EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Major challenges face an Abbott government
, September 14, 2013
This comment had to be written before the September 7 election took place; but it will be read when the outcome is known. Nevertheless, the election of a Coalition government led by Tony Abbott looks certain.
Such a government will have a strong mandate to deliver on its promises: fiscal restraint, the abolition of Labor’s unpopular carbon and mining taxes, stopping the flood of cashed-up boat-people arriving from Indonesia, and rebuilding the foundations of Australia’s economic prosperity, based on growing rural, mining and manufacturing industries.
Each of these issues will require a significant effort by a new government.
Despite Mr Abbott’s efforts not to “frighten the horses”, the Rudd government’s legacy is a budget deficit of around $30 billion for 2013-4, which any responsible government would want to rein in as quickly as possible.
Yet there are limits on what can be done here, because accompanying Labor’s lavish spending on issues like climate change, asylum-seekers, the national broadband network (NBN) and education (which under the Constitution should be a state responsibility), there are significant areas of acute under-spending, particularly in areas such as national infrastructure and defence.
One of the major limits on Australia’s economic development is the lack of spending over many years on roads, railways, ports, power generation and water storage. The failure to address these problems acts as a major brake on the growth of Australia’s economy.
Separately, the run-down of Australia’s defences has seen ruthless cuts to operational expenditure and cutbacks in recruitment, as well as the delay or cancellation of major defence procurements.
It has left Australia stretched in dealing with the influx of boat-people from Indonesia, and incapable of playing any significant role in the strategic conflicts which are emerging in North Asia, involving countries like China, North Korea and Vietnam.
There will be powerful pressures on the Coalition to continue Labor’s do-nothing policy in these areas, based on the need for fiscal restraint. However, to do so will leave Australia acutely vulnerable, as well as alienate many of the Coalition’s traditional supporters and others who have defected from Labor, and could sow the seeds of the Coalition’s later defeat, however remote that appears at the present time.
This is a dilemma which an Abbott government will have to navigate in the months ahead.
Regardless of the outcome in the House of Representatives, Labor and the Greens may still exercise significant power, particularly in the Senate which they have controlled in recent years.
Because senators are elected for six years, and half the Senate retires at each election, it will be difficult for the Coalition parties to win control of the Senate. The quota system of election of senators compounds their difficulty.
Labor and the Greens have 19 continuing senators, and require 18 of the 36 new senators to be elected, to retain control of the Senate. With complex preference flows and a large number of minor parties standing, the final composition of the Senate will take days, if not weeks, to determine, and may be hostage to the whims of mavericks such as Clive Palmer.
If an Abbott government faces obstruction from the opposition, it has the option of forcing a double dissolution in 2014 or later; but the outcome of such an election would depend on whether the new government is able to implement a large part of its program in the meantime.
Australia also faces new challenges in the international arena. Our country must forge a new relationship with Indonesia, in an effort to bring an end to people-trafficking from the Middle East.
The “Papua New Guinea solution”, which Kevin Rudd stitched up with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, is unlikely to be approved by the PNG parliament, which will be meeting later this month for the first time since the agreement was signed.
Australia’s incoming government will have to respond flexibly and creatively, to deal with the real concerns with which the people of Papua New Guinea have to the deal.
In the Middle East, the United States and France have formed a new alliance which aims to punish the Assad regime in Syria. Six months ago, they wanted to topple it.
As Tony Abbott has observed, Australia has no interest in replacing one bad regime with another, and should confine its activities to humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees, and use its position on the UN Security Council to encourage talks between the warring parties, as proposed by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon.
The Coalition also faces tensions over Mr Abbott’s generous paid parental leave (PPL) scheme, as well as the Left’s continued push for same-sex marriage, despite the overwhelming vote against it by both houses of the Australian parliament last year. How he handles these issues would also influence the success of his government.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.