ONE YEAR since a big Coalition election win terminated six years of incompetent, chaotic Labor rule, the resultant Liberal government has started promisingly, at the very least meeting its brief to see “the adults back in charge.” It has scored big wins and notable losses, and in some ways has glaring defects to rectify. But Abbott has proven a natural Prime Minister. With some adjustment, the Liberals enjoy the prospect of multiple terms in office.
It is perhaps a damning measure of the commitment of Australia’s Left to the sheer vacuity of its political sloganeering, and the extent of the dishonesty it is prepared to engage in to perpetuate it; but the first act of the Abbott government — the restoration of the traditional names of government departments in the place of campaign slogans — drew predictably petty outrage: whole government departments were being abolished in an early pointer to the cruelty of the miserly Liberals who, despite their best endeavours to prevent it, had resumed their place running Australia.
Departments of “climate change,” “social inclusion,” “climate change” and the like were abandoned in favour of the departments of Environment and of Health; this has nothing to do with the intent or capacity to deliver a full remit of services, despite the no-nonsense label on the packet. Yet for Labor and the Greens, it was an outrage. Heaven knows what they would make of Britain’s Department of Work and Pensions, for example — covering as it does everything from industrial relations to employment and to welfare — or its Home Office, indeed.
I wanted to begin my remarks today thus because it highlights a sickness in Australian politics, and one which the Coalition was elected a year ago, in part, to cure: that is, the pursuit and retention of power at any cost, and when such endeavours go as far as attempting to spark major political brawls over the statutory names of languid government edifices, the preferment of propaganda over competence is a neatly illustrated snapshot of much that is wrong with the Left and the government it most recently operated.
It is one year today since the election of the Coalition under Tony Abbott; his government has by no means been perfect, yet it has already scored some notable wins whilst continuing to face significant challenges and some of its own goals to have to deal with.
It is neither improper nor disloyal to be constructively critical of a government formed by one’s own party, and — despite some of the Lefties who bray at me in other forums and directly, rather than having the balls to engage directly with my readers and risk their arguments being ripped apart — I think this column has been more than objective when it comes to considerations of what’s right with the Abbott government and, equally, what’s wrong with it.
It comes as no surprise to me in any sense that Tony Abbott and the Prime Ministership seem to fit each other like a glove.
Abbott has proven to be a natural in the role, and this has most recently been demonstrated by both the sensitivity of his handling of the MH17 disaster and the tough line he has taken in relation to Russian aggression and support for the insurgents who committed the criminal act of shooting that aeroplane from the sky — murdering hundreds of civilians in the process.
His leadership in these matters has commanded international respect and praise, and rightly so; far from the derisive and apocalyptic claims by his detractors before last year’s election that Abbott would start a war (most notably with Indonesia) if elected to office, Abbott — as the leading conservative leader within a clique consisting of Canada’s Stephen Harper, the UK’s David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, all of whom have decried Russia’s tactics — has probably done more than the other three combined to avert a far nastier and potentially global conflagration.
His leadership has left even US President Barack Obama appearing flat-footed and playing catch-up on questions of Russia and Ukraine (although where the Obama administration is concerned, it doesn’t take much to outshine it in the competence stakes at the best of the times, admittedly).
So much for the myth of Tony Abbott the bumbling fool who would wreck Australian relations with the world.
In fact, Abbott — in a triumvirate with Foreign minister Julie Bishop and Trade minister Andrew Robb — has arguably had a greater positive effect on Australia’s standing in the world in twelve months than the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government did in six years; as richly as the trio deserve praise for their handiwork in doing so, it is also an indictment on the “out of work diplomat” Rudd in particular, who also served as Foreign minister for a time, and who presided over the doling out of billions of dollars in “aid” in pursuit of securing a temporary seat for Australia on the United Nations Security Council.
(Calling China’s leaders “rat fuckers” was not going to make it difficult for anyone following Rudd into government to outshine him, either, but I digress).
Between the three of them, Abbott, Bishop and Robb have restored Australia’s voice in the world to one that is respected, and its opinion sought rather than arbitrarily given like an enema; the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with Indonesia after a crisis that derived totally from Labor’s conduct in government is another example of this.
And Robb in particular continues to advance Australian interests as he pursues — and finalises — free trade agreements with this country’s major partners in the Asia-Pacific region that were too difficult or too challenging for the ALP to execute.
As has been noted elsewhere in the media and the commentariat in recent days, many of the wildest (and most wishful) predictions of how Abbott might fare as Prime Minister have proven to be the utter rubbish this column consistently argued they were for months prior to last year’s election.
Abbott’s performance to date has been reasoned, measured and moderate: a far cry from the nightmare scenario Labor and the
Communist Party Greens, especially, foretold.
He has not been the “Catholic conservative” screeching horror stories depicted; he has not been a mad lunatic punch-drunk on power that many of his enemies prayed he would. And for a man once derided for his people skills, “just call me Tony” has retained the common decency and blokey authenticity that in part underpinned my own ongoing support of him ever since he became Liberal leader by one vote in December 2009.
In office, the agenda pilloried by his opponents as a mere series of idiot-simple three word slogans has largely been delivered, to the government’s great credit, and to the national benefit: the carbon tax, on which Abbott first sealed his ascendancy over then-PM Julia Gillard — has been abolished; this industry-killing, economy-stifling, job-destroying tax had already begun its insidious work in driving already high energy costs even further through the roof at a time even other countries with comparable schemes in no way shackled their own economies with the ridiculous $23 per ton carbon price (which increased twice prior to its abolition). In fact, the emissions trading schemes of other countries are, in many cases, being unwound as well.
To retain this measure would be an act of economic lunacy, which is presumably why Labor and the Greens are hellbent on reintroducing it if they ever again hold office.
The mining tax — which, again, inflicted a sledgehammer blow on the “golden goose” of Australia’s economy, drenching confidence as it did without, perversely, raising much money at all for its trouble — is also gone, although this achievement is less glittering for the fact a deal costing billions of dollars was struck to ensure the passage of the repeal bills through the Senate.
And the boats — famously — have been stopped; the Abbott government’s reintroduction of Howard era border and immigration policies, in the face of every conceivable act of political obstruction by a hostile Senate, has stopped potentially hundreds of boats carrying thousands of asylum seekers from making their way to this country, saving countless lives in the process, and saving the Australian taxpayer billions of dollars as detention centres begin to empty.
Above all, however — for the list of the government’s wins is obviously much longer than the headline items we’ve discussed — there is obvious evidence that the levers of government are again being operated by men and women of competence, grounded in the practical realities of good common sense: attributes that were in sad and short supply during the Labor years, and that contrast is based solely on the track record of the ALP and the deeply distasteful reflection it left still visible even as the waters it muddied belatedly begin to clear.
But for the wins, there have been shortcomings.
This should to some degree surprise few people; after all, any new government by a party that has spent some time in opposition will take time to find its feet, and as hellbent on slamming Abbott and his colleagues into a wall for it as the Left has been, the cold truth is that Labor faced the same difficulties upon its return to office in 2007 as the Liberals did last year.
I have opined, too controversially for some, that there’s nothing “conservative” about the Abbott government; an enormous proportion of this derives directly from an extremely hostile Senate, but some of the blame for it also lies directly at the government’s feet.
In covering this side of the Abbott government’s track record to date I have to single out two factors: the federal budget delivered by Joe Hockey in May, and the obvious deficiencies in the political advice the government appears to be receiving, and the deleterious effect this is having on the government’s ability to both sell its initiatives and to tell its story — especially where domestic policy is concerned.
The times I have been most strident in my criticisms of the Abbott government to date have almost invariably coincided with discussion of Hockey’s budget; framed with an eye on redressing the structural flaws in the Commonwealth’s finances and the obscenity of the national debt pile that is Labor’s sole legacy to this country, its intentions — just like the song said — were good.
And as I have noted in the past, the broad general direction of the budget — to redress the imbalance between revenue and expenditure, and to bring the ballooning (and increasingly serious) debt problem Australia faces to a halt — was and is sound.
But Hockey’s budget attempted to do so in the most politically offensive way possible: rather than “spreading the pain” and ensuring “everyone pitched in” as the government proclaimed it would, this budget disproportionately targeted floating voters and the Coalition’s own core electoral base, whilst failing to cut meaningful swathes through the profligate recurrent expenditure legislated as a sabotage trap by Labor.
It is not acceptable to be increasing taxes on middle income earners when a $22bn annual liability in disability expenditure — uncosted, unaffordable, and inefficient — sits untouched on the Treasury spreadsheet.
It is not right to abandon the Howard-era compact with the Liberal base on the indexation of fuel excise when the unaccountable and misdirected billions of Gonski education money sits unamended in the outgoings column.
The latter item, to some extent, touches on the appalling lack of quality advice government ministers appear to be receiving; after all, Christopher Pyne’s ham-fisted attempt to abandon the package attracted some of the earliest negative headlines for the government, and in some respects was responsible for destroying the “honeymoon effect” the Coalition might otherwise have enjoyed for linger in the wake of its election triumph.
The budget, as we have discussed previously, is a blight that can be remedied in time; there is another budget due in eight months, and a change of Treasurer would provide an adequate political circuit-breaker for the government to reset the specifics of its budget strategy, and to nudge its work in this critical area onto a more reasonable — and more truly conservative — plateau.
It brings me to where the government can improve in the near term; it needs to be remembered for the wins and losses to date that Abbott has been in office for just one year, and that an additional two remain on the government’s term. Not every challenge the country and the government face will be resolved in a day, or a week, or even a year — and again, the fanciful fits of fury directed at it by Labor and the Greens, suggesting the government can and indeed should have already done everything that might be expected of it across a full term, should be dismissed.
One year in, a limited reshuffle — far from being portrayed by Abbott’s opponents as a sign of weakness — could prove a political tonic for the Coalition; ministers have had time now in their portfolios to display their mettle. Most have proven adept at the task at hand; some (Abbott, Bishop, Scott Morrison and Robb, especially) have been brilliant.
But others are perhaps either ill-suited to their portfolios, or unsuited to the executive aspects of government as they apply in the current environment; there is also at least one vacancy — the position of Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis, who has voluntarily stood aside during an ICAC investigation in which he was named but seems unlikely to return in the short to medium term — and all of this provides a big opportunity for Abbott to refresh the government, move or discard underperformers and/or liabilities, and to bring some of the excellent talent on the Coalition backbench into the ministry.
Moving Hockey, rethinking the positions of middling ministers like George Brandis and David Johnston, and getting rid of liabilities like Ian Macfarlane — who would quite frankly be of more use to the ALP than he is to the Liberal Party, based on his deeply unimpressive performance to date — would offer Abbott additional room to bring some of the bright but untested backbench prospects into the ministerial wing.
Specifically, some of the women — Kelly O’Dwyer and Sarah Henderson especially — who promise to deliver much in the course of their political careers should be accorded the opportunity to make their mark.
But my greatest criticism of the government to date lies in its woeful ability to sell itself, its initiatives — particularly the Hockey budget — and the seeming inability to grab control the political agenda in both the Parliament and the country, and the finger can only be pointed at the advisory personnel hired under the direction of a central vetting panel following the election last September.
To be clear, some of these people — subject-specific experts in areas such as the banking sector, for example, or in the law or military matters — are obviously not the people primarily charged with the sales and marketing of government activity, winning the day politically, or ensuring the cut-through of the government’s message.
But those whose roles centre on tactics, political strategy, media relations and other aspects of the government’s public relations endeavours are collectively — the Hockey budget and the belligerently hostile Senate notwithstanding — this government’s weakest link.
For the government to have spent much of its first year in office in a clearly losing position in almost every opinion poll in the country, there is little that can be said in their defence to counter the charge.
It’s something of a truism that “blaming the staff” is a sign of a weak government. In this case, however, so many of the problems the Abbott government is forced to contend with are the direct result of these people failing to achieve what their roles require of them that it is impossible not to do so.
I would have liked to see a far more aggressive “demolition job” done on the ALP and the Greens; after all, much of what these parties are now seeking to score political points on derives directly from the government’s efforts to fix the damage they caused when they were in government themselves.
And as ill-directed as much of Hockey’s budget might have been, the point remains that those charged with selling it to a sullen and unresponsive public have singularly failed to do so.
I think Abbott’s first year has been highly promising; it’s been a solid start with some enviable wins to boast even now.
But a little fine-tuning — and a recalibration of the strategies that have often, but not mostly, served it well — could see this government emulate the Howard government in achieving multiple terms in office, with a similarly high degree of respect and approval, both here in Australia and elsewhere.
Overall, I score the government a B- on its first year: and I trust, with good reason to be confident in the long-term potential this government now continues to seek to fulfil, that it will mature into an A-grade outfit in the very best traditions of the Howard government that preceded it.
Finally, for those readers who are rusted-on Liberal voters who think a rating of B- is inadequately slavering or fawning from a committed conservative, remember that the kindest impartial assessment of the government that preceded Abbott’s would come in at around a D+: even that might prove overly generous, were the ample shortcomings and failures of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government to be chronicled and committed to print in the one location.