EDITORIAL by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
A way forward for Tony Abbott...
, February 28, 2015
Following the move for a “spill” of leadership positions in the Liberal Party — a move the Prime Minister described as a “near death experience” — a succession of three events have rekindled leadership speculation in the Liberal Party.
These are Tony Abbott’s removal of Philip Ruddock as Chief Government Whip, shocking opinion polls coupled with rising unemployment, and Malcolm Turnbull’s performance on ABC television’s Q&A program.
The significant successes of the Abbott government — including its repeal of the carbon and mining taxes, ending people-trafficking from Indonesia, and the government’s strong stance against extreme environmentalism — have been largely negated in the public mind by a range of unpopular measures embedded in the 2014 Budget. These include the deregulation of university fees, cuts to pensions, the Medicare co-payment, and lavish subsidies for state government privatisations. The fact that these measures were not foreshadowed before the September 2013 election aroused widespread hostility.
Even the Prime Minister’s sure-footed handling of a range of foreign policy, defence and security issues — including the rise of Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria, his refusal to join the military campaign against Syria’s President Assad, his efforts to stabilise relations with China and Japan, and his response to a number of acts of terrorism in Australia — have not reversed his government’s declining electoral standing.
The defeats of Liberal/National state governments in Victoria and Queensland and the Liberals’ poor showing in South Australia have given hope to the federal Labor opposition and further demoralised the federal Coalition government.
Mr Abbott also needs to change the perception that he wants to reintroduce, under a different name, the Howard government’s controversial WorkChoices legislation, which led to the defeat of the previous Liberal government in 2007.
The decision to ask the radical free-market-oriented Australian Productivity Commission to recommend changes to existing minimum wage laws, overtime rates, union right-of-entry into workplaces and other measures, was a serious mistake. Its recommendations should be quietly buried.
On industrial relations, the Abbott government should simply wait for the recommendations of the royal commission it established into the building industry, which uncovered rorts and criminality on a large scale, and then try to get these recommendations through federal parliament.
On national competition policy, the Abbott government asked the highly respected economist, Professor Ian Harper, to inquire into the effectiveness of competition laws in Australia.
He is due to report shortly, and his report will undoubtedly lead to a vigorous debate over the role of Australia’s supermarket duopoly, Coles and Woolworths, which together control over 80 per cent of food retailing across the country.
Among the lessons of 2014 are that 1) people don’t like surprises, 2) they are distinctly unhappy about the sale of public assets, and 3) they do not respect politicians who break their promises.
Mr Abbott needs to deal with these issues.
With the balance of power in the Senate now in the hands of small parties and independents, the government needs to work with the cross-benchers to get anything through the parliament.
This coming May’s federal budget now appears to be the last chance for Mr Abbott to reset the agenda in preparation for the federal election due in 2016.
Among the measures which should be introduced in Australia are two important pro-family reforms enacted in Canada by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper (reported in News Weekly, November 22, 2014).
One of these is Canada’s universal child care benefit (UCCB), a payment which does not discriminate against home-based parental child care.
The second is family income-splitting. This effectively allows a single-breadwinner, two-parent family to split its sole income for tax purposes, granting it some much-needed tax relief to help cover the expenses of home-based parental child care.
One major advantage of the latter measure is that its benefits are most heavily weighted towards low-income families with a single wage-earner. These constitute about half of all Australian families with children.
Such an approach would go some way to reversing the current heavy bias in public policy towards making childcare assistance available only to mothers working outside the home.
The Coalition government must also end its obsession with deregulation and the sale of public assets, which most people see as a means of transferring natural monopolies into the hands of corporations which, being driven by the need to maximise profits, have little or no interest in the common good.
The vital function of establishing and funding national infrastructure — including improvements to railways, roads, ports, water storage facilities and communications — should be funded not from government budgets but by government-run infrastructure or development banks, as exist in many other countries such as Germany and in international agencies like the Asian Development Bank.
However unpopular these initiatives may be with the federal Treasury, they could give the Prime Minister a new agenda for the years ahead and a forward-looking policy platform for 2016.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.