CANBERRA OBSERVED by national correspondentNews Weekly
Coalition government switches to survival mode
, March 28, 2015
By any measure, the retreat of the Abbott government from last year’s Budget has been a spectacular one.
Treasurer Joe Hockey
Unable to get the government’s unpopular Budget measures through the Senate, and after surviving a “near-death experience” in his own party room, Tony Abbott has switched to survival mode.
In reality, he has no other choice. Unless the polls change, Tony Abbott’s leadership will be taken out from underneath him.
Over the past couple of months, voters have stood by watching a succession of backflips on paid parental leave (PPL), on the GP co-payment, on a pay increase for the Defence Force, and on proposed cuts to support for the car industry. What began as an effort to scrape off a few barnacles late last year has evolved into a wholesale re-assessment of the rationale of the centrepiece of the Abbott Coalition government — the 2014 Budget.
It is an ignominious, but necessary retreat.
The reality of Joe Hockey’s first Budget is that most of the unpopular measures were never going to pass the Senate anyway, and that the government was wearing all the political pain for things it was never going to be able to introduce.
But the climb-down and the acceptance of this failure have been too long coming.
The original strategy was that the Abbott government’s first Budget would be unpopular, but that there would be so many groups complaining they would drown out each other’s noise. Then the government would move onto more substantial reforms in the areas of taxation, federalism and, eventually, workplace relations.
In fact, there was no counter-strategy in place in the event of a hostile Senate that simply said no to everything, and a Labor Opposition that was happy to play a blocking role based on arguments that many of the measures appeared to hit the less well-off hardest. Subsequently, the wider reform agenda has all-but stalled.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first Budget now lies in ruins, while his second one, well into the planning stages, will need a thoroughly new and comprehensive narrative.
Yet Mr Hockey has been holed up in court, doing battle with Fairfax media over an article written about him on May 5 of last year, around the time of the last Budget.
Mr Hockey is suing Fairfax over the published articles, entitled “Treasurer for sale”, which claimed he was offering privileged access to business people and other individuals in return for donations to the Liberal Party.
Whatever the verdict in the defamation case, the distraction a year later (and the repetition of the original headline) has many in the government scratching their heads, viewing it both as an unnecessary distraction from the important issues and an action which is unlikely to endear Mr Hockey to the media, win or lose.
The real task for the government is trying to explain to the people its fundamental new agenda, now that the old one has been ditched.
Where does the government want to take the country? How are people going to adjust to the realities of a post-mining boom economy? What industries will replace the lost revenue from mining exports?
Prime Minister Abbott does seem to have shaken off some of the issues that have been dragging him down, and appears to have a newly-discovered freedom, albeit against an ever-watching media that pounces on the smallest verbal slip.
However, every fortnightly poll must bring with it a sense of foreboding and dread — a bad result reigniting speculation about leadership, a good result providing respite for another fortnight.
It is no way to make the necessary long-term reform decisions or to put in place the building blocks for future economic development.
A good sign is that Mr Abbott is speaking more freely and showing more of his old self. Australian voters may never warm to him in the way they did to Bob Hawke or John Howard in his prime, but he may be able to win their respect and their grudging admiration for his authenticity.
Abbott has been prime minister for about 18 months. If he survives another three months, he will pass William McMahon. If he survives five months, he will pass Harold Holt.
If he survives to the election he will pass former prime ministers, Kevin Rudd, Gough Whitlam, James Scullin, and Edmund Barton.
Survival is the main game in politics, and Abbott has been a remarkable leader of the Liberal Party.
But politics is also ephemeral, as the list of many of our most famous prime ministers shows.
Abbott not only has to survive, he has to leave his mark on the nation during the time he has as its prime minister.