Tony Abbott should heed the advice of his colleagues and rethink his policies on parental leave, workplace relations and local government recognition, writes Peter Reith.
Yesterday morning one of the Coalition's younger MPs spoke out on AM radio. His name is Alex Hawke and his seat is in Sydney. He will be an MP of increasing influence in the Federal Parliament because he demonstrated that he had the guts to speak out on a matter of fundamental policy. He voiced his concerns about Tony Abbott's paid parental leave scheme. His comments were common-sense, and they were measured. He is one of a number of younger MPs in the Coalition who are both ambitious as well as being "economic rationalists".
The dying days of the Gillard Government will be especially remembered for its dreadful and costly economic mismanagement, and the Coalition will want to be known as the party that fixed the mess. To promote good solutions will require well thought out and consistent policy positions, and the young rationalists will be the ginger group that not only argue the case but will demand, by their intellectual force and predominance in the internal debates, to be the ones to implement the necessary policy changes.
This process could be difficult for Tony Abbott unless he is assiduous in working with colleagues rather than trying to shut them down.
The Hawke criticism of the paid parental leave policy was inevitable because, on its merits, it is obviously bad policy but also because it was thrust on the parliamentary party without proper discussion and without the mandate of the shadow cabinet and party room. Hawke was gutsy to speak out because when your side looks like winning, some MPs understandably keep quiet because they don't want to throw away their chances of a ministry. But at the same time, if the leader forces policy on the colleagues knowing that the closer to the election the more sway he has over them, then he must expect some will resent unilateral decision making.
The paid parental leave proposal is a unilateral policy imposed by Abbott. There are at least two other Abbott unilateral policies that are difficult.
The biggest is Abbott's decision to ban any thought of individual agreements in the Coalition's workplace relations policy. The ban was announced on ABC TV without reference to the shadow cabinet or the party room. At a time when the policy is most needed to turn around Australia's poor productivity performance, Abbott has closed that option for the foreseeable future. Abbott has acted on his perception of the politics but the only way to lift living standards is to lift productivity so avoiding workplace relations may be bad politics as well.
The second is Abbott's reported negotiations with Minister Anthony Albanese to rush through a change to the Australian Constitution; another decision without shadow cabinet or party room approval. The intention has been to hold a referendum concurrent with the September 2013 election. Recognition of local governments was opposed by the Federal Council of the Liberal Party in July 2012 and will likely be opposed by the states who all opposed the idea when it was put in 1974 by Whitlam and in 1988 by Bob Hawke's Labor. If Abbott forces the party room to support a referendum, there is no doubt he will split his Coalition premiers and organisational supporters.
Apparently the Liberal National Party in Queensland, allegedly promoted by Barnaby Joyce, are supporting the proposal because they think that local government recognition would somehow advance their standing in rural municipalities. How this would happen is not obvious.
In my experience, as a former shire president of a small rural shire, the idea of interference from Canberra bureaucrats telling the local council how to run local affairs would only annoy councillors, not encourage them to vote for the National Party. And if they think they can get more money from Canberra, they have rocks in their head because there is nothing legally stopping Canberra today from funding local government at any time.
If the proposal is meaningless then there is no reason to vote for it, but if it means more power for Canberra, which has been Labor's real intention for decades, then it should be rigorously opposed.
Local government is the responsibility of state parliaments and there is no reason or evidence to think that allowing the central government to meddle with local government will in any way improve the delivery of local services. It is much more likely that the more Canberra controls local government, the more there will be duplication and red tape, which will only increase the costs of administration of local government and clog up local decision making.
A more general cause for concern about the proposal has been eloquently advanced by the Institute of Public Affairs. Chris Berg from the institute (The Age, May 5, 2013) sees the local government ploy as part of a broader plan by the Commonwealth to expand its rights to spend taxpayers' money by neutralising the limits set out in the Constitution.
He makes a strong point; if you want the Gillard Government to continue on its spending spree, vote yes. He says:
... the real story here is how the Commonwealth is trying to erase all parliamentary, legal and constitutional impediments that limit its spending. The referendum is just a small skirmish in a larger war. (p19)
Time is running out on this issue. If Abbott is determined to press ahead then I would expect him to try and railroad his parliamentary party next week at the party room meeting in the shadow of the budget. I have no doubt that a large number of Coalition MPs, including senior members of the cabinet, are opposed to a referendum. The only question that remains is who is prepared to stand and oppose any attempts to cosy up to Labor to support its push for more central government.