Some months ago I wrote an essay suggesting that when we had a new government the new Prime Minister might depart from what seemed to have become the norm, and ignore the 24-hour news cycle. I had become bored with the incessant appearance of Ms Gillard on the evening news, opening this, wearing a fluorescent vest to that, attending the funeral of a soldier — and telling us at much the same time that her business lay in running the government.
This was not a partisan reaction. I had felt exactly the same when the news carried footage of Mr Howard on his morning run, and no less bored with Mr Rudd monopolising the media. In my view the government does not need to be in the news every day, and there does not need to have to be an ‘announceable’ every day from every portfolio. Government isn’t, mainly, about doing new things; it is about doing the present things more efficiently and more effectively.
Above all, government is not entertainment, and when it has become so the business of government is cheapened. For most people, most of the time, what our government is doing is likely to be in the background of our lives, not in the foreground. It is not necessary for the government to be telling us all the time what it is doing and why it is doing it. I would accept that there will be a difference between Labor and Coalition governments here, in that Labor governments are interested in showing how good they are at attending to ‘needs’, while Coalition governments are more interested in order and budget rectitude: from a media perspective, Labor governments are just more interesting.
I have to report that it seems that Mr Abbott and his crew are pursuing the path I thought would be the right one. I have also to say that I am unaware that any of them realised what wisdom I had put forward in my essay in March. My guess is that they are doing what they are doing because they too were sick of the incessant politicisation of the news. And one consequence is that the Opposition doesn’t quite know what to do. If the Prime Minister is not on the news saying something, then there is nothing for the Leader of the Opposition to say in response. Oppositions don’t have much in the way of news or policy to offer: they are there to oppose.
It will be different when Parliament meets in a couple of weeks, but even then much of the first week will be occupied in formal business to do with the beginning of the 44th Australian Parliament. Then there may (or may not) be the first reading of the Carbon Tax Repeal Bill, or whatever it will be called. But unless something has happened of which I’m unaware, it is likely that Parliament will rise for the summer recess after its first two weeks, and not resume until some time in the new year.
All this makes things difficult for the Opposition, and one tendency has already become clear in its tactics: the Abbott Government is not ‘transparent’. This cry emerged with news that the Government would not be reporting each ‘boat arrival’ as it occurred, but say something once a week, or even less frequently. But the ‘transparency’ tendril has emerged elsewhere as well, as with the Committee of Audit.
It seems to me that ‘transparency’ is not the same as saying that a government must conduct its business in public. I would have thought that ‘transparency’ relates to the business of making decisions. It ought to be clear, after the event, that a decision was made for the right reasons and that the process was the right process. It does not mean that we can all watch the process taking place. My own experience of decision-making in government is that very often the factors that weighed on the Minister could lead to a variety of outcomes, and it was the business of the senior officials to do their best to ensure that the final decision, whatever it was, was a good one. I gave an example the other day.
The test of the new Government’s success is not the latest opinion poll, though this morning’s poll certainly supports the notion that the Coalition is keeping its support in the community. It will be that its actions are consistent with what it said it would do, and that the impersonal economic forces — jobs, inflation, business confidence, consumer sentiment — over which the Government has much less control than people think, are favourable. So far they seem to be.