One of the great challenges of moving from government to opposition (and trust me, there are many), is deciding where to draw the line under defending the record of your party while in government.
It is not an easy thing to get right. It becomes even more difficult when your opposition leadership and senior members are all former cabinet ministers, who feel, understandably, that their own personal reputations are on the line.
I watched from outside Parliament in the period 2008-2011 when the New Zealand Labour Party, then led by very senior, able and extremely hard working former ministers at times really struggled with this. I’m not sure how obvious it was to the casual observer, but being able to attack the Government, while maintaining respect for the record of your previous administration, can be extremely difficult.
It has now been over two months since the conservative coalition took power at the Australian Federal election. And it hasn’t taken long for Tony Abbott to have to face his share of political crises. Very shortly after the election there were reports of some rather dodgy expense claims, mainly from coalition polticians. This was followed by the inevitable political scuffle that will eventuate when a party that campaigned against debt tries to raise the federal debt ceiling.
This week we’ve seen a major diplomatic crisis following revelations that Australia tapped the phones of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and eight Goverment ministers.
It’s been a sorry state of affairs, and the diplomatic situation between Indonesia and Australia is rapidly deteriorating.
From a political point of view, aside from the conservative’s showing that international relations is all a bit too complicated for them, I’ve been most surprised by the very strong opposition that Labor has shown.
To his credit, Labor leader Bill Shorten was quick off the mark to call for the Australian Government to apologise…
I believe, for instance, that the example of the United States in the way that it handled a similar issue with Germany provides the opportunity for us to consider the same course of action.
He’s really gone out on a limb – putting aside the fact that this spying happened under a Labor government, and putting the onous back on Tony Abbott.
He followed it up the next day with this classy op-ed in the Guardian:
I can assure the Australian people that the opposition will fully cooperate in the task before Australia. We are willing to join the Abbott government in any effort, briefings or discussions in pursuit of the task of rebuilding trust within this key relationship. Labor wants the Australian government to be successful in restoring our vital relationship with Indonesia. That is what all sides need and want in Australia’s national interest – a recovery of trust.
To be honest, I’m really surprised that federal Labor is taking such a strong oppositional stance just months after a such a solid electoral defeat – but I think it sets a very good precident for things to come.