What’s Wrong With ‘No’?

The Government and its supporters apparently believe Tony Abbott’s big character flaw is that he opposes their policies. They make up cute little jokes about it. Noalition. Mr Negativity. There is apparently an ALP pamphlet called The Little Book of Dr No.

But who is this critique supposed to convince? Apart from people who believe the Government can do no wrong, that is.

Every government accuses those on the other side of parliament of being too negative. When they were in power, the Coalition did the exact same thing.

“It’s not the job of an opposition to be negative when it’s against the national interests to be negative,” said John Howard in 2005. Government press releases said Kim Beazley opposed Coalition legislation “for the sake of opposing”. So did Simon Crean. And Mark Latham.

While he was the workplace relations minister, Tony Abbott complained bitterly about Craig Emerson’s “feral” opposition to any workplace reform.

Presumably Emerson genuinely thought workplace reform was a bad idea. If so, opposing it seems to be exactly what a person in his position should have done. And Abbott, presumably, thinks that the carbon price is a bad idea. (At least, he does now. He’s definitely more convinced of its badness than Julia Gillard is convinced of its goodness.)

On the surface, the attack on Tony Abbott’s “relentless negativity” is a claim that the Opposition has no values, that it is only driven by political considerations.

But the attack is guilty of the same. It has nothing to do with the content of any of the Government’s policies – just an assertion that the Opposition is getting in the way… of what?

Abbott is a conservative, and one who understands what conservatism means. His book Battlelines heavily cites Edmund Burke and Roger Scruton. No fair reading would dismiss his discussion of conservatism as lightweight. Abbott has tried to shape the Liberal Party as not simply a conservative party, but a philosophically conservative party.

For a philosophical conservative, change should be incremental and hesitant. Even reluctant. In Battlelines, Abbott approvingly quotes the philosopher Michael Oakeshott when he said the “modern mindset” is “in love with change … fascination of what is new is felt far more keenly than the comfort of what is familiar.”

Abbott responds that the known status quo, with all its flaws, is preferable to a hypothetical ideal.

“Conservatism prefers facts to theory… To a conservative, intuition is as important as reasoning, instinct as important as intellect.”

This may seem like a deeply anti-intellectual approach, but it isn’t. Conservatism is a recognition that very smart economists working with very smart legislators can sometimes get things wrong – even though they’re very, very smart, and their intentions are very, very good.

So a conservative would absolutely oppose the majority of new government programs – especially reforms on the scale of the carbon price or the mining tax.

And the No Strategy certainly is better than the aimlessness of most oppositions. Shadow ministers under Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull would criticise the Government for being “all talk and no action”. A program is behind schedule! An election promise hasn’t been kept! But a bad promise that hasn’t been kept is a good thing, surely? Before Abbott, the Coalition seemed to be arguing that the Rudd government was not being the best Rudd government it could be.

The real problem with Abbott’s No Strategy isn’t that it is negative. The problem is that his negativity might not be consistent.

There’s no point saying no in opposition if you’re going to say yes in government. As prime minister, Abbott will be lobbied by ministers trying to fund their pet projects. Some of those ministers will be puppets of their departments, for whom prestige and expenditure are the same thing. Other ministers will just want to spend their time in government divvying out cash. Abbott knows all about the latter ministers. He was one of them.

Unfortunately, even in opposition Abbott’s negativity is selective. When he doesn’t say no – that is, when he comes up with positive policies of his own – they don’t tend to be very good. Take his expanded anti-dumping program, which requires importers to prove they’re not selling in Australia below cost. Or take his parental leave scheme and the vast increase in middle-class welfare that it represents.

Just last week Joe Hockey proposed a crackdown on foreign investment in agriculture. This is a prime candidate for no. But many in the National Party don’t like it when Chinese companies buy farms, and Abbott doesn’t want to be negative to his Coalition partners.

There’s nothing wrong with no. Abbott just needs to say it more often.