By Mungo MacCallum
Just for a fleeting moment, it appeared that the spirit of peace and good will had peeped through the gloomy façade of the Abbott government.
The Christmas Eve headline on page 5 of The Australian read: ‘Soft focus order of the day as PM presents new line-up’.
True, it was only a puff piece about the swearing in (at?) the reshuffled ministry. But perhaps there was glimpse, just a glimpse of hope.
But alas, no: it turned out to be the same old Ebenezer Scrooge, unashamed and unrepentant. The adjacent headline read: ‘Anger at festive welfare axe falls’, a rather more substantial yarn about hundreds of millions of dollars being stripped from community groups as a result of budget cuts cynically scheduled for the silly season, where it was presumably hoped they would not be noticed.
The toughest measures were aimed at the growing army of the homeless: no room at the inn for those leaners. The newly minted minister for social security, Scott Morrison, defended the slashing saying the funding (or lack of it) ‘supports the areas of greatest need’ – perhaps tax avoidance for the multinationals was what he had in mind.
Morrison had already sent out his yuletide message: he would be focused on outcomes, spin for the mantra: the end justifies the means. And he was determined to ensure that the welfare system was sustainable, meaning he would chop the bejesus out of it.
His only positive note was that he regarded the National Disability Insurance Scheme as his holy grail, at the least he had the tact to use the imagery of Easter rather than Christmas. This was of course the equally fervent goal of Julia Gillard, where it was immediately derided by Abbott and his minions as an unaffordable fantasy, no more than a thought bubble. Morrison apparently regards it as a sustainable reality, but only if existing programs can be cut from the existing social welfare budget to accommodate it.
Rebranding, ten out of ten. Net benefit, nil. A bit like the entire overhyped reshuffle, really.
There can be no doubt that the team of 2015 has the potential to be more attractive than its predecessor, at least at the margins. David Johnston is gone, but then, until he imploded, few people realised that he was there in the first place.
At least Sussan Ley will be noticed, although her challenge will be to forge an identity as someone more than just the other woman in cabinet. And Josh Frydenberg can and must be a convincing voice in Treasury matters: the gaffe-prone Joe Hockey is no longer credible and Matthias Cormann, while persistent and coherent, remains forbidding.
But it isn’t just the medium, it is the message, and Tony Abbott will still have to give the spruikers something to convince the public that he has more than rhetoric to say to them. It is not enough to endlessly reiterate the now outdated cliche that the budget is in trouble and it was all Labor’s fault.
The remedy – a fresh remedy – has to include a fix which is dramatic, equitable and above plausible. Tinkering with the senate crossbenchers is not the answer: the so-called reforms to the universities are highly dubious, and the GP co-payment, whatever it is called, is not only electoral poison but is frankly silly. And fudging the allocations of the GST, while it may appease some of the cantankerous states, will only infuriate the others, and it any case will have little to do with punters’ already itching hip-pocket nerves.
On the expenditure side, all the big-ticket items are on the welfare sector and they will hurt the middle-income masses on which survival in the polls depends. They can be sold, but only if there is a balance: the wealthy must suffer too.
Hitting the aforesaid multinationals is a start, as is the obvious solution to removing some of the other perks of the greedy and affluent, notably superannuation concessions. But it will take more than that – given the traumas of the last eight months, the voters will want to hear the fat cats howl.
Hence the next budget will be crucial. If it is seen as a reprise of 2014 – second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse – then the government, and more particularly Tony Abbott, who is now teetering perilously close to the point of no return, will be in real, perhaps even terminal, trouble.
Logic dictates it is time for decisiveness and even daring; but we are unlikely to get either from Tony Abbott. Despite all the bravado and bluster, history reveals that our prime minister is actually a cautious soul, disinclined to shirtfront the rich and powerful – and if there is to be any doubt, a quick glance at the polls will confirm that he does not need to make any more political enemies.
Moreover, as he has already tacitly admitted, his government is caught in an irreconcilable contradiction. On the one hand he needs to pursue the message of an economy left in a parlous state, requiring firmness and austerity, but on the other he has to encourage a return to consumer confidence because if we don’t keep spending we may slide into a recession.
Don sackcloth and ashes, and then splurge like buggery. The public will remain both sceptical and confused, rather like the back bench and, one suspects, not a few of the ministers.
What seems inevitable is that 2015 is unlikely to be any better than 2014: basically grim. The only real question is just who ends up bearing the cost. It may be Abbott himself and it may be the government as a whole. But one way or another we are all going to cop at least a bit of collateral damage.
So Happy New Year – or should that really be: Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot…