One if the great myths that has sprouted up in Australian politics — largely cultivated by the Labor Party and tilled by the media — is that opposition leaders should be positive and constructive in their dealings with the government.
Tony Abbott in particular is singled as being pathologically negative, unhelpful, and unsupportive of government initiatives.
Logically, so the argument goes, this makes him unsuitable to be Australian Prime Minister.
The view is pushed by the entire Labor frontbench, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard, but principally by Labor’s attack-dog and leader of government business in the House of Representatives, Anthony Albanese.
Running a minority government is difficult, so therefore Mr Abbott should assist it in its endeavours.
This ignores the fact that the Opposition has supported the Government in close to 90 per cent of its bills.
Moreover, at the last election the Coalition actually won more seats than the Labor Party and a significantly higher proportion of first preference votes. Despite this, two “conservative” former Nationals MPs decided to vote with Labor to deny Abbott the prime ministership.
So the Labor Party view of “constructive” oppositions is a furphy.
In fact, the idea that oppositions should be “positive” is a deliberate and mischievous misunderstanding of the nature of the Westminster system, in which the opposition party/parties’ job is to hold the government of the day to account and to attempt to wrest control of the Treasury benches by legitimate means.
That is their role and their duty as parliamentarians.
The federal Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane put the issue in some perspective in an insightful opinion piece in The Australian.
He wrote: “The Coalition actually has a duty to ensure decisions made by Labor and its alliance partners are transparent and accountable, and to oppose those measures we believe to be damaging and against the interests of ordinary Australians.”
Now, people might say that Loughnane would say that — he actually runs the Liberal Party and is a key Abbott ally.
However, Loughnane then goes on to quote (Sir) Robert Menzies from a radio broadcast explaining “the function of the opposition in Parliament”.
Menzies said: “Every now and then, you will read an allegation by somebody to the effect that the opposition is ‘playing party politics’. (But) in parliament, we are divided on party lines.
“What are the consequences of this? The first and greatest is that you cannot maintain the party system of government and at the same time expect the opposition to treat the government as if it were an all-party government.
“The function of an opposition is to be quite unhesitating in its willingness to debate large matters of policy, to criticise the government on those matters, to put forward and maintain its own.”
Interestingly, the Menzies speech was made during World War II — one of the few situations in which opposition parties might be expected to discard normal tactics in favour of a joint effort for the national interest.
Labor wants Tony Abbott to desist from his attacks on the Government in order to have “bipartisanship” on matters such as border control, national broadband and climate change.
For many years there was in fact a “truce” between Labor and the Opposition on immigration, multiculturalism, overseas aid, indigenous affairs and unfettered deregulation and free trade — even when there was disquiet in Coalition ranks about aspects of these policies.
With nowhere for debate on these issues to go, a de facto Opposition grew up in the form of Hansonism, with dire consequences for both Labor and the Coalition parties.
Both Labor and the Coalition have a joint “national interest” policy on some issues, particularly national security and defence matters.
But even here it often seems strange that there is not a more mature national debate on Australia’s overseas military commitments.
There is not a cigarette paper of difference between Abbott and Gillard on Afghanistan. Indeed, both attempt to outdo each other in speeches in the House in terms of “staying the course”.
There is not even dissent in the ranks of either of the major parties in the Parliament about the War in Afghanistan, now entering its 12th year.
By contrast, in the United States serious and free debates on overseas military deployments are part of the national fabric, including within the Republican Party, where some candidates for the presidency are in favour of withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Tony Abbott should not be dissuaded from pursuing his current course, in spite of the misgivings of nervous members of his own party, who have bought the Government’s propaganda line.