Time for Coalition to step up as an alternative government: Keane

The opposition has said it will bring on a motion of no-confidence in the budget sitting week, beginning May 14. And it tried to bring on a motion of no-confidence last Thursday.

“It’s time for the independents to examine their consciences and to speak to their electorates over the next six weeks about whether they want the faceless men of the Labor Party choosing the prime minister,” Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne said.

After last week’s farce, surely, the opposition has a point. Julia Gillard may remain prime minister, and thus her agreements with Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and the Greens remain in place. But at some point the crossbenchers must give consideration to whether the national interest is served by going to the polls ahead of schedule.

According to the opposition, then, we should be mere weeks away from an election?—?indeed, we should be in an election campaign now, if they’d had their way last Thursday. Moreover, it’s only a few weeks since the opposition argued we were in “virtual caretaker” mode courtesy of the Prime Minister announcing the date of the election.

All of which prompts the question: if the opposition wants to be taken seriously on this, why isn’t it releasing its policies? They are, we are told, all costed and ready to go. Savings measures are locked down, tax cuts prepared and a small number of spending initiatives ready for an alternative government that will “under-promise and over-deliver”.

If we’ve reached some sort of watershed moment in the course of this hung Parliament, as the Coalition suggests, then it’s time the Coalition moved on from being the relentlessly negative opposition it has so successfully been, and demonstrate that it is an actual alternative government with a credible economic plan. In particular, how the Coalition resolves the tension between Joe Hockey’s insistence on fiscal rigour and Tony Abbott’s “everyone comes out ahead” magic pudding approach to the budget is of critical importance in terms of economic growth over the next 24 months.

What reason does the Coalition have to be reluctant? Fear of a revitalised Gillard exploiting their sudden boldness? Seriously? It might also be of benefit to Coalition ministers, who have in effect been banned from discussing policy for two-and-a-half years while Abbott effectively prosecuted the case against Labor. Once elected, those atrophied policy skills will have to be deployed.

You can’t govern by relentlessly bagging the opposition, not if you want to get anything done. Shadow ministers having to actually talk about policy, explain, justify it, address the occasional subtlety or counter-intuitive feature, all will improve the performance of a Coalition government once it gets underway.

The alternative, as Labor has demonstrated, is that a refusal to discuss policy when in opposition becomes an inability to sell policy when in government.

This article first appeared on Crikey.

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