Here is what Opposition is all about people
In 2007, members of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal and National Parties tried to convince themselves that the polls were wrong.
Despite months of poor polling, we clung to a belief that we would succeed at the election.
There was a disconnect between the polls and the ‘feeling’ in the electorate, members would proclaim.
“There is no hostility in the electorate,” was another common report.
It was true. There was no hostility. People were polite, but they had made up their minds. They acknowledged the good work of the Howard government, but they would vote for a change.
I am reminded of those events when I consider the current state of the Opposition.
For almost two years, the Coalition has been trailing in the polls. Like 2007, we can pretend that they are wrong, or we can tackle the problem.
Central to our challenge is the role of an Opposition.
Like most occupations, experience counts for much in politics.
Only one-quarter of the Coalition members and senators served in Opposition before. And less than one-fifth of the frontbench sat in Parliament prior to 1996.
There are two crucial tasks for an Opposition.
First, we must point out the faults and failings of the Labor government. That is not to oppose everything the government does, for no government is always wrong. Our message must enjoin the principles which we believe will make Australia a better place with our criticisms of the Australian Labor Party.
When a party is elected to office, its primary responsibility is the continued government of the nation. Ministers are appointed to administer the departments of state responsible for the various activities of the nation. Much of this work requires no legislation or no new legislation.
The party elected to govern has a right to put its proposed legislation before the Parliament and have it debated, as have other members and senators.
Equally, the Parliament has the duty to scrutinize carefully any such proposals. And the Opposition has the responsibility to the people of Australia to continue to argue for those policies it believes will enhance the prosperity of this nation.
But apart from the bills to guarantee the continued operation of the government, known as supply, there is no general expectation that an Opposition will support the government. Even supply can be rejected in exceptional circumstances.
The role of the Opposition is to consider any legislation the government proposes. It can support it or reject it. In doing so, it should set out its own principles as to why it believes the proposal is, or is not, in the national interest.
Some people believe that the Opposition should seek to improve the government’s legislation. The problem with this approach is that it can involve the Opposition compromising its own principles, and often sending a mixed message to the community.
From time to time, a government will claim it has a mandate for certain legislation. This is usually a device used to avoid discussion of the details of the proposed changes.
But opposition is not enough.
“In my view,” said Robert Menzies, “the duty of an opposition which wants to move over on to the Treasury benches is to be constructive, judicious, and different.” Being different means articulating our principles and developing policies consistent with them.
People vote on their perceptions, and not generally issues, but it is the response to the various issues that go to create the important perceptions. That is why hard policy work is important.
As Robert Menzies said:
Opposition gives more time for study and thought. It must be regarded as a great constructive period in the life of a party; properly considered, not a period in the wilderness, but a period of preparation of the high responsibilities which you hope will come.
Those high responsibilities will only be returned to us if we have provided the people of Australia with an alternative, with a choice that demonstrates both the differences between us and Labor, and the direction we would take this great nation.
This is the task we now face.
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