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Criticism should be based on fact

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 16 February 2012


After reading an opinion piece by Dr Norman Abjorensen attacking Tony Abbott (Inside Story, February 12), I respond on the basis that the article represents biased political commentary and is hardly objective.

Within the commentary, Abjorensen makes simplistic comparisons between Abbott and other prime ministers who also expressed ambition for Australia's highest political office.

According to Abjorensen, Menzies, who had "eloquence, intelligence and shrewdness", emphasised the "Forgotten People", a philosophy and a set of principles that guided his thinking". Whitlam, with his "towering intellect and vision", was a social democrat who "developed a wide-ranging critique of government and its constitutional underpinning that very precisely informed his program in government". And Hawke had "the broad popular appeal of the conciliator and communicator".

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In regard to Abbott, however, Abjorensen argues he merely seeks to emulate his spiritual hero, the late Bob Santamaria, and is engaged "in a war on modernity or, at least, those aspects that conflict with conservative Catholic social teaching derived from Pope Pius IX". And whereas Abjorensen notes Santamaria's thought as being "infused by genuine compassion", Abbott is described as a rogue who is incapable of offering any sensible policy judgment given past comments that "poverty is in part a function of individual behaviour".

Abjorensen also claims that Abbott is a "public figure quite blind to, or unwilling to see, the profound social changes of the past four decades". And, unlike Howard, Abbott "is not known for his policy work" on the basis he was a "wayward minister, and has expressed wild policy gyrations in opposition – on coal-fired power stations, coal seam gas exploration, asylum seekers and industrial relations", which suggests "chaos rather than stability".

So how does Abjorensen support such claims? Well not through any extensive analysis of each policy position in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Why bother when Abjorensen can merely cite a number of MPswho supposedly speak for all Coalition members. For instance, one frontbencher "had no idea at all what Abbott believed in, apart from John Howard, the Catholic Church and the monarchy. "I'm not even sure he believes in capitalism, and now he's leading a party whose very lifeblood is adherence to the free market system".

Even more ridiculous is Abjorensen's choice to quote an MP, who became a very senior minister in the Howard government, who states "thank God that man is not in parliament and nor is he ever likely to be". Well he did make it to parliament and he did achieve promotion after promotion so why use the quote.

Abjorensen's strategy does not fairly assess the strengths and weaknesses of Abbott, nor the state of politics in Australia in regard to current policy difficulties.

It is almost futile to make simplistic comparisons with past leaders who all would have adopted vastly different policy positions today given changing political and economic circumstances.

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As the current Labor Government knows full well, it is increasingly difficult to meet all old and new policy demands. Whereas Menzies and Whitlam presided in a period of increasing government intervention, Australian governments since the early 1980s have been under much greater pressure to keep labour costs and taxation level in order to attract investment. At the same time, public health costs alone have continued to escalate.

Hence, Abbott too offers some policy contradictions at a time when Western governments (including Australia with its mineral wealth) are struggling for the right answers after several decades of policy options which appear no longer viable. In addition to the ongoing loss of manufacturing jobs, Western governments must confront new limitations caused by an unsustainable level of consumption and debt (private and/or public). In Australia's case, having already been a world leader in privatisation, there is also now much less of government entities to sell.

But does Abbott's policy inconsistencies compare unfavourably with Labor's many broken promises made prior to the 2007 federal election, including the latter's failure to prevent Australia from increasingly becoming a quarry for Asia? I think not. Abbott, rather than offering rhetoric, merely reflects his own struggle to both support freer trade and rightfully express concern about unfair trading practices which do have an impact upon Australian industry.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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