By Mungo MacCallum
When, battered, bewildered and haggard, the coalition troops staggered back to their electorates after Tony Abbott’s year of achievement, there was just one shred of comfort: the beloved leader had finally back-flipped on his Paid Parental Leave scheme.
Well, not quite back-flipped: let’s say downsized, recalibrated, or, as he himself might say, tweaked. At least that’s what we think has happened: as always, there was no real explanation or detail, and certainly no mea culpa.
But it appears that one barnacle has been scraped off, and that’s a start. Of course, it was a no-brainer: the scheme was clearly unaffordable, widely derided and had no chance of passing though the parliament: if the crossbenchers did not scuttle it, some of Abbott’s own government senators were willing and eager to do the job for them.
But this has been the case for months, years even; so why the procrastination? Well, just the prime minister’s stubbornness: it was his baby and he was determined to protect it no matter what – or at least until it was dragged from his grasp. And when it was, it wasn’t going to be when parliament was sitting. There had been quite enough gloating already.
The dying days had finally produced what the commentators called a win: Scott Morrison, through a mixture of bribery and extortion, got through his Temporary Protection Visas and, incidentally, was allowed to tear up the United Nations Convention on Refugees and the rule of international law in process. But for the long-suffering backbenchers, it was too little and too late.
What they were on about was the economy, stupid: more specifically the budget. And on that front, there was still no discernible movement. The polls were dire and getting direr, and it appeared that for everyone but Abbott, Joe Hockey and the irrepressible Christopher Pyne, the government was in a much worse shape than it had been a year ago. Hence the rumblings: leadership tensions, suggestions of a rift between Abbott and his deputy Julie Bishop, and the suggestion that Hockey should be dumped, perhaps in favour of Malcolm Turnbull.
It should be said at once that the latter is just not going to happen. Hockey is frequently accident prone and regularly ridiculed by the public and even by some of his colleagues but he is invulnerable: to bring him down would be an admission of total defeat for the whole government strategy, and while that might increasingly be called into question, if it is to collapse it will do so with a prolonged and gradual whimper, not with a catastrophic bang.
And the idea that Abbott would give the popular and charismatic Turnbull the job is absurd: having relegated his predecessor to the thankless tasks of cobbling up a parody of the NBN and whittling away at the even more popular ABC, he intends to keep him down where he belongs, a comfortable place to sit on.
But Bishop is another story. When she was informed that she was to be accompanied by Abbott’s trusted enforcer Andrew Robb for her trip to the climate change conference in Lima, she was reportedly furious. For starters, the conference was her initiative: Abbott did not want any ministerial representation at all, and Bishop had to insist on her prerogative. Then there was the way it was done: Abbott did not tell her in person – according to some reports she had to find out through the media.
But more importantly it was a deliberate slap in the face – a declaration that she was not to be trusted by herself. Robb may be a very successful trade minister, but he has absolutely nothing to do with climate change – in fact he has the reputation of a climate sceptic. If another minister was really needed to hold Bishop’s hand it should surely have been the environment minister, the hapless and ineffectual Greg Hunt.
Since Robb could not contribute to the policy deliberations in Lima, it could only be that he was there to play bad cop to Bishop’s good cop: to make clear that whatever aspirations might be floated, Australia’s (meaning Abbott’s) economic imperatives were respected and that coal was to remain good for exports and therefore good for humanity. The message would be offensive for just everyone in Lima, but mainly for Bishop, who was mightily miffed and will not easily forgive or forget.
Which brings us back, as it should, to Abbott himself: the buck stops with him. In spite of the forced concession on the PPL, he is still not for turning. No changes to his office, no reshuffle, and no serious changes of either direction or style. He seems to really believe his pre-election prediction that the mere fact that Labor has been defeated and that he is in government is all that is needed: a sort of universal application of the born-to-rule mentality that characterised the Liberals for much of the Menzies years.
Hockey is rather more forward thinking, but no less delusional: after ranting away in the parliament about Labor’s debt and deficit disaster and the urgent need for budget repair, he told the punters to spend, spend, spend: the situation would improve next year and even more so the near after. Every day in every way things are getting better and better. Well, that’s not what we will hear from MYEFO, in spite of the improbable assumption that the whole of the 2014 budget measures will be passed.
As a result the voters are confused, a bewilderment shared by their elected representatives. What Abbott’s backbenchers want is not constant reassurances of delivery, but deliverance. And as for Abbott and his cabinet, it seems they are getting ready to fall back on the Brechtian solution: if the people continue to refuse to wake up to themselves and see that the government is in good hands, there will be no alternative except to abolish the people.
Of course, the great German playwright was being ironical. But there are moments when Abbott and his tame media supporters seem to be getting serious.