John Hewson had handed him that win; he insisted on believing it was an endorsement of him and his philosophy.
Like Keating, Abbott triumphed on negatives. But now he and his colleagues think they have a mandate to transform dramatically the society and its culture, going far beyond what people expected.
There’s little sign, however, that the government has the political skills to match its ambition, or that the community shares its often uncompromising, black-and-white view of the world.
The senior one-time moderates have become the true believers, marching under standards on all sorts of battlegrounds.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s tight fistedness is not just the necessary effort to get the budget into good long-term shape but a mission wrapped in rhetoric to crush the “entitlement” mentality.
Attorney-General George Brandis is preoccupied with alleged threats to free speech that have mostly eluded the gaze of Mr and Mrs Average.
Christopher Pyne has found the Education portfolio a modern forum for a warrior from student politics.
But there are a couple of problems in the government’s approach. One is that to get measures operating requires dealing with a Senate that will be, after July 1, as idiosyncratic as they come.
The minor players have flagged they’ll tear strips off the budget. Abbott’s pragmatic side will have to re-emerge if he is to have any hope of getting satisfactory legislative outcomes – and not just on the budget.
The second problem is that the Australian people, aka the voters, are not as extreme as the government is turning out to be.
Allowing the ideologues so much scope is likely to alienate the community.
We have seen people’s reaction to what they regard as the unfairness of the budget. The government hits back with the case of a single mother getting some $55,000 from the taxpayer.
When you want to promote change, the consensus approach can be much more effective than confrontation and demonisation. That was recognised by Bob Hawke, probably the best PM in recent Australian history, who presided over extensive and difficult economic reform.
But reaching out is not something that appeals to this bunkered down, them-and-us government.
It has a strong majority and is more than two years from an election but always feels it has to give Labor another kick.
The minor players are vital to it but Senate leader Eric Abetz this week called Christine Milne “two faced”, saying he was being polite, and Hockey put down “professor Palmer” in question time.
It has a parliament where the Speaker is encouraged to be barracker rather than referee.
In little things it is mean spirited. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison somehow missed cutting some funding to the Refugee Council of Australia in the budget; now he’s gone back to hack it. The dollars were small – why would you bother?
The government needs to put aside its superiority complex. If it doesn’t quickly learn some humility, acquire a touch of self-doubt, and have a political otolaryngologist repair its tin ear, it might end up transforming almost nothing, rather than changing virtually everything.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.