Monday, September 23, 2013

The Tony Abbott we all really know

Tony Abbott started his political career, like so many others, in student politics.

He shot to fame as the first Right President of the Sydney University SRC for quite sometime, and also through taking the fight up to the extreme left at the Australian Union of Students.

It was his career at Sydney that I knew best.  A campaign to become President of the SRC on the key theme that he opposed compulsory student unionism.  And his main gripe with compulsory student unionism was that funds went to support minority causes like feminism and gays, and particularly Left causes like Palestine.

But that was the sum total of his policy.  He didn't control the whole SRC or even the Executive, so he didn't actually achieve much.  The University administration had no interest in voluntary student unionism. They appreciated the services provided and the contribution to campus life from the three funded bodies - the SRC, the Union and the Sports Union.

SRC fees went to many more things than the fringe issues so disliked by Mr Abbott.  They funded Honi Soit, an often outrageous newspaper that has still spawned the talents of many Australian writers.  They funded many clubs and societies on campus, including faulty societies which brought students together. 

The only issue of substance I can recall was a petition Mr Abbott prepared that received enough signatures to require a constitutional amendment for the SRC be put to a vote.  The Executive was concerned that the amendments as drafted would make the constitution internally inconsistent and proposed a slightly different amendment be put.

Mr Abbott launched legal action - listed as Abbott v Havyatt et al.  The matter never went to hearing as the executive relented.  The proposed amendments were put to referendum and defeated.

The purpose of this long tale from over 30 years ago is that the same appears to be Mr Abbott's approach to the much bigger job he won by being clear what he was opposed to, but never what he was in favour of.

Today we read about Mr Abbott's second round (after Climate Change Commission) of agencies to be cut.  The common theme is that they are agencies that do things that Mr Abbott just philosophically (note that word) does not support.

So he abolishes the Major Cities Unit in infrastructure, because it will tell him the importance of public transport investment.  And Mr Abbott's opposition to public transport investment in entirely illogical since he believes these are "over-manned, union-dominated, government-run train and bus systems''.
He is also unwinding what are tagged "nanny state" agencies.  The Australian National Preventative Health Agency - which leads the fight against obesity, alcohol abuse and tobacco use - is listed as one of these.  And it performed the sin of spending money researching the effects of a fat tax despite the fact that neither party was proposing one.

And here we come to the first problem of the world according to the Conservatives.  They believe the public service exists only to implement policies decided by politicians.  They do not want the public service to provide advice on the economic, social and technological changes that might require a policy response.

So where are the politicians in this conservative world meant to get that advice?  The first answer is you don't need such advice because the principle approach is to change nothing.

The longer answer, of course, is you get that information from the private sector. The pharmaceutical companies can tell you all you need to know about obesity - can't they?  The distillers, brewers and fermenters can tell you all you need to know about the health effects of alcohol, can't they?  And didn't the tobacco companies do all the research on tobacco?

And is this really "nanny state" - or is it prudent management of the burgeoning health budget.

Then we get told the Australian Institute of Criminology could be reviewed and possibly merged with a University.  Which is possibly fine till you then read about the intention to rip $100 million dollars from Australian Research Council grants. 

The Coalition has always run a line of finding some obscure piece of research funding and making out it represents waste.  In the article today the example of a costly academic indulgences the Coalition plans to wipe out is "a $443,000 study into the "God of Hegel's Post-Kantian idealism''".

It is quite interesting if you Google that phrase.  You find that it is the title of an ARC grant to Professor Paul Redding from the Philosophy Department of the University of Sydney. Professor Redding has edited a volume on "Religion After Kant: God and Culture in the Idealist Era."

Dig further and you realise that Professor Redding's research is part of a bigger Program in the History of Philosophy.  I don't really know where we have got to if an ordinary analytic philosophy program is under attack.  Maybe we really should stop referring to Abbott's own "philosophy" since his Government has such apparent disregard for it.

Much fun has already been made of this line - "Other key Rudd reforms - including the expensive bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council - are being wound back with a planned new Australian embassy in Senegal to be abandoned." - in the twitterverse.  Memo, we have the seat now.  But do we really want to start by reneging on agreements with Africa?  Does Julie Bishop have no appreciation that after the Pacific Rim, Australia's next strategic focus is the Indian Ocean Rim?

To add to all this let's just remember how impressive Tony Abbott has always seemed on indigenous affairs - he really does get in touch with his Catholic sense of the need to do "good works" here.  But there is now an issue about a plan to spend his first week in office "on country."     While it is tempting to suggest the excuse he could use is that it wasn't written down, the more prosaic reality is that the new PM has discovered (a) that there is more to being PM than he thought and (b) that his security detail simply wouldn't countenance it - yet.

But in reality, what you see is the Government that reflects its leader.  A leader who knows what he doesn't like - and at the top of the list is any independent research or advice on the policy challenges for the government.

After all, you become Prime Minister or President of the SRC by talking about what you don't like - not what you might actually plan to do.

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