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Never mind the leadership, what about the Opposition?

By Scott Prasser - posted Tuesday, 26 March 2013


When Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal Party by just one vote in December 2009 he saved the Liberal Party and non-Labor cause nationally from annihilation.

Kevin Rudd as prime minister was riding high in the polls and the Opposition under their second leader in two years, Malcolm Turnbull, was suffering from policy "me-tooism" given his support for the government's emission trading scheme (ETS).

Turnbull broke the basic rule of opposition – never agree with the government unless it is clear that their policy is demonstrably right in all respects and that there is no acceptable alternative.

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Abbott understood that the role of an opposition is to oppose, to question and to criticise government and to highlight mistakes and misjudgements. Politics and government in our adversarial system are not about holding hands in agreement like at some university seminar.

Being critical and, as some complain, being negative, is a necessary part of the job description of an Opposition leader and the prime role of any Opposition.

Abbott understood these roles. And at the 2010 election he almost pulled off a stunning victory, coming within a whisker of The Lodge.

Meanwhile the Gillard Government, although negotiating itself into office with the Greens and some independents, has lurched from policy debacle to policy debacle: from promising not to have a carbon tax to introducing one; to declarations of support for abudget surplus to admittances it cannot be achieved; to a draft education bill that is hollow and vacuous; to rushed media legislation now dropped; and to other "reforms" whose long terms costs have yet to be budgeted.

Also, the continuing presence of former prime minister Kevin Rudd in the government, first as foreign affairs minister, then in February last year as a contender for leadership, has destabilised and distracted the Gillard Government, making it appear, as we saw this week, disunited and thus doomed to lose the forthcoming election.

Julia Gillard is struggling to sell her message to the electorate and faces a devastating loss in the September 14 elections according to the polls. AAP/Lukas Coch

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In such circumstances what should the Abbott-led opposition do? It has been criticised for being too negative.

Tactically the answer is to sit tight, keep a low profile and let the government fall over.

But that is not good enough, given the polls and that in our system the Opposition is in reality the alternative government in waiting. We need to know how an Abbott Government will handle the challenges facing Australia and indeed what it sees those challenges as being.

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This article was first published on The Conversation.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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