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Grattan on Friday: Government should tone down ideology and turn up common sense

Malcolm Turnbull has been forced to defend Tony Abbott over allegations of broken promises. AAP/Lukas Coch

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, usually sharp-witted and articulate, entered an Orwellian zone this week.

Trying to explain away Tony Abbott’s pre-election promise of “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”, Turnbull argued Abbott had said it in one interview the night before the election but he, Turnbull, and Joe Hockey had a number of times made clear the broadcasters couldn’t be exempt from general budgetary cuts.

So don’t believe the last word of a man who’s about to become the nation’s prime minister. Go to what his colleagues say. Let’s remember that for next time.

It got worse, as Turnbull explained the position on Wednesday’s ABC 7.30 program.

“I’ve defended the Prime Minister on this today … I think you’ve got to take his comments, which – look, I mean, what he said, he said, and, you know, it’s there, it’s on the record. But you’ve got to take that in the context. And I can only assume that what Mr Abbott was referring to or was thinking about, anyway, was the proposition that there would be cuts in – with the intent of reducing ABC services and we’ve ruled that out.”

This is baloney. Firstly, a simple, clear-cut statement like that doesn’t need “context”. Secondly, if Turnbull has to make assumptions about what Abbott was “thinking about”, how could the voter be expected to know his mind?

Either Turnbull is deliberately distancing himself from Abbott under the guise of trying to explain the promise away, or his mind is wandering down a less-than-logical road.

Leaving aside the matter of the broken promise, the more revealing part of Turnbull’s Wednesday announcement was perhaps not the funding cuts themselves but the minister’s fresh exhortations to board members to take greater direct responsibility for the ABC’s “impartiality”, and his call for managing director Mark Scott to lose the “editor-in-chief” part of his role.

Whatever Turnbull’s motives, the political reality is that these proposals (they’re only that – the ABC is independent), chime with the government’s aggressive and sustained attack on the broadcaster.

That attack has been driven by a combination of ideology and pressure from, as well as sympathy with, the Coalition’s particular friends in the commercial media, especially News Corp.

One would understand just a grab for savings. But why the government is so obsessed with its ideological pursuit, when surveys show the ABC is an institution highly regarded and trusted by voters, is harder to explain.

Quite apart from anything else, the government has so many problems this seems a dumb fixation, however much it might be irritated by some of the ABC’s coverage or have its arm twisted by News Corp.

But, then, political strategy is not the Abbott government’s strong suit – it’s something that even had conservative columnist Andrew Bolt in despair this week.

Just consider the other big stories of the past few days.

The government got up its agenda at the G20 for leaders to embrace a global growth target. But this success was put in the shade by the row over climate change, on which the Coalition resists undertaking some desirable repositioning in the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate conference.

In contrast to Australia turning up its nose at the Green Climate Fund, to which the US and Japan announced large contributions, even Canada’s conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, who has been a strong Abbott ally on climate, foreshadowed tipping some money in.

It would be sensible for the Abbott government to do the same.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, now taking a well-publicised bow at the United Nations Security Council as Australia finishes its term as a temporary member, will be in charge of Australia’s climate negotiations over the coming year. She’s off soon to a climate conference in Lima. Bishop should use some of her current political stardom to get Australia better aligned on the issue, starting with tweaking its position on the fund.

The third area where the excess of ideology was highlighted this week was on the regulation of financial advisers.

Labor’s Sam Dastyari and independent Nick Xenophon mobilised the Senate numbers (in what Xenophon called a “coalition of common sense”) to overthrow the government’s regulations, installed some months ago, that watered down consumer protections.

What had driven that watering down? The government’s desire to help the banks (despite the fact that their financial advisers have harmed thousands of people) and its wish to get at the union-backed super funds.

Also behind the weakening of consumer protections had been an ideological belief by senior Coalition figures that if you go to a financial adviser you should be able to look after yourself – equivalent to saying if you visit a doctor you should be able to second guess the prescriptions he gives you.

It’s extraordinary that ministers put ideology and delivering to the banks ahead of the impact of what has happened to so many of the community’s small investors.

In its approach to these totally different issues, there is the common thread of a government that is out of touch with ordinary people and so repeatedly gets things out of proportion.

Australians want a government that stands on the middle ground, keeping institutions and issues in perspective and providing citizens with proper protections.

On the polling evidence, which include Newspoll this week showing the Coalition trailing 45-55%, they’re concerned by a government that gives its ideology such free rein. They’d indeed like to see more of that valuable political quality, common sense.

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