Sometimes politicians must hate themselves.
We know this, not by any upfront admission, but by the way they condemn their very own behaviour.
A stunning example came from Tony Abbott at the weekend with a thoughtful piece of agenda setting. Who can argue with this?
“In an atmosphere of rancid partisanship, few great national questions can ever satisfactorily be decided,” he said, urging an end to political bickering.
The problem is, for most of his 20 years in parliament, Mr Abbott has been a boots-and-all partisan warrior. His attacks on the carbon and mining taxes allowed no room for nuance or compromise, but that is what he is now urging in the name of “fixing the federation”.
It’s not surprising that the Labor Opposition won’t cut him any slack, especially with three crucial state elections coming up in the next six months.
Victoria is the first to lead off in just six weeks.
The Prime Minister left himself wide open in his Sir Henry Parkes Oration by appearing to give the states a blank cheque to raise the biggest indirect tax of them all – the GST.
“The Commonwealth would be ready to work with the states on a range of tax reforms that could permanently improve the states’ tax base – including changes to the indirect tax base with compensating reductions in income tax.”
It’s clear from the speech that he was offering to shrink the size of the federal government. He’s prepared to hand back full responsibility for health, education, roads, police, housing and planning. In fact, this is what the constitution allocates them, but over the years the Commonwealth has increasingly encroached on this turf. Mr Abbott is also opening the way for them to raise revenue to pay for it.
This is some turnaround for Mr Abbott.
In his 2009 book Battlelines he argued the states weren’t up to the task and he proposed a complete federal takeover to remedy their failures. But even here he was partisan: “The status quo would be more acceptable if the likes of Kennett and Greiner were still running state governments.”
These Liberal titans had been replaced by wall-to-wall Labor governments. “Instead,” wrote Mr Abbott, “the states are seen as the second XI of Australian politics.”
Five years later the landscape has changed. The country’s only Labor premier is far from impressed. South Australia’s Jay Weatherill stripped away sentiment to accuse the PM of another attempt to coerce the states into agreeing to lift the GST. He sees this as fundamentally unfair.
“It is by its nature regressive. It will place the burden more on those who can least afford it,” said Mr Weatherill.
Federal Labor went for the jugular, reminding the Prime Minister that on the eve of the election he categorically promised that the GST would not change, full stop, end of story. Bill Shorten asked Mr Abbott in question time when he would break this undertaking.
“What I hoped to do is to set us up for a mature debate about the future of our federation,” the PM replied.
“Just for once it might be possible in this parliament to have a mature debate rather than a screaming match,” he continued.
Victoria’s Liberal Premier, Denis Napthine, already facing a tight election, wasn’t impressed with Abbott’s apparent statesmanship. On radio 3AW he said he had no interest in backing a GST rate rise.
“Tony Abbott, show us the money. Our fair share (of GST revenue), that’s what we want.”
The politics is awful. In our contested system it always will be, but perhaps that’s where Whitlamesque courage comes into it. Tony Abbott says he’s up for it.
“We’re not going to have a pointless fight sponsoring change that the states aren’t even prepared to consider – because if it’s to happen, reform of the federation has to be owned by the states as well as by the Commonwealth.”
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno