JUST HOURS after this column took aim at Bill Shorten over his vapid, vacuous putsch to become Prime Minister, the Abbott government — again — booted a spectacular own goal that raises the likelihood he will do exactly that. Abandoning a policy, however prudent, that would create many losers hands Shorten a big win. Despite talk of a “reset,” it also shows the government remains woefully defective on strategy, tactics, and political judgement.
They say life is rich with irony, and political life especially so; just as it appeared the Abbott government was about to get serious in making the case for one of its hard, unpopular budget measures — funding changes to Medicare — one of its promising, newly appointed ministers emerged from literally nowhere to scuttle it.
First things first: I stand by every word of the article I published yesterday, insofar as its comments on Bill Shorten and the fatuously irresponsible approach to winning office is concerned.
I could as easily have tied the case to welfare policy, or family benefits, or cash handouts to protect endangered three-eyed blue-headed owls; provided Shorten ends up being Prime Minister he really doesn’t give two hoots about these things, aside from ensuring existing recipients continue to get everything they are currently receiving (and sometimes more), and he certainly couldn’t care less about anything or anyone other than himself and the realisation of his own ambitions.
By his words and his actions, his cavalier disregard for Australia’s long-term national interests is flagrant, and obvious.
Even so, the abandonment of the Abbott government’s latest attempt to extract efficiencies from the Medicare funding pot — cutting rebates for short consultations by $20 per visit — in the face of its certain disallowance by the Senate shows that for all the macho talk late last year of a “reset” and “barnacle removal,” it remains abysmally and pathetically lacking where questions of strategy, tactics and basic political nous are concerned.
As a staunch conservative with a profound, lifelong and near-total contempt for the ALP and the politics of social democracy and democratic socialism more generally, I have nonetheless been extremely critical of the Abbott government for most of the time since its election, and of the appallingly misconceived, potentially election-losing budget it remains determined to persist with the dregs from even after nine months of disastrous opinion poll numbers and senselessly self-inflicted political damage.
What readers might not know is that whilst I (personally) supported the plan for a co-payment on bulk-billed GP visits — in its original form of a simple $5 charge on GP consultations, not the complex, compounding $7 it mutated into and which would have applied to everything from a trip to the GP to X-rays, blood tests, CAT scans, and to God knows what else — I was horrified when the latest plan, centred on reductions in rebates paid under Medicare, was unveiled.
And the worst aspect of it, in my view, was the measure unceremoniously dumped by Health minister Sussan Ley, appearing suddenly and unexpectedly in an early return from her holidays yesterday: the $20 cut to rebates for GP consultations of less than 20 minutes’ duration. Any idiot could foresee this measure would see the cost of going to a doctor skyrocket.
The Abbott government won an explicit mandate at the 2013 election to fix the twin problems of Australia’s budget deficit — currently stuck at about $50bn per annum, give or take a bit — and the consequent, ballooning pile of commonwealth debt, which stands at some $350bn and is rising fast.
As part of that mandate, Coalition voters who provided it expected and accepted that government expenditure would be cut, and that these cuts would by necessity transcend adjustments made through the realisation of efficiencies and the elimination of waste: the problem, simply stated, is so entrenched (and so big) that a few fiddles worth five or ten billion dollars each year were never going to get the job done.
Ranged against this mandate has been the Senate, whose obstruction of the government’s manoeuvres has been led (despite an obvious Coalition strategy to sideline and marginalise it) by Labor, which has cynically refused to pass any bill that cuts outlays whilst voting for anything that increases them.
Even if Treasurer Joe Hockey had crafted a budget that astutely delivered a root-and-branch demolition of the debt/deficit problem the Coalition inherited from Labor — as Peter Costello did in 1996 — it is probable his efforts would have met the same destructive end at the hands of a hostile Senate.
And even if the measures his actual budget contained merited their implementation (and many of them did not and do not) it would have counted for little: Shorten, on his vacuous quest to slither into the Prime Minister’s office by refusing to allow the incumbent to govern, would nonetheless have engineered the rejection of those initiatives as well.
Much mileage has been extracted, by forces opposed to the government, from a series of unbelievably stupid and crassly specific pledges made by Tony Abbott on the eve of the 2013 election: no cuts to Education, Health, changes to pensions or the GST, and no cuts to the ABC and SBS; yet this is to some degree offset by a catch-all he had made just a few days prior to that, declaring that if the Coalition was elected and it found the state of the books more disparate than it believed they were (which it did) then his government would have to revisit its promises, and “do some things that people won’t like very much.”
Either way, it’s a semantic argument that both sides can claim legitimacy on: and the only reason those pre-election utterances confer any legitimacy at all upon those who created Australia’s money problems in the first place is because Abbott, whether appallingly advised or in commission of an unforgivable last-minute error, handed it to them on a plate.
It has proven to be a portentous mistake. Many more have followed.
The point is that revenue cuts have to come from somewhere: and it is reasonable to expect that the biggest government expenditure areas of welfare, health and education would offer the greatest scope to yield significant savings — and the solution, in large part, to the problem the Coalition was elected to fix.
But the “solutions,” too often, have taken aim at the wrong targets; bold as they might be for their audacity or their sheer capacity to piss people off — often the marginal seat Coalition voters apparently lined up to be hit hardest overall in an indecent display of political ineptitude — they have ignored some of the most obvious places to look for savings.
Like the NDIS, with its $24bn annual running costs once it’s fully operational.
Like a proper overhaul of Australia’s welfare regime from top to bottom, as Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith has done in the UK with stunning results — not just in achieving savings but in getting people back to work — instead of the piecemeal fiddles we have seen.
Like abolishing handouts to hundreds of organisations addicted to discretionary government largesse (like the one we looked at in 2013) that remain stuck on the taxpayer teat to cement their allegiance to, and influence on behalf, of the ALP.
And whilst it’s unlikely the Senate in its present configuration would pass the kind of savings required for the Abbott government to rectify the gaping structural hole in Australia’s finances — or that Labor, “led” by Shorten, would agree to vote for any meaningful cuts at all — the government has, by and large, been its own worst enemy.
Against this backdrop comes the shocking about-face yesterday just as the indications were there that the government was finally getting serious about at least trying to sell its unpopular initiatives — even if those measures were, themselves, poorly conceived.
It hands Shorten Labor a massive political and psychological victory, at a time the ALP already commands an election-winning position in all reputable polling and has done so for the past year.
Having already convinced itself it is surfing a wave of momentum toward a return to office, the Coalition’s handling of this latest snafu over Health policy welds a swathe of voters who stood to lose out from the Medicare changes to the Labor cause, along with many more who were fearful or uncertain about them and an unquantifiable further number who will look at the way the government is operating and simply shake their heads.
It’s not happening because of any particular affection for the ALP or (Christ alive!) for Shorten personally. But all of these “mishaps” are driving voters into the willing arms of the ALP. Labor doesn’t lift a finger to win them over because, brutally, it doesn’t have to. The fact it has nothing of its own to offer is unimportant.
I don’t think there’s a government spending cut possible that wouldn’t (or won’t) create losers: this is the nature of the beast.
And in Australia today — largely, but not exclusively, as a result of the handout mentality and/or irresponsible rhetoric fostered by Shorten, his party, and the government it formed between 2007 and 2013 — these “losers” are louder, more potent, and eagerly harnessed as political chattels by a ruthless ALP machine that will stop at nothing to seize power at literally any cost.
Everyone with a reasonable appreciation of the debt/deficit conundrum and an appreciation of the need to remedy it is in favour of government spending cuts but not, as has become disturbingly evident, if it extends to themselves personally.
Is the Abbott government, therefore, fighting a battle that is impossible to win? I doubt it.
There is no over-arching narrative; no multi-faceted, strategic plan that is evident; no apparent forethought to seeking recourse at an election underpinned by (what’s left of) three years of carefully communicated tactical positioning; and no tilling the ground to engineer a double dissolution — which, properly executed, offers the Coalition a lethal political weapon — to cleanse the Senate of much of its current crossbench. Indeed, as one (unnamed) government MP told the Murdoch press after the budget in May, there is no “plan B:” all the government had (and has) is a defective budget to work with.
In fact, there isn’t much evidence of any sound political judgement being exercised at all in government ranks.
It all came together yesterday with the intervention of one competent minister to junk a bad policy that was nonetheless being subjected to what appeared to be a competent attempt to sell it.
The government was spared the outrage it would have sparked next week as people visiting their doctors were slugged an extra $20.
Instead, it brought upon itself ridicule and contempt in equal measure — depending on who you talk to — and gave off yet more of the appearance of chaos, a lack of direction, and an inability to effectively govern that has marked its efforts for most of the past year.
Either way, the only winner is Shorten; this country cannot afford a return to Labor government — literally — and it needs Bill Shorten as its Prime Minister like it needs the proverbial hole in the head. The prospects of both were greatly enhanced by the government’s activities yesterday.
For all the talk of a “reset,” and of drawing a line under a woeful year last year, 2015 now bears an ominous similarity for the Abbott government to its annus horribilis of 2014.
And all the while, the time for it to finally get its shit together is fast running out.