By Tom Bentley
The public reaction to Australia’s 2014 budget has been like a compound fracture to the government’s backbone.
Its first signs are a visible discomfort in undertaking routine daily activities, like radio interviews and community visits. Over time the signs of a deeper fragmentation will begin to appear, along with extreme constraint in the government’s ability to carry any weight or respond with agility to obstacles in its way.
Abbott’s political authority was fractured so quickly because of its brittleness. Forged in the fire of opposition and relentless attack, his governing coalition contains deep contradictions and conflicting forces, which his approach to winning office has compounded, rather than resolving.
He repeatedly told his troops that the dilemmas of real-life policy and budget strategy were debates to be had in government, not in opposition. This was combined with an approach to political management straight out of the command and control playbook, in which the leader calls the shots and the masses follow on.
In order to maintain “stability”, Abbott has preserved a motley collection of Howard-era front benchers, all of whom seem dedicated to returning Australia to their own personal favourite decade of the 20th century. Meanwhile, a series of younger guns, apprenticed during the Howard years but mostly with little experience of the wider world, wait fretfully on the edge of the ministry, trying to work out when to seize their moment – and Malcolm Turnbull determinedly positions himself to become the people’s choice.
This approach might have held water for longer if the government had an actual plan to govern. But developing such a plan would have exposed the Coalition’s deep tensions: between the free-market superstition carried fervently by most Coalition MPs and the varying forms of cultural conservatism, libertarianism, social liberalism and agricultural protectionism that characterise their social beliefs.
Now he is trying to pin those contradictions on the Labor party in one big move, also demonstrating his other signature technique: to create political momentum by picking his own confrontations and then trying to fell his opponents with one big punch. But all Abbott’s reference points are in the past: not just the points he has scored against debts and deficits, the “carbon tax” and so on, but also his addiction to the vendettas and privatising policy moves of John Howard.
During the rest of 2014, it will become painfully clear that the Coalition has no worked-out agenda for Australia’s future other than aggressive economic deregulation. This helps to explain why the promised return of “stability and order”, after the jitters of minority government, is not turning out as many had hoped.
The other issue for Abbott is that while the Howard government made Australians wealthier and more comfortable, it left them unprepared for the future. It neglected education, hospital funding, water and climate change until the last minute and failing to bank enough of the proceeds of the mining boom.
Labor’s response was to attempt to tackle all these issues simultaneously, while responding to the shock of the global financial crisis. In the process, they exposed the limitations of the ALP’s political culture.
Whatever their failings, the Rudd-Gillard governments espoused goals that still seem right to most people: decent jobs, secure pensions, better health and education for everyone, reduced carbon pollution and good relationships with the US and Asia, all supported by accessible, fast internet access for all.
The Abbott opposition was unable to challenge these ends, so instead it attacked the means: the carbon price, the mining tax, the budget deficit, the performance of the public sector and, ultimately, the character and competence of Labor’s leaders.
It promised to deliver the same ends, using much narrower means. Now, as it spectacularly breaks its promises, a new picture is emerging. The Abbott government has repeatedly stated that the only way to make the economy and the welfare state sustainable is to rely on the market. In reality this only favours incumbents and the wealthy, at the expense of the broader public interest and the most vulnerable members of society.
Nonetheless, it’s true that the structure of the Commonwealth budget presents a problem to be solved. It began in the 2000s, with a tax cut and giveaway spree that was initiated by the Coalition and continued by Labor. It was made worse with the changed composition of business tax revenue, which has only shown up in the failure of these monies to return to “normal” expectations after the global financial crisis.
So Australia faces a challenge to spending on health, education, disability and pensions, as well as defence, infrastructure and overseas aid. The answer is not to cut some spending off at the knees, which dumps the risk on those who have least power to resist, and stokes inequality and social unrest.
In effect, the government and its supporters are saying that a problem created by granting too many concessions to private wealth must be solved by savaging investments designed to meet public need.
You only need to look at Britain, with its over-financialised economy, tattered social fabric and deep political malaise to understand the consequences of following the dogma that “there is no alternative”.
The Coalition is deliberately bastardising the treasury-inspired advice that “something must be done” about the budget, and using it as cover to introduce ideological priorities that it did not reveal before the 2013 election. Tony Shepherd, head of the Commission of Audit, has willingly volunteered to play the stooge.
The bluster from Maurice Newman and Wesfarmers head Richard Goyder is, frankly, repugnant. Who does Goyder think buys his groceries? Where is the big red hand? How about “Down, down, pensions are down!” as the next Liberal campaign slogan? Is he seriously trying to tell us that moving the aged pension and public funding for schools to the same “junk bond status” currently enjoyed by the NewStart allowance is an investment in Australia’s future economic productivity? He should be shamed by the public.
How did we get to a situation where private interests can veto the public discussion of fossil fuel and superannuation subsidies, but the managing director of Wesfarmers feels comfortable lecturing poor people that they should take responsibility for becoming less of a burden on the rest of us?
Commission of Audit members Robert Fisher, Tony Shepherd, Amanda Vanstone and Peter Boxall being questioned at a Senate hearing at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday
The answer to the current budget problem is to have an honest debate about tax and its relationship to capital ownership, and to search rigorously for ways to achieve more cost-effective improvements to health outcomes and wide-scale educational excellence.
We need to focus hard on how to develop the capabilities that will give Australia a comparative economic advantage in the future. The Coalition is not doing any of these things. In fact, it is actively closing off the avenues that could take us there, including by axing the independent COAG reform council.
However, simply dismissing all politicians for not having worked out the answers, or setting up the next political leader to fail the “test of character”, is also a waste of time. If we want different leadership, we have to recognise and reward the behaviours that will lead to better answers for Australia’s future.
Given the cynicism with which he exploited public uncertainty about the character of the Gillard government, Abbott deserves to be punished relentlessly for his breach of faith. In our democracy, holding the government to account for their actions is the opposition’s constitutional responsibility.
It is equally clear that something more is needed. We need to draw the increasingly obvious conclusion – that Tony Abbott, the prime minister, is a dud – and also engage in a substantive debate about what it will actually take to fulfil the potential that this nation’s wealth, talent, location, history, relationships and hard work have created for it in the 21st century.
What has opened up political uncertainty over the last three weeks is not the skill of the opposition, but the reaction of the public. The government failed to account, once again, for the fact that there is a strong sense of fairness which is not controlled or predicted by political parties or the media.
Most damaging for the Coalition is not the shock, or the hardness, of the budget measures: it is the fact that they are (rightly) deemed unfair by most people.
Bill Shorten, who has been gifted a united and disciplined Labor party for the seven months of his leadership so far, now has the opportunity of a lifetime. To realise it, he must step out of the long shadow cast by the leadership of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating over the culture of today’s Australia.