Abbott's time, but Canberra will need to fight to be heard

Abbott's time, but Canberra will need to fight to be heard

Former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating deserve to be remembered as Labor greats. They improved this country by chasing big, inspired ideas - and hauling unconvinced Australians along with them. Last weekend, they joined Kevin Rudd at Labor's campaign launch; a tacit sign of support for the Prime Minister's ailing re-election hopes. Yet one cannot help but wonder if their contribution was rooted in opposition to a lifelong opponent - the Coalition - rather than any special admiration for Mr Rudd.

Mr Rudd's approach to the current election campaign mirrors the flaws that defined his prime ministership between 2007 and 2010. He insists he has learned from the verdict of that time: that he was an autocratic leader who rarely consulted others. Yet, over the past 2½ months, he has danced frenetically from one thought bubble to the next. His only apparent strategy has been to neutralise Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's populist appeal by becoming more populist himself.


Mr Rudd is rightly proud of a few accomplishments. His Keynesian response to the global financial crisis deserved the accolades it received from international observers, even if many Australians still fail to see how it benefited them. His government also began to build the national broadband network, a bold venture that could prove crucial for our future, in whatever form it eventually takes.

Yet Mr Rudd's record is tainted by his personal style, particularly his inability to build consensus or produce meaningful reform. He commissioned the thoughtful Henry tax review but largely ignored its advice. After he lost the prime ministership in 2010, he spent much of the next three years covertly harrying his successor, Julia Gillard, and undermining her ability to lead. He seems driven by polling rather than policy. He switches positions on so many issues it is difficult to trust the pledges he makes. Thanks in no small part to his efforts, two Labor administrations have offered more in the way of soap opera than great government. And, perhaps most tellingly, when he reassumed the leadership in June, six Labor frontbenchers confirmed they would retire from politics.


That said, Canberrans are hardly likely to welcome Mr Abbott as prime minister. Like most state and federal opposition leaders (including Mr Rudd in 2007), Mr Abbott has criticised public sector ''waste'' and promised an austere approach to government. This time around, however, the Coalition's rhetoric goes beyond the usual public service bashing. Mr Abbott and his front bench regularly criticise the bureaucracy's growth under Labor, even though it expanded more quickly under John Howard. They have pledged to cut at least 12,000 public service jobs and to shift some parts of the bureaucracy out of the ACT. Mr Abbott's delay in releasing the costs and details of his policies is also troubling; unfortunately, a cynical public has come to expect this from oppositions.

Our city is braced for a tough few years regardless of which party wins Saturday's ballot. An Abbott government would shed thousands of Canberra-based jobs, and also inflate the annual cut to agencies' operating budgets (the so-called ''efficiency dividend'') - which will lead to even more staff losses. Canberrans may dread these decisions but they should not forget that a Rudd government would continue to prune the federal bureaucracy, too. Over the past six years, Labor has regularly sought to do this by increasing the dividend - one of the laziest, least thoughtful and ineffective ways to reduce government spending. Sure, the Rudd and Gillard governments also tried to cut spending in a handful of more direct ways, but their ready willingness to take the easiest option shows Labor is hardly the ACT's best friend. Given its record over the past two terms, who knows what further cuts it would make if it retained office.

Nonetheless, many Canberrans, fearful for their jobs, will vote on Saturday to re-elect their local Labor MPs. Their concerns are understandable, but such a vote will achieve little. The ACT is simply not served well by having two safe seats in the lower house; it allows the main parties to neglect this city and its people. If Canberrans voted more strategically, creating electorates with slimmer margins, they would perhaps remind party leaders not to use us as a political punching bag.

The upper-house election gives Canberrans another opportunity to disrupt political norms. Psephologist Malcolm Mackerras said last month that a Senate vote in the ACT might be ''the most valuable vote in the country''; the only ballot that has the potential to prevent Mr Abbott from wielding complete power. At the same time, Canberrans will lose an experienced senator and proud advocate for the ACT, Gary Humphries, who was defeated in a messy and controversial preselection. He was the only Liberal to vote against the Howard government on a party-mandated ballot (on the matter of same-sex civil unions), because he refused to violate the ACT's rights.

With Senator Humphries's departure, Canberrans now have the perfect opportunity to break up the ACT's cosy Labor-Liberal duopoly in the upper house, and in doing so place a cautionary brake on a likely Abbott government. A lack of a Senate majority is no barrier to good government; indeed, Mr Abbott must embrace compromise if he is to lead well.

And he almost certainly will. Mr Abbott is an experienced former minister. He offers consistency and discipline, while Mr Rudd offers more of the uncertainty and dysfunction that has brought Labor to this precipice. Mr Abbott will need a responsive and well-resourced public service to deliver his agenda. It is to be hoped that the commission of audit he has flagged will understand that governing requires skilled administrators and advisers, and that much of the apparent ''waste'' in the public service is just an assumption. Neither party, and neither leader, offers much in the way of inspiration. However, given Mr Rudd's record and Labor's disarray, stability is the safer course for the nation. Mr Abbott should therefore be given the opportunity to become the prime minister we deserve.