Two years in and the Abbott government remains a clamor of battle slogans in search of a policy purpose. The prime minister keeps shaping up for confected daily fights without comprehending that is exactly why he is losing the political “war”.
This is the point in the three-year cycle when a functional government would be finishing the hard grind of doing what it promised at the last election and beginning the task of selling those achievements, and a few new ambitions, at the next one.
Not this administration. The prime minister’s line – after the unsuccessful February leadership spill – that “good government starts today” has become a running gallows-humour joke inside his own administration. Even Coalition MPs are not quite sure what their “good government” is trying to achieve.
Its first two years have been a switchback ride of policy reversals, broken promises, foot-stomping frustrations and ideological overreach, leaving Coalition supporters despairing and voters – according to every published poll – deeply unimpressed. Instead of soothing, negotiating, persuading or explaining, the Abbott government responds to new setbacks with another whiplash of hyperbolic aggression or distraction.
When ministers dutifully recite the talking point that the leak/leadership story/scandal/side issue of the day is a “distraction”, no one knows what we are supposedly being distracted from.
Coalition MPs cling to the John Howard comparison. He had persistently bad polls in his first term and he still won a second, right? But Howard was unpopular in his first term mostly because he actually did the unpopular things he believed in – he cut government spending, he changed industrial relation laws, he forced through the gun buyback and he asked voters to give him a second term so he could introduce a goods and services tax. So when he framed the 1998 election around “economic competence” and growth and jobs (sound familiar?), he could point to actual achievements to demonstrate the “courageous decisions” necessary to achieve it, from his political perspective.
By contrast this government has kept switching its slogans and policy objectives for the economy every time the last script didn’t work out.
It began with the call to arms at the last election – the “debt ‘n deficit disaster” that was all Labor’s fault and only a new Coalition government could avoid. But the first Abbott budget didn’t even try to do all that much about it, and ambushed voters with previously unmentioned health, education and welfare changes which the public and the Senate (backed by at least three sets of modelling) rejected as inequitable and unfair.
By the Coalition’s pre-election reasoning (which ignored international forces like global financial crises or changes in commodity prices) the bigger and longer-lasting deficits and higher debt now forecast should be an even bigger emergency than the one it inherited.
So the slogan switched to “have a go” and the shiny, optimistic 2015 budget was all about getting good, honest folk back to work, primarily women – by way of a new childcare package. That was paid for by cuts to family tax benefit and a massive paring back of what had previously been the prime minister’s “signature” policy on paid parental leave. But neither have passed the Senate, so the productivity- boosting childcare plan (which isn’t supposed to start until July 2017 anyway) remains somewhat hypothetical and complicated to talk about.
So now the slogan has switched again, to “jobs and growth”. The government likes to refer to 300,000 jobs “created” during its term, but that hasn’t been enough to stop unemployment rising. Growth has slowed to a crawl.
Which brings us to “lower, simpler, fairer taxes”. Let’s put aside for one second the inconvenient facts that the government introduced a deficit levy and re-indexed petrol excise, both moves I agree with, but not exactly lower taxes.
The “lower, simpler, fairer” tax policy it will present at the next election may or may not include personal income tax cuts funded by an expansion of the GST, depending on which day it is and which member of the government is talking. But even if voters were to forget that the prime minister promised “the GST will not change. Full stop. End of story” when asked if he would propose changes in a second term, any GST expansion would require the agreement of the states and they want the money to pay for the looming (and real) “black hole” in hospitals funding. And any parent who has spent time comforting a sick and distressed child in a seething accident and emergency department is likely to be on the premiers’ side in that argument.
Meanwhile, the government’s plans for higher education policy remain in limbo. It abandoned a promise to match Labor on schools funding so we have no idea what will happen there, and the Medicare co-payment has ostensibly been shelved but the Australian Medical Association says a freeze on rebates achieves exactly the same thing over time, by stealth.
For a while the government was going to “end the age of entitlement” for Australian industry. But then (who’d have guessed) the polls in manufacturing states headed south and it suddenly found another $500m for the car industry as a kind of farewell present, and said the Australian Submarine Corporation was actually good for something other than canoe-building and might just get a look in on the $20bn future submarine contract after all.
Briefly, the G20 was pencilled in as a headline achievement, but Barack Obama turned up and had the nerve to point out that climate change might have an impact on the Great Barrier Reef – who knew? – and most of Australia’s solemn economic pledges in the supposedly growth-turbocharging “Brisbane Action Plan” were subsequently ditched.
The free trade agreements might be chalked up as one actual Abbott government achievement, although the China FTA could still fall foul of the current toxic political environment if Labor overreaches and pushes too far with the union movement’s demands or Abbott finds it impossible to make even small legislative concessions.
And having abolished the carbon price, slashed the renewable energy target, abolished the climate council, tried to abolish – or nobble – the clean energy finance corporation and insisted that wind turbines are “utterly offensive” while “coal is good for humanity”, the government said it would sign up to tougher-than-expected 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets, but without any credible policy to achieve to them. (It then dusted off unrelated and dated economic modelling to manufacture a case that its mostly unannounced policy would be a cheaper way to reach these targets than Labor’s unannounced policy to reach its unannounced targets. Former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser, now chair of the independent climate change authority, described that particular diversionary exercise as “weird” and “misleading”).
On national security – a policy area where Labor has offered determined bipartisanship – the government has worked particularly hard to confect disagreement, and has sometimes managed to achieve it most successfully within its own cabinet – for example with the ill-considered and almost certainly unconstitutional surprise first draft of the citizenship laws and the equally ill-thought-through first shot at metadata retention.
On asylum the government has achieved what both major parties promised in 2013 – it has “stopped the boats”. But the human collateral damage is ongoing and has no obvious end – given the lack of resettlement options for those refugees left stranded and suffering on Nauru and Manus Island.
And while the government has been swerving and sliding and prevaricating on the most important areas of policy for the everyday lives of ordinary Australians it has confected “wars” on everything and everyone from Q&A, to conservation organisations to Gillian Triggs, which to anyone outside News Ltd editorial meetings appear to border on the unhinged.
The prime minister used internal processes to shut down any chance that this parliament will achieve marriage equality, was reluctantly forced to retreat on the “right to be a bigot” racial discrimination laws, and shocked his own party with his personal ideological frolic of reintroducing knighthoods and then giving one to Prince Philip.
All these “wars”, of course, have a political purpose – to silence dissent, sideline unwanted advice and distract from critical scrutiny – the same motivations for systematically removing Labor appointments from boards and advisory groups and defunding or sidelining groups that advocate for the poor, the sick, the disabled, the disadvantaged, refugees or the environment.
The government finishes its second year flailing around for a new enemy (it’s Fairfax, no – it’s still the ABC, maybe it’s those sabotaging greenie environmental vandals with the temerity to suggest the environment minister should follow environmental law) and still apparently unaware that its gladiatorial winner-takes-all style is actually adding to its dysfunction and voters’ mistrust.
Well, actually some inside the party understand this all too well but they are not heard – the February leadership spill opened the prime minister’s closed circle of advice a little bit, but not that much. Cabinet is as circumvented as ever – it recently met without a single formal submission and was not consulted before the party room debate on same sex marriage. And it’s leaking more.
This time last year voters had already lost trust in the prime minister, dating back to his first ill-considered budget. Now they are losing respect and the party is once again descending into a self-defeating cycle of instability, suspicions and second guessing of the leadership intentions of Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison or Julie Bishop.
The only glimmer of hope for the Coalition is that voters also appear deeply underwhelmed by Bill Shorten’s Labor.
That’s what Howard was clinging to when interviewed on the ABC’s Insiders program earlier this year about his successor’s troubles, comparing them to his own difficult first term.
“One of the reasons we came back was that deep down, people didn’t think Kim Beazley – terrific bloke – stood for anything.
“[There] is a lot of parallels now; I don’t think Bill Shorten stands for anything. One thing that will increasingly being put in the spotlight is the policy acuity of the Labor party.”
But that logic fails if the Coalition incumbent doesn’t stand for anything either.
As the newly reinstated Kevin Rudd discovered in 2013, a government that goes to an election with nothing much to offer except a reminder of how much people dislike the other guy might find that the electorate decides the other guy is a risk worth taking.