Will everything change if Abbott is PM?

I keep hearing talk about the disaster that faces Australia should the Coalition win the coming election. I’ve heard that kind of stuff before, and it continues to puzzle me.The people who think so (or at least say so) are well educated, sensible and generally in touch with things. In vain do I suggest that things will go on pretty much as they have done, and that I’ve seen governments come and go, and that there’s a lot of common ground, and so on.

And yesterday I read an email from someone who writes on things environmental, making what amounts to the opposite point — that there won’t (and can’t) be enough change! But the way he said it made me think further about the issue of change. He said this: ‘What one learns is that politicians will back dissenters whilst in opposition but once winning government, they seek to quash dissent, often in identical fashion to what they replaced.’ I nodded — I’ve seen that, a number of times.

He gave some examples. In his own work he had advised a shadow minister about what was really wrong with an area of organised science that he was most knowledgeable about, and his advice was helpful to the  opposition spokesman. When the government changed, ‘he didn’t know me any more’. A similar thing had happened when the party positions were reversed, a decade earlier. It was then the other side that had used him and then dismissed him.

No doubt he was furious at the time but today, in pilosophic retirement, he sees this as the natural order of things. ‘Rather than throwing up our hands in despair, as scientists we should analyse the data; i.e. objective analysis of the behavioural properties of politicians and then learn to use this knowledge to advantage.’

I’d like to know what such a study would find, but I think there’s a lot of truth in his assessment. Our system has a huge amount  of inertia in it, and it also has a lot of complexity. Every change we make comes at a cost, and often the costs have not been been properly estimated  (some of them are simply unknowable). He governs best who makes least change, especially change of a structural change.

I have seen parts of government go into a state of near-paralysis for weeks and months when departments are amalgamated, or functions transferred from one  department to another. And policies are hugely interconnected, so that changing one thing means changing many others. Sometimes the changes are small, but most of them have to be made in legislation, and that requires time and energy. Any government’s legislative program is quickly full, and you will discover that there is no chance of a piece of legislation getting on the books for months, or years.

And that’s at the technical level. In terms of broad policies we the people actually don’t like a lot of change, unless we are a small group and have a particular need. In general, we like taxes to go down and incomes and benefits to go up. Governments on the whole want the opposite, because otherwise they are in the red. And a lot of government expenditure in the future has already been decided: defence procurements, for example, infrastructure like roads, and so on. Governments don’t have a lot of room to move, as we have seen with Mr Swan’s vain effort to bring in a surplus.

So you would expect the first year of a Coalition Government to be very like the past year. It will take time for new Ministers to learn about their portfolio responsibilities. The public service will already have prepared policy documents that fit what the Coalition was saying in its election campaign, but these too will take time to be worked through as new legislation or as administrative decisions.

What then? Will the new government end the carbon tax? It would be expected to do so, but it will find that quite difficult, since the present government has embedded it in other legislation. In any case, it raises money, which the new government will need for other purposes. How that is to be done, and over what period, are not straightforward matters, and will take time.

Can it ‘turn the boats around’? The notion raises questions of international law, the operations of the Navy and relations with Indonesia in particular. I would expect that issue to take quite some time in preparation before anything is done.

And we all need to remember that being in government is different from being in opposition. The role can bring out the best in people, and develop talents that were always there but rarely seen in opposition. If Mr Abbott and his team win the election, I would expect him to grow in stature in the office, and appear in other ways, in what he says and what he does. I would expect the same transition from many of the opposition front-benchers as well.

In opposition you can criticise, exaggerate and laugh: all that is accepted. But in government you are responsible, and that is no joke. Even Billy McMahon, our least effective Prime Minister in my time, looked and sounded pretty good in his first few months. It was only when he lost his nerve and became rattled that it became clear that he was not up to the job. In my opinion, Mr Abbott is altogether more substantial a politician than McMahon.

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