When the politics of ‘no’ go wrong

POLITICAL negativity has worked for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, but it has backfired badly for his conservative colleagues.

Pressure from supporters of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) forced NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu into an embarrassing backdown as they attempted to play Abbott-style negative politics with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

There is a simple difference. The premiers are not in opposition. Their decisions and actions actually make a difference in the lives of each of the citizens in their jurisdiction. It was a victory for people with a disability, a victory for commonsense and a political victory for the Prime Minister.

The decision to join the ACT and other Labor jurisdictions in jointly funding pilot schemes for the NDIS is a great victory for people with disabilities and their carers. In addition to Federal money, there will now be expenditure of an additional $40 million by the government in Victoria and around $35 million in NSW. This will provide an additional $20,779 each year for each adult involved in the trials.

More importantly, it is really the first time a government has taken such a momentous step in social responsibility since the introduction in 1975 of Medicare (then called Medibank) by the Whitlam Government.

The commencement of the NDIS is a victory for common sense. For Australians who believe in a “fair go”, it is obvious that people in our community who are living with a disability are those who largely have Buckley’s chance of getting a “fair go”. That’s simply un-Australian!

The 2011 report of the Productivity Commission set a blueprint on what needed to be done regarding people with disabilities.
In the initial instance, it was one of the few areas that Abbott identified for a bi-partisan approach. It is a pity he did not share his political insight with his conservative colleagues in the biggest States.

Getting the major States to retreat from their initial stance was a key political victory for Gillard.

Baillieu was busy backing down and attempting to regain his political composure, arguing it was “unbecoming” and “false” to doubt Victoria’s commitment to people with disabilities.

He argued: “I’ve never sought to elevate the rhetoric around this. I’ve sought to work with people with a disability. I’ve sought to work with the Commonwealth, as has Barry O’Farrell.”

Actions, not rhetoric, are what counts! Why am I reminded of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”?
This backdown by the two major States is a much-needed victory for the Prime Minister. Only a few weeks ago on the ABC’s “Q&A” she was being undermined by Government whip, Joel Fitzgibbon. She hardly needed to have him fuel a renewal of leadership speculation by saying leaders who “remain unpopular long enough” inevitably lose the top job.

Gillard’s firm stance on this significant issue provides some foundation for re-establishing her authority. It also sows the seed for a popular understanding about negativity in politics. Negativity might work in opposition, but it certainly does not work when it is time to shoulder the responsibility of government. In government, what would Abbott really stand for? Hopefully, this is a question that will be answered effectively before the election. The conservatives argue that they have a full set of policies which will be launched by then; for now they will just continue to attack the Government.

There is a long way to go before the next Federal election. The safest money has the odds supporting Abbott and a coalition government. However, more of this sort of Prime Ministerial leadership and success, combined with greater understanding in the community of what will actually happen if the conservatives come to power, will certainly narrow the margin between the contenders.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.

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