With record low approval ratings, and a persistent failure to pass its budget measures, the Coalition government is in trouble. However, blaming its poor performance on ideology is wrong, and ought to concern all Australians.
According to a recent article in the Australian Financial Review, Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane and Nationals counterpart Scott Mitchell recently spoke to cabinet about their performance and future strategy; the key messages were “no more distractions”, “no more ideology”, “stick to the middle” and “slow things down”.
It’s important for any government to remain focused and patient in the pursuit of reform. But the government’s problems are not the fault of ideology. On the contrary, a lack of a consistent ideological approach has hampered their attempts to present a clear, coherent message.
Despite its use as a pejorative, ideology is simply a coherent set of values or ideas that form the basis of an economic or political theory. In short, it is how we judge the merits of a particular policy or proposal.
A person who lacks an ideological perspective will not only be unable to determine the difference between good and bad policy outcomes, they will also lack a coherent way of determining what political issues demand attention.
What results is a chaotic approach to governance, epitomised by contradictory legislation that undermines public acceptance of reform.
An obvious example is the Coalition government’s plans to introduce a wildly unpopular paid parental leave scheme, which has undermined its attempt to return the budget to surplus. After all, how can the government credibly claim that there is a budget emergency, when they are planning to introduce one of the biggest welfare policies in a generation? This is a policy that even the Greens have criticised as “overly generous and unrealistic”, and they are hardly advocates of limited government.
Clearly the government is not suffering from an excess of ideology, it is suffering from a lack of it.
It is important to note that an ideological approach to politics does not mean disregard of public opinion. Politicians are in the business of getting elected; always balancing pursuit of reform with a respect for public opinion. A failure to do this will quickly result in electoral defeat.
But without values, politics quickly devolves into pure populism. This may keep the Coalition in power, but destroy their ability to pass unpopular reforms in the nation’s long-term interest.
The proposed deregulation of university fees will be an unnecessary inconvenience if the government is to follow Loughnane’s ideology free approach.
This is despite it being one of the most important reforms proposed by the Abbott government. Without it, Australian universities “will fall behind the emerging universities in Asia… and fall out of touch with the vital global centres of knowledge” – so says Mike Gallagher, executive director of the Australia’s Group of Eight Universities.
Gone forever will be Australia’s reform era of politics – characterized by the Hawke, Keating, and Howard governments, and their ability to push through tough but necessary reforms.
The 2010 election saw the peak of the populist approach – with almost identical policy platforms from both parties.
However, the problem has its roots in three distinct factors: The end of the cold war and its ideological divide; Australia’s system of compulsory voting, which pushes Australian political parties to the centre and allows them to ignore their political base; and John Hewson’s defeat in the “unlosable election” of 1993.
Hewson’s defeat had a particular influence on Abbott, who had a front row seat to Keating’s demolition of Fightback. It has influenced his small target approach to campaigning, but has not yet come to define his prime ministership. That may change if he cedes to calls to abandon ideology and embrace political populism. Ideology is essential to politics. It has guided successful governments of all political persuasions, and both Australia and the Coalition will be worse off if they abandon it in favour of pure populism.
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