The Abbott Government’s Real Problem Is That It’s Not Ideological Enough

The Abbott Government is getting bad reviews. This week’s two year anniversary offers a neat little hook for members of the press gallery to take stock of the Government’s performance.

Among the unforced errors and stumbles, we read that the Abbott Government is far too “ideological”. In an encyclopaedic piece, the Guardian’s Lenore Taylor bemoans their “ideological overreach”. This is indeed an old complaint. This time last year Liberal Party strategists were counselling the government “no more ideology”.

But if the Abbott Government is too ideological, then its ideology is of a new species hitherto unknown to political taxonomists.

It’s an ideology that prioritises convenience over consistency, and refuses to spell out the principles which guide its decision-making. That is, the Abbott Government appears to have no distinct “ideology” at all.

One should not be too critical of a government for failing to hem to abstract doctrine – democratic government functions through compromise and conciliation. Political philosophy has to give way to practicality.

Yet even on these forgiving standards, it’s hard to see what picture of the world – or vision of the future – animates the Coalition.

The Government’s apparent “war” on the ABC is often used as Exhibit A for its ideological fervour. This began very early in their term. It seems to have reached its zenith with the prolonged Zaky Mallah affair.

Yet consider the absence of any consideration in this “war” of the role of public broadcasting in an age of media diversity, any critique of the media as a public good, or even a simple comment on the trade-off between ABC funding and lower taxes.

Rather, the Government’s critique of the ABC seems to be nothing more complex than that the public broadcaster has too many left-wing journalists and is insufficiently pro-Australia. Perhaps fair enough. But if this counts as “ideology”, then it is a superficial and empty ideology.

The irony of the Zaky Mallah affair was that it trivialised the substance and intractability of the modern terror threat by making it about the internal organisational structure of the ABC.

A keener focus on the principles at stake – that is, a more ideological approach – might have left the Abbott Government looking less like it was defeated by a chat show.

Taking a more ideological approach in each of these cases would have made the Government seem less obviously self-interested.

Nor has the criticism of the Human Rights Commission chief Gillian Triggs been obviously connected to any ideological perspective on human rights or the Human Rights Commission. The early promise of a debate from the top about the nature of human rights that was the appointment of Tim Wilson to the commission and the establishment of the Law Reform Commission’s inquiry into “traditional rights and freedoms” has gone unfulfilled.

Likewise, any pretence of a serious industrial relations agenda has been abandoned to focus on the Trade Union Royal Commission. The royal commission has revealed some serious wrong-doing in the union movement, and continues to highlight the Labor Party’s relationship with unions. But it is hardly a substitute for a debate about how much the state should be involved in workplace contracts.

Taking a more ideological approach in each of these cases would have made the Government seem less obviously self-interested.

Exhibit B for too-much-ideology is the 2014 budget. Here we have to distinguish between the Commission of Audit – which reported just before the budget was released – and the budget itself.

At the time, the two blurred into one. And it is certainly the case that the Commission of Audit was deeply ideological, in the sense that it applied philosophical principles to policy questions, and did so in a way hopeless ideologues like myself could admire.

But there was little trace of that ideology in the budget.

If Christopher Pyne’s legislative agenda is too ideological for the Australian public to forgive, then the scope of future reform is truly limited.

The two standouts in the budget were the $7 co-payment and the higher education reforms. Only the latter was really ambitious. The Government made the former seem more ideological than it was. For all their banging on about a “price signal”, the co-payment revenue was to be funnelled into a research fund. This hardly counts as devolving health provision to the market mechanism. Neoliberal Friedmanism it ain’t.

Credit where credit is due for higher education. This was – or still is to be – a significant change to the way higher education is funded.

Yet it’s hard to see how the reforms being proposed are really of an order of magnitude greater than previous market-based reforms to tertiary education under past Coalition and Labor governments.

If Christopher Pyne’s legislative agenda is too ideological for the Australian public to forgive, then the scope of future reform – from any side of politics, on any philosophical grounds – is truly limited.

Ideology is of course endemic to all human thought. We all have our frames through which we understand the world. A non-ideological person is a conceptual impossibility.

Yet it is not ideological overreach which plagues the Abbott Government. The Coalition lacks exactly what a clearly ideological approach would give them: not just consistency or narrative, but purpose.

I know nobody who manned polling booths for the Coalition in 2013 in order for Joe Hockey to introduce first a deficit levy, then (as is now being seriously proposed) swap a higher GST for lower income taxes.

Two years into their three-year term, voters must be scratching their heads wondering what this Government is for. That is not a sign of too much ideology. It’s a sign of too little.