It now appears that Tony Abbott’s tactics in Parliament of consistent obstruction and negativity is directly lifted from the extreme Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
While reading a profile on McConnell in The Atlantic Magazine, I came across a discussion of his tactics that seem remarkably familiar.
But McConnell didn’t waste the crisis, either. He has used it to chart a path back from oblivion for the Republican Party, mainly by blocking or delaying Democratic bills and then raising an outcry about the travesties being perpetrated on the country. Democrats may have won on health care, the stimulus, Wall Street reform, and a host of other measures that made the last Congress the most productive in a generation. But, at least for now, they have lost the political battle. Significant numbers of Americans disapprove of these policies, especially the expansion of health care. Many of them have been convinced by McConnell’s skillful exertions— especially his gift for scornful neologisms, which has helped to demonize not just Democratic policies but the very manner in which they came into being. (Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman, was a campaign adviser early in McConnell’s career.) If you got upset when you heard about the “Cornhusker Kickback” or the “Louisiana Purchase”—or perhaps you were lectured by a Fox News–watching relative who did—that was McConnell. He coined the terms to cast sinister aspersions on what were actually typical instances of political horse-trading, in this case over health care.
Scornful neologisms may not be evident in the Australian context, but Abbott’s relentless use of the three-word slogan “no new tax” and describing everything as a “great big tax” is clearly aimed to demonise Labor’s policies.
Forgive me while I excerpt a large part of The Atlantic article, but I’m sure you’ll find it illuminating:
They went about this by escalating an arms race that had been building in the Senate for the better part of a decade: the increasingly aggressive use of rules and procedures by successive minorities to frustrate the will of the majority. The very first bill to be considered on the Senate floor in the 111th Congress, in early January of 2009, before Obama was even inaugurated, was the Public Land Management Act, a sweeping conservation measure with broad bipartisan support that would protect 2 million acres of parks and wilderness in nine states. The Republicans filibustered, forcing a series of votes and requiring a weekend session to finish. The bill eventually passed, 77–20.
The same tactics were deployed against most other initiatives, and expanded into new realms. Traditionally, only votes on the most controversial judicial nominees had been delayed or filibustered, although the number crept upward during Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies. Under McConnell, Republicans have also filibustered noncontroversial nominees, many later confirmed unanimously. They have filibustered even nominees put forward by Republican senators, and required separate votes for district-court judges, who used to be confirmed in groups as a matter of routine. The resulting increase in vacancies has exacerbated a shortage of judges across the country, leading many districts to declare “judicial emergencies”—vacancy levels so high that they threaten the courts’ ability to function. McConnell bet (correctly) that he would pay no political price for this type of obstruction, because the White House and the media would be preoccupied with other things—things even harder to accomplish as the Senate calendar filled up.
“Reporters underestimate how powerful the calendar is,” says Jim Manley, the former communications director for Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader. “Say you want to break a filibuster. On Monday, you file cloture on a motion to proceed for a vote on Wednesday. Assuming you get it, your opponents are allowed 30 hours of debate post-cloture on the motion to proceed. That takes you to Friday, and doesn’t cover amendments. The following Monday you file cloture on the bill itself, vote Wednesday, then 30 more hours of debate, and suddenly two weeks have gone by, for something that’s not even controversial.” All of this has slowed Senate business to a crawl.
“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”
Think about Abbott’s attitude to every debate since he became leader. Whereas Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson agreed to take a bipartisan attitude to many major policy issues, Tony Abbott resolved to obstruct every piece of legislation that has come through the Parliament. Even before the 2010 election, Abbott’s leadership was predicated on block block block – specifically over the climate change legislation.
Talk in the Senate has been about how the Liberals are increasingly using (abusing) the rules to slow things down, to throw a spanner in the works of democracy. Unlike the US Senate of course, debates can be guillotined, but getting legislation through the Senate has become much harder since the last substantial legislation passed in 2009 – the Fair Work Act. Since then, almost no “contentious” legislation has passed the Senate, due to Abbott.
Similarly, we can witness the Australian media casting this delay and non-action as the fault of the Government. The inability to get the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation through (due to the Liberal and Greens Parties voting to block it) was portrayed as a failure of the Government. Similarly, the other delays and blockages – National Broadband Network, the QLD Reconstruction Levy – have become political problems for Labor – Labor “has paid the political price”.
Winning on the CPRS allowed Abbott to show that Kevin Rudd (who had sky-high approval ratings) that the Labor leader was not bullet proof. Since then, the inability for Rudd to get anything through parliament exacted a heavy toll. The relentless criticism about his competency by Abbott was played out in Parliament with the Liberals using their numbers in the Senate to prevent the Government from governing. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What’s more, Abbott used his obstruction – something that the Canberra Press Gallery has never held him accountable – to argue that Rudd’s agenda was objectionable and outrageous, somehow unAustralian. A subterranean campaign was run against Rudd’s Mandarin language skills – suggesting that he was actually a sinister Manchurian candidate leading Australia to totalitarianism. Every out of character moment – swearing, yelling, etc – was used as evidence of un-Prime Ministerial behaviour.
Eventually, by the 2010 election, Labor had lost the public relations battle – and for many of the murmuring Labor back-bench, they had come to believe the conservative key messages that appeared daily in The Australian. Rudd was done for, and the only rational course for Labor was to dump the damaged Rudd in favour of Gillard.
Play for play, Tony Abbott has lifted the tactics of Republican dalek Mitch McConnell. And it has worked.
The media, the general public and even Labor MPs have accepted the narrative. That it’s Labor’s own ineffectiveness and objectionable legislative agenda that has caused the roadblocks. None of the political-backsplash has landed on Abbott or the Liberals. They’re not the Government afterall, and their mantra is that “they’re only stopping the outrageous legislation being forced on Australia by Labor”.
The Liberals have abandoned their civic responsibility as a political party to act in the best interests of Australia, to address Australia’s problems, whether social or economic. They have abandoned the century old practice of Oppositions acting in good faith on issues of national significance. Bipartisanship has been ruthlessly bashed to death by Boxer Abbott.