Abbott’s short political honeymoon, State of the Left

January 21, 2014

One of Aesop’s fables tells of a bee who is offered a wish by Jupiter, the king of the gods. The bee wishes for a sting to hurt people. Jupiter, taken aback by this wish, gives the bee a sting, but one which kills the bee as well as hurting the people stung. The moral: be careful of wishes that do harm to others.

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott would empathise with our bee of yore. For after barely four months in the office for which he fought so ruthlessly, his halo of success has vanished and the role seems painfully ill-fitting.

The public judgment has been rapid and harsh. Mr Abbott’s Coalition won 53.5% of the two-party vote in September’s election. By the end of the year, Australia’s two leading polling firms had the Coalition trailing Labor by 52 to 48. The boss of one of these polls, John Stirton, says in 40 years he has never seen a turnaround of this speed and magnitude. So much for a honeymoon.

How has Mr Abbott found himself in this situation? One factor has been an ineptness that marks many new governments finding their feet. The ineptness in this case has been overlaid by a screed of arrogance resulting from the size of the election win.

The government’s response to revelations of Australian spying on the Indonesian president was to refuse to apologise or offer words of mollification, damaging a critical bilateral relationship. The Immigration Minister has simply stopped answering media queries on the success of stopping asylum seeker boats from Indonesia, having previously made great fanfare of weekly press conferences with a senior military official by his side.

Further damage has been caused by the false expectations raised by Mr Abbott in Opposition which have simply failed to materialise. His argument on the economy was that Labor mismanagement was materially damaging Australian prosperity: a “big lie” which has come to appear cynical as the broader economy has continued in good shape. Mr Abbott also decried a “budget emergency” created by Labor, but he has already added almost $30 billion to the annual deficit and has increased the federal debt limit from $300 billion to $500 billion, actions hardly likely to improve the budget.

In another example, Labor’s carbon tax was supposed to destroy businesses and increase cost of living pressures, yet 18 months on, growth remains steady, inflation contained and carbon emissions have fallen .

The final contributing factor to Mr Abbott’s malaise has been the government’s assumption that its election win has given it licence to pursue a hardline ideological agenda well to the Right of mainstream Australian politics.

At the urging of big business, the government has instigated a Commission of Audit designed to cut public spending, despite the fact that Australia has amongst the lowest spending in the OECD. The fact that the Commission is headed by the president of the Business Council of Australia and its secretariat is the BCA’s chief economist betrays its ultimate agenda: to pave the way for corporate tax cuts and further privatisations.

On another front, the Abbott government renounced a clear pre-election promise to uphold Labor’s education spending reforms, only to backflip on the plan in the face of a violent public backlash. More recently, it has announced a review of the recently agreed national curriculum, claiming the curriculum is too focused on Asia and indigenous Australia at the expense of the values of Western civilization. Finally, it has appointed a new “Freedom Commissioner”, claiming the country’s human rights institutions are unduly balanced towards left-wing values. It’s fair to say that both announcements have left the public underwhelmed.

In the wake of this self-harm, Labor’s new leader Bill Shorten has played a steady hand. Mr Shorten has pointed out the obvious damage to our international relationships and has carefully catalogued the government’s list of broken promises to date. To put space between Labor and the government, he has acknowledged that some of Labor’s measures in government, like a reduction in income support for single mothers, were unduly harsh.

Despite a measured performance so far, Mr Shorten must be careful not to overreach. He has speculated this week that Mr Abbott might prove a “once” – a rare, one-term Prime Minister. Such thinking aloud does not help Mr Shorten, and underestimates the real chance that Mr Abbott’s performance will improve as he finds his feet.

A bigger danger is that Mr Shorten believes Labor can regain office with a “business as usual” approach, that the quickest way back to government is to minimise risk by running a slick, professional political machine. This would ignore Labor’s philosophical and cultural failings of recent years when winning office was the end in itself. Instead, Mr Shorten should take the opportunity of the early Opposition years to reinterpret Labor’s moral purpose for the challenges of the next decade and beyond. While this will undoubtedly entail some short-term pain, nothing would do more to ensure Mr Abbott greater long-term discomfort.