Grattan on Friday: Our system is being consumed by the politics of demolition

It’s unsurprising that Tony Abbott grabs onto any scrap of Labor’s planned emissions trading policy, but the crudity of the attack insults the public’s intelligence. AAP/Lukas Coch

Flanked by two press secretaries, Tony Abbott strode down the parliamentary press gallery corridor on Wednesday towards the welcome bank of cameras. That morning a Labor options paper on carbon pricing had appeared in News Corp tabloids, under derogatory headlines.

Here was the robo-politician, primed for attack by slogan. “We’ve always said … that if Labor came back, the boats would be back, the mining tax would be back and now we find out that if Labor were to come back, the carbon tax would be back,” Abbott said. “It shows that Bill Shorten is, in every respect, a carbon copy of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.”

After a few questions Abbott turned on his heel, in what’s become his accustomed exit, as though departing from a set of electronic gadgets, not a bunch of people.

It was a typical encounter of the modern election campaign – except we are not in an election, only the continuous campaign that is blighting politics, making it difficult, often impossible to have serious policy discussions.

Two major issues have been in the public arena this week: climate change and tax reform. In neither case did we get meaningful discourse – just petty politicking or political impotence.

It’s hardly surprising Abbott grabs onto any scrap of Labor’s planned emissions trading policy, but the crudity of the attack, the rehearsed and distributed government “lines” (though they were confused over whether it would be a “double” or “triple” whammy) insult the public’s intelligence.

Recently a broad range of organisations formed the Australian Climate Roundtable. Ranging from the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group to the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Council of Social Service, they agreed the next phase of policy development on the climate issue should be “as civil and constructive as possible”.

We can be confident that’s what ordinary voters would want – and equally sure it will be anything but.

One shouldn’t be starry-eyed. We have a democratic, adversarial system, and that means there will be and should be conflict over policy.

But when the politics of demolition so outweighs the constructive aspects, all we’re left with is the participants screaming at each other and the public tuning out.

A paradox of contemporary politics is that senior politicians are talking more while saying less, schooled by their multiple media advisers not to answer what they are asked, but to reply to what they would choose to be asked.

Honestly, we’d be better off if half the press secretaries were sacked and 50% of the politicians’ appearances were cancelled.

Politicians should be accessible. But an hour-long quality news conference with probing questions and sustained follow-ups eliciting answers (because it is more difficult to be evasive on that turf) can be worth several “doorstops” on the fly, with their scattergun approach and early call of “last question” from the media adviser if things get sticky.

Much of this goes to the nature of modern politics and media but we are also particularly unlucky with our current national leaders.

Abbott is a seemingly impossible mix, simultaneously ultra-programmed and increasingly wayward, talking in slogans but acting capriciously. Shorten looks like he is wound up each day by his minders to face the cameras, often with “zingers”, so he is on the news about the current story. Beyond that, despite having always wanted to be prime minister, he seems to lack sufficient energy, just when the job is, or should be, within striking distance.

Both seem happier playing to the negatives than trying to persuade and inspire. Neither appears the man he used to be. Their respective roles have drained a good deal of the life out of them.

A few hours after Abbott delivered his “grabs” for TV, Treasurer Joe Hockey was giving yet another speech declaring Australia needs tax reform.

A press secretary should tell him: Joe, out there they’ve got the message that the tax system requires revamping. After all, the experts have been saying so for years.

There is a white paper coming, so Hockey can say some wait is involved.

But still, it is no good Hockey delivering multiple speeches when the government of which he is a very senior member has already ruled out key measures (such as changing arrangements for superannuation and negative gearing) so that any reform process starts nobbled.

And it is futile Hockey’s baying at the moon over the GST, when the government concedes defeat before the battle, by saying that the states and the federal opposition and Uncle Tom Cobley would have to agree before anything could be done.

If Hockey really thinks (as so many do) that the GST should be increased or broadened, he has to make the case much more toughly and at least force those who disagree to engage.

On the other hand, in the end it comes down to Abbott, and he is focused primarily on keeping his hide intact. Next week he has his “retreat” with premiers on federal-state relations. With that crowd, he needs more than slogans and timidity. It is his meeting – the weights are on him.

On Thursday BCA president Catherine Livingstone called the politicians out, when she declared that “yesterday marked a low point for political leadership in Australia”.

“Within hours of the treasurer outlining a compelling case for the need for fundamental tax reform and rebalancing of the tax mix, both major parties began ruling out key elements of sensible tax reform, including changes to the GST,” she said.

“Our political representatives are elected and paid by the community to implement policies that will best serve the country. Their leadership responsibility is to ensure that there is a constructive, well-informed debate, leading to implementable outcomes; it is not to undermine the debate in the cause of party political positioning.

"Leadership requires being open and honest with the community about the challenges we are facing. It requires the energy and conviction to take on difficult and complex reform imperatives.”

Perhaps it is not politicians who are baying at the moon. Perhaps it is the rest of us, frustrated at how often they fail to be, to use an Abbottism, “their best selves”.

Listen to the newest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with French Ambassador Christophe Lecourtier, here.