After all the bluster and extravagant language of yesterday, suddenly the Coalition has changed its mind. It says it will give Treasury access to its costings for the Independents to peruse, after all. On the condition, of course, that the government doesn’t get its grubby little hands on it.
Abbott has spun this as a ‘significant win’ for the Coalition. Without this agreement – which he is claiming is entirely his idea – the Independents would only have received a briefing from Treasury on the government’s costings. They would have had no information about the Coalition’s numbers at all. Now, he claims, the Coalition will brief Treasury, who will in turn brief the Independents. In this way, the briefings can go ahead ‘without risk of political interference’.
It was all about making sure that the public service was able to give ‘frank and fearless’ advice, he says. Before, that simply wasn’t possible. The existence of a shadowy figure in Treasury leaking information showed that the process was hopelessly compromised. But now, with this agreement, the Coalition has ensured that all is well, the briefings can take place and the Independents can have access to all the numbers.
On Wednesday, Abbott said he couldn’t give his numbers to Treasury because they could not understand how the Opposition’s numbers were put together.
Twenty-four hours ago, the story changed.
Andrew Robb proclaimed that there was no chance that Treasury would see their costings until the alleged Treasury leaker was identified and prosecuted. The ‘process’ was corrupt – and by inference, so was Treasury. The mere suggestion that Treasury should see the Coalition’s numbers was outrageous, not to be contemplated. The Independents could see the private audit completed by WHK Horwath, but that was it. (And it’s worth noting that the firm in question is now the subject of a complaint to the Institute of Chartered Accountants). Robb drew a sharp line in the sand, and if the Independents didn’t like it, tough.
In fact, the Coalition claimed, Gillard’s willingness to co-operate with the Independents’ requests showed that she was willing to ‘trash the Westminster system’. They called her ‘weak’, and an ‘appeaser’. By contrast, Abbott was taking a ‘principled stand’.
Now, another day further on, the story has changed again.
Suddenly, the corrupt process no longer exists. Suddenly, Treasury is capable of understanding the Opposition’s costings. With a wave of some political magic wand, Abbott has fixed the problem and Treasury is no longer under a cloud. How confident, how masterful, how – Prime Ministerial.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen spin this blatant. And this stupid.
You only have to read the letters exchanged between Abbott and Gillard to see that the story is very different to what Abbott announced not twenty minutes ago. The Herald-Sun helpfully provided links to them in the article linked above. Media conferences given by the respective leaders can be found via ABC News or Sky News.
The initial overture was made by Gillard on Wednesday. Under the caretaker provisions, Abbott’s agreement was needed to make certain information available.
Abbott attempted to set some conditions, including what amounts to a gag order on the Independents. He wanted assurances from the Prime Minister that they would not disclose any information they received. Gillard, rightly, made it clear that she had no intention of attempting to silence the Independents – it was entirely up to them to make that decision. This was an obvious attempt by Abbott to further the Coalition’s allegation that the government had undue influence over Treasury, and was probably responsible for the leaked document. What it looked like, though, was standover tactics on the Independents.
Abbott also insisted that Treasury look over the costings on the government’s broadband and proposed Mineral Resources Rent Tax. Gillard responded that the numbers had already been scrutinised by Treasury and released before the election – and she also offered a more detailed briefing to the Coalition should they required it. This was nothing more than Abbott attempting to cast doubt on the government’s figures. It’s a pity the Coalition didn’t do its homework and realise the numbers were already out there. They’ve come off looking petty.
The condition that the government not be given any access whatsoever to Coalition costings is, frankly, ridiculous – and Gillard’s agreement can be read as nothing more than acquiescence to a pointless demand that has no effect on the government. Again, it’s just an attempt to perpetuate the idea that the government is untrustworthy. The question needs to be asked, though – if the costings were prepared properly, what possible harm can be done by releasing the figures once they have been scrutinised by Treasury?
Then there’s Abbott’s claim that he prevented Gillard from ‘trashing the Westminster system’ by releasing the briefings normally given to an incoming government. Gillard’s first letter shows that she never had any intention of doing so. Abbott has tried to take credit for something he hasn’t done.
Finally, the notion that this is something entirely brokered by Abbott and reluctantly agreed to by Gillard is completely demolished. As noted above, Gillard made the overture on August 25, and it was not until August 28 that Abbott agreed to provide the Coalition’s costings to Treasury.
All of it adds up to a very unpleasant picture. We have a story that changed three times, each time presented as though the previous version did not exist. We have a Coalition claiming that the current state of co-operation is entirely their doing, and that it demonstrates how capable they are of forming stable, responsible government.
But we also have the evidence of how their story has changed – and the conviction with which they told it each time. We have the evidence to show that Abbott is not a deal-maker par excellence, but rather a reluctant partner.
Why change their ‘principled stand’ now? Is it because they realised how thoroughly they alienated the Independents by refusing to allow access to Coalition costings? Because they have already prepared a response if Treasury find that their numbers are dodgy that points the finger squarely at Labor?
It certainly looks that way. But it appears Abbott cannot simply front up and say that the Coalition has had a change of heart. Instead, he has to pretend the last two days simply did not happen. More, he has to take credit for something he quite simply did not do. Humility, and the ability to admit mistakes, do not seem to be qualities the Opposition leader possesses in any great quantity.
This is just another posture in what has been an increasingly arrogant series from the Coalition. How the Independents respond to it will be telling. It’s to be hoped that they will call Abbott on the ridiculous runaround he’s given them, and on his current ‘magnanimous ruler’ pose. It’s also to be hoped that they will tell him that he has no control over who they speak to, or what they say.
Abbott and Robb continue to play a dangerous game – but they’re getting the headlines. Gillard’s co-operative stance has almost been eclipsed by the Coalition’s spin, and they’re continuing with their attempts to paint Labor as weak, incompetent and corrupt.
It’s important that each be seen for what it is. One side is co-operating freely. The other side is the Coalition, which has slunk back to the table after it failed to bully the Independents into falling into line.
On post-election tactics alone, this is a dismal situation. Should the Independents choose to back the Coalition, we will have a government that was willing to bully, lie and blacken the good name of Treasury just to sit on the right side of the Speaker.
That’s something I don’t care to contemplate.