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Coalition policy primed for early poll

14 January 2012 1,250 views No Comment

NOT very many Australians know that Andrew Robb chairs the federal Coalition policy development committee, with its deputy chairman being the former adviser to Peter Costello and now Victorian member for Casey, Tony Smith.

This important committee has been working overtime to ensure the Tony Abbott-led opposition will go to the next federal election with a policy platform that adds up politically, philosophically and fiscally. Systematically but unobtrusively and in the main under the political radar, Robb and Smith have been dotting their policy i’s and crossing their costing t’s.

After the 2010 federal election, the Opposition Leader was determined to ensure the Coalition embarked on a comprehensive policy development process. Given the tenuous nature of Julia Gillard’s hold on minority government, Abbott wanted to ensure the Coalition would be ready to go in an early election. As well, there was quiet recognition that the Coalition’s development of policy before the 2010 election needed improvement.

It wasn’t so much the policies themselves that needed work but the development process had been handicapped by the instability that had plagued the Coalition during its first term in opposition. A quick succession of leaders – Nelson, Turnbull and Abbott – within 18 months caused political upheaval and procedural destabilisation.

The policy development committee went through a succession of chairs – first Julie Bishop under Nelson, then Kevin Andrews under Turnbull, and finally Robb. In such a tumultuous atmosphere, a policy development process could be neither efficient nor seamless.

Hence Abbott was determined to ensure that the Coalition’s second – and hopefully final – term in opposition would not only be better, but the best it could be. He reappointed Robb to chair the policy development committee and appointed the talented Smith as deputy.

Early last year, Robb and Smith initiated a series of meetings, reviews and stress-test sessions for draft policies that continued throughout the year.

Along with key staff from the leader’s office, they worked hard to assist shadow ministers to develop a strong policy base in the event of an early election. And these policies have been adjusted and updated where necessary to accommodate changing circumstances and events. The result is an opposition policy development process that is one of the most comprehensive and advanced in recent political history.

Robb and Smith are not taking input only from the Coalition frontbench: every Liberal and Nationals backbencher has been afforded the opportunity to throw their ideas into the mix. Hence every Tuesday evening of each sitting week last year, at his own initiative, Smith allocated a few hours to meet with any colleague who wished to run an idea through the policy development process.

Along with key members of Abbott’s staff – Mark Roberts and Andrew Stone – they met individually with almost every member of the Coalition party room. And many of these backbenchers came with well-researched and well-conceived proposals that derived from their unique local experience and personal expertise. A highly credible source informs me that the controversial, former Liberal Party MP now Speaker, Peter Slipper, was one of the very few backbenchers not to take up this opportunity.

Some of the ideas emanating from Coalition backbenchers have produced policy gold, with Robb and Smith marking them for further development.

Abbott himself has been keeping a keen eye on who has shown enough interest to make a contribution and noted that some of the least-known backbenchers have produced the most thorough and dynamic work. Indeed some of these backbenchers have been given research tasks to support possible policy initiatives.

Throughout this process, the policy development team has been well aware of the fiscal constraints a Coalition government will face if it were to win the next federal election. Not only have the Rudd and Gillard governments squandered the $45 billion nest egg left by John Howard and Peter Costello, but Labor has driven the commonwealth more than $100bn into debt.

So any policy initiatives will have to be tempered by the over-riding imperative that the federal budget be restored to surplus ASAP. Moreover, Robb and Smith have worked hard to ensure that Coalition policy will reflect the small-government principles that are at the core of their Liberal world view.

As a result of all this hard work and as yet unknown to many, the Coalition is going into this year with a quiver full of policy arrows. Thus, even in the unlikely event of the federal election coming early, the Abbott-led opposition will be positioned on solid policy ground to take the fight to a dysfunctional Gillard government.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University Ross Fitzgerald’s latest book is the co-authored political satire Fools’ Paradise, published in Melbourne by Arcadia and Australian Scholarly Publishing. The Weekend Australian January 14 -15, 2012.