Luckless Labor’s Malaysia failure

Julia Gillard inherited a failing government, and made it worse. AAP/Lukas Coch

The American comedian WC Fields once joked that the best advice in business was “never give a sucker an even break”. Now the High Court has rejected the government’s deal with Malaysia to swap asylum seekers, Tony Abbott will be able to employ that aphorism to politics and the Gillard government.

Abbott and his immigration sidekick Scott Morrison can keep up the barrage of derision of Labor’s competency , now the Malaysia Solution can join a long list of failures including pink batts, school halls, minerals tax, carbon tax, and live export of cattle, to name the most prominent.

Another bungle

The Coalition can add another phrase – “the bungled Malaysian deal” – to a roll call that will rotate across our television screens in its campaign ads during the next election. It will probably play up comparisons with the Whitlam government, although that will get only so far with younger generations.

The roll call also makes the lives of Coalition staff much easier as they don’t have to try hard to create talking points or narratives for their representatives to repeat in public. The list can be rattled off without need of much explanation since it gobbles up widespread public knowledge.

It can be used for putting further pressure on the independents Oakeshott and Windsor for siding with Labor, to get them to change their minds or, if that is unlikely, then undermine their electoral support.

At the same time the opposition can keep insisting on the viability of its policies and hark back to “the good old days” under John Howard’s competent economic tutelage.

Whether this was the case or not doesn’t matter. The issue is public perception.

Abbott and Morrison can continue to insist on “the good old days” when Howard’s policies for asylum seekers “worked”, despite the opinion of at least one noted legal scholar that the High Court’s decision complicates the plans of both parties. But since it is in opposition the Coalition’s policy won’t be tested.

Coalition’s failure to offer alternatives

Despite Tony Abbot’s known vulnerabilities, Labor does not seem able to land a punch on the Coalition.

Abbott hides his weaknesses behind the roll call of bungles. He doesn’t have have to issue detailed policies.

Manufacturing is under pressure with the high dollar and suffering job losses. Abbott affirmed the free trade credentials of the Coalition in one sentence and in the next breath affirmed that government intervention would be possible under a range of huge loopholes.

This angered and concerned sections of his party. In other words, the roll call of bungles hides many tensions within the Coalition over policies as well as personalities.

Take, for example, Abbott’s Direct Action Plan for the Environment. He insists it remains viable, although it relies mostly on acquiring more land to fund more trees - something that Nationals oppose. They don’t want land taken out of agricultural production.

Labor down on its luck

On the other side of the political fence, Labor has difficulty in maintaining a single believable story.

The High Court decision may seem like yet another instance of bad luck for them. It’s true enough that politics is often a throw of the dice, which is why many centuries ago the famous Italian writer Machiavelli recognised the fickleness of the goddess Fortuna. But governments need to create their own luck and Labor should not have staked their reputation on another roll of the dice, this time with judges.

The gamble started with with a premature announcement of a deal with Timor over asylum seekers. Their government was publicly taken aback. Then there was Gillard’s citizen assembly on a carbon solution.

No strategic thinking

Since early 2010 Labor have continually reduced their options, as if they were going further and further down a narrowing tunnel from which they could not extract themselves.

It began with Rudd’s political incompetence when the mere making of decisions and micro-management were substitutes for strategic policy process. He never used cabinet as a forum for long term planning, as Howard did so that options were canvassed and his government was not caught out. Howard also put in place policy implementation units to monitor the progress of policies.

Gillard has been constrained by the public doubts over her legitimacy to power and her change of mind on the carbon tax. Certainly she consults cabinet but it seems there is no strategic sounding of policies and their alternatives when confronted by difficulties. Also, like Rudd but unlike Howard, policy implementation still seems inadequate and this comes to reflect publicly on the government.

With each failure of this inadequate process, the government’s options have been narrowed and its room for manoeuvre and for recovery reduced.

In other words, there has been a strategic problem at the heart of the government since Rudd, yet the focus of Labor has been on the tactical day to day. The party’s response has been a series of attempted quick fixes which have failed and made things worse.

Where now for asylum seekers?

So its options now for the asylum seekers are not good. Chris Bowen has not ruled anything out, including the return of temporary protection visas and the Nauru solution.

Labor would rather choke on a bone than agree to dealing with the Coalition which could then crow it was right all along. There is not much chance of the Greens agreeing to a change in the legislation that would allow the Malaysian deal to run.

Even Nauru and the option of sending people to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea seem problematic according to some legal opinions. And regional deals are now ruled out or in limbo.

To top all this, the Gillard government has yet to pass through parliament the carbon tax legislation and the legislation limiting pokies that is to appease Andrew Wilkie. After the High Court decision dies down, Abbott will then have more chances to put the boot into the government, like a bovver boy from Clockwork Orange.

Government ministers must be desperately thinking of the summer break and the holidays to get away from all this.