Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Holding to account

The new Abbott-led coalition we are told is going to focus on "holding the government to account". It is a good line, and has been repeated mercilessly in the last few days. But it leaves open what it actually means.

The SMH notes the Menzies line that "the duty of an opposition is to oppose selectively." This is not the approach taken by Tony's new mentor Nick Minchin who has framed the rhetoric of "holding to account". Minchin's performance as shadow communications minister was to try to criticise the Government for not delivering on its promised NBN and deny the Government any legislation to do so.

There are generically three ways to view being in opposition. The first is to try to govern from opposition, that is utilise your numbers together with the numbers on the cross benches to make the legislative outcome actually look like your policy not the Governments. The second is to realise that the purpose of opposition is to allow for renewal - that you have to have the bloody battles of personality and ideology necessary to return to Government. The third is that you position yourself as the "alternative government" which is the way Brendan Nelso described his opposition from day one which is farcical.

Holding the "Government to account" doesn't feature in any of these, for the simple reason that the whole of Parliament is meat to hold the Executive to account. But moving on from that I had an interesting discussion with an old friend on this and we disagreed on the nuances of "holding to account."

I have the view that holding to account means fornensically examining the executive on whether (a) it did what it told the people it would do at the precious election, or any other point of major policy announcement and (b) given the government is doing what it said it would do whether it has done so efficiently.

Discussing the stimulus package is a good example. The coalition expressed a view of alternative policy (not that I could ever figure it out fully) which seemed to be mostly "let the market work it out". Criticising the Government for creating a deficit from stimulus is not holding to account.

What would be is pursuing the detail of the implementation, the fact that so much stimulus money has been spent on programs of doubtful validity - the nonsense over what school building projects got funded being the most dramatic.

Similiarly the coalition harping on about OPEL is not holding the government to account in telco. Letting the government do what it wants to do with legislation and then focussing on non-delivery of the network is holding them to account.

nd so we come to climate change. A scare campaign that the ETS was just a giant tax, and that the coalition can have an emmission reduction scheme without putting a price on carbon is not holding the government "to account", it is pursuing alternative policy.

What we can see is that the coalition is squandering its opportunity to use its first term in opposition for the process of contest between people and ideas. The Abbott frontbench is reactionary in more than just policy - to return to the front bench warriors that a stronger party would be sending off to retirement (B. Bishop, P. Ruddock) is a first order reaction.

But it is in the policy space that I become totally confused - as I think I've said before. But this time I'll try a different angle.

Phillip Bobbit, first in The Shield of Achilles and then in Terror and Consent advances a line that (western) history can be seen as the progression of a series of "constitutional orders". What triggers the change from one order to the next is technological change in killing people - or war. He states that a constitutional order is distinguished by its approach to international and domestic security - in brief strategy and law.

He (along with Niall Fergusson) describes the period of 1914 to 1990 as the "long war" between communism, fascism and parliamentianism as the consitutional order for the nation state. The nation state is identified as the state created by Lincoln in the US and Bismarck in Germany. While wrapped up with the concept of "nation" - i.e. a linguistic and or racial group - it is more about the relationship of nation to state. He writes "The nation state bases its legitimacy on having undertaken the task of maintaining, nurtuting and improving the material conditions of its citizens...give us the power and we will improve the well-being of the ntional people."

But the very techniques and technologies that brought success in the long war - building international trasde, the development of international communications, higher living standards, norms of human rights and weapons of mass destruction - present new challenges that the constitutional order of the nation state canno meet.

The new constitutional order is the market state which says "give us the power and we will give you the opportunities. Market states see their role as enabling and assisting rather than directing the citizen's interaction with choices." (Terror and Consent pp87-88).

This structure creates an interesting framework for the analysis of Australian politics. The formation of our nation state came about following Federation and the adoption of the constitutional order of nation state rather than state nation came about at the instigation of the ALP but in the adoption of the Deakin Liberals of the "Australian Settlement".

Today we see that it is again the ALP that leads the way in the migration to a market state. For all its supposedly neoliberal credentials the Howard Government's only real "market" reforms were the (botched) privatisation of Telstra and Work Choices. The Hawke and Keating Governments had a wider array of achievements under the "micro-economic reform" banner.

And so we come to climate change. It is the ALP proposing the ultimate in market state models - a trade in emissions - and the coalition proposing a solution embedded in the model of the nation state, where the defence of the notional welfare of the nation is supreme.

The Liberal Party really should change its name. It does not want to contest with the ALP the form of the market state, it wants to preserve the nation state. They are nothing more than "conservative".

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