Opposition leader Tony Abbott, in his budget reply speech tonight, poleaxed Julia Gillard and the ALP, landing direct and scorching hits on every major weakness afflicting the present government. Looking and sounding like a Prime Minister, Abbott outlined a vision for government.
Budget reply speeches are never a line-by-line critique of what was delivered 48 hours earlier, and this was no exception; in one of the best speeches Abbott has delivered since assuming the Liberal Party leadership, he tore at the tattered remnants of the ALP’s credibility, whilst painting a healthier and rosier future for governance in Australia under a forthcoming Coalition government.
Abbott’s underlying theme of trust and the present government’s abuses of it, interwoven with the indisputable achievements of the Howard government, was a powerful one and its message simple: the Coalition would show there was “a better way.”
He ticked off on a long litany of broken promises, U-turns, own goals and disreputable conduct by the government, its MPs and those associated with it: the carbon tax, the mining tax, the deal with Andrew Wilkie on poker machine reform, the sellout of policy to the Greens, the alliance with Peter Slipper, the withdrawal of promised tax cuts for business, the Craig Thomson scandal…on and on it went; and as it did, every sentence — every carefully crafted phrase — was like a precision-guided verbal missile, zeroing in on target and detonating in a shower of political shrapnel.
And with whatever it was — anger, fear, or simply the self-indulgent fury of being hoist upon her own petard — the Prime Minister watched, stony faced and immobile.
Every charge Abbott laid hit its mark; speaking to an electorate fed up with the present government and its attendant misdemeanours and general lack of honesty, his speech will have resonated with the majority of swinging voters who watched or listened.
I think Abbott handled the issue of “class warfare” beautifully; this noxious and odious approach to political debate — once the staple of ALP politics in the 1950s and 1960s — has made a comeback in recent months, as Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard attack anything and anyone with the mildest smell of financial comfort about them, from mining billionaires to households earning $150,000 per annum, and right down to sinking the boot into people based simply on where they live.
Abbott should get off the North Shore (of Sydney) and go and talk to some real people, Gillard had sneered at him through a media interview earlier in the day.
Abbott’s counter tonight — that he lived in the suburbs, raised three daughters, had a mortgage and bills to worry about, and was careful to be a good neighbour and citizen — blasted Gillard’s credibility and neutralised what little merit, if any, her remarks were predicated on.
Abbott’s speech made the point that “Australia needs more successful people and more opportunities for people to succeed, yet this government’s message is: the harder you try, the harder we’ll make it for you.”
Abbott went on to outline, in broad brush strokes, his vision for an Abbott government which — perhaps unsurprisingly — took the form of an orthodox manifesto for a modern conservative administration, with its emphases on wealth creation and protection of the vulnerable, self-reliance and hard work, personal responsibility, support and conditions conducive to small businesses, strong national defences, integrity and accountability, and lower taxes through economic growth.
Abbott’s taunts — on the issue of carbon tax — that Labor MPs are now “frightened” to go doorknocking shot home; the obligatory false guffaws that had come from the government benches earlier in the Abbott speech were replaced at this point with icy silence.
And his systematic ridicule and dismantling of any claim to credibility Labor makes in delivering a budget surplus was searing; pointing out that it would take “100 years of Swan surpluses to repay four years of Swan deficits,” Abbott noted that Treasury’s own figures had already slashed the projected budget surplus for the coming year by nearly 60%, and that budgetary assumptions of Australia’s terms of trade and rate of economic growth made the headline figure of a $1.5 billion surplus optimistic indeed.
Abbott’s most blistering volleys were aimed at the culture of scandal and the widespread perception of dishonesty, disreputability and untrustworthiness affecting the government; his line that “before this government dies of shame, it should find a leader who isn’t fatally compromised by the need to defend the indefensible” may very well resonate and crystallise sentiment against Gillard and her government to the point that even a change in the Labor leadership would be rendered a pointless and useless exercise.
I personally would have liked to see a little more detail on specific policy initiatives; having said that, however — and with an election still over a year away, if the current Parliament runs to term — Abbott and his colleagues can be excused for holding back on these details, at least in the short to medium term.
This was a powerful speech. It was well-constructed, with the right mix of deadly barbs and positive, constructive aspirations for the country’s future; and it will leave most of those floating voters who heard it in no doubt that whatever the failings of the present Parliament and government, and irrespective of the opposition leader Abbott has been and will be for a little while to come, that he is determined to be a Prime Minister who will improve and strengthen Australia, and seek the betterment of the living standards of everyone who lives here.
It certainly left a rattled Prime Minister in Gillard looking as if her life was flashing before her eyes, and if Gillard in response can find some way to at least raise the standard of the rabble she leads for the balance of its period in office, then that will be a positive outcome too.
Hope, reward and opportunity; these are the things Abbott has pledged tonight to restore to Australia and its government if he wins office at the looming federal election that is now, at most, 15 months away.
This column expects nothing less; and if Abbott becomes Prime Minister next year — as seems increasingly likely — he will be held rigorously to account by those who elect him to deliver, fully, on the noble pledge with which he concluded his remarks this evening.