Tony Abbott tells us that 2015 will be the year of jobs and families. Well, he wishes. It may yet come to pass, but if it does it will have to be in the second half of the year – if at all.
First, of course, we have to get rid of the Queensland election, and almost as soon as the dust settles it will be time to start working in New South Wales. The conservatives should win in both states, but it will not be without pain, and certainly not without controversy: Labor will certainly make up ground, and in the post mortems Abbott’s own role will be a major part of the debate.
And this will be whether he takes part in one or other of the campaigns, or if he is told by the respective premiers to butt out. Shorten is making hay in the issue in the sunshine state while Warren Truss is showing the flag as acting prime minister and demonstrating just how acting he is.
Basically Abbott can’t win, and any pretence of triumphalism at retaining power in the two crucial mainland states, especially in the wake of the Victorian debacle, will be not just be pyrrhic, but plain silly. And then, after the recriminations and the federal implications – calculating how many seats Abbott will lose next year if the slide continues — have finally put to bed, the pre-budget leaks, speculations and furphies will begin, and they will continue to get more frenetic until the event itself.
Assuming Abbott and Joe Hockey are even half way serious about their own rhetoric, the outcome will have to be punitive: the only questions will be how severe the punishments will be and just where they will fall. If there is a semblance of fairness – and it will be suicidal if there is not – not only will Abbott’s own constituency, shielded from his first budget, be seriously miffed; far more importantly, the business community, which is already far from happy, will be tempted to unleash some of its awesome financial and media clout.
And the general public, whatever the result, is unlikely to be mollified after the last traumatic year. Once again, Abbott’s credibility, probably reprising more dissection of his broken promises, will be tested and, most likely, found wanting.
And after surviving the budget, there will be the great tax debate, and most especially the quarrelling about the GST – should it rise, and if so how? Food, housing, private health and education, or just across the board? Squibbing it will be the preferred option, but given the mood of the conservatives and their backbench allies, that will be very difficult.
At least that will be a domestic, economic issue, which Abbott may be able to spin in the general direction of jobs and families, but that won’t be easy. Given all the predictions of rising unemployment, jobs will remain a major issue. And as for families – well, as a good Catholic Abbott likes them large and lots, but that will not be the immediate focus. And those just the mainstream issues.
In addition Abbott will have to commit to emission reduction targets before this year’s Paris summit, which will stir up the whole fraught question of climate change, as if it has ever died down. And there are bound to be natural disasters like bushfires and storms to kick it along. Add to all this the continuing crises about war and terrorism, and it will be hard for even the most determined prime minister, to convince the voters that what they really want is a cosy fireside chat about jobs and families.
Actually, it probably is what they would like; but Abbott has moved the goalposts away from the main playing field so that it may well be impossible to bring them back. It will take a prolonged and concerted effort from Team Australia, but many of the key players are already preoccupied with problems of their own.
The economic ministers – Joe Hockey, Matthias Cormann and now Josh Frydenberg – are wrestling with the budget, presumably trying to square the circle and show that reducing services and benefits to the public will in fact prove a boost to jobs and a boon for families.
In health Sussan Ley is facing a new and more virulent campaign from the medical profession, who consider Abbott’s re-jig of the co-payment even more insidious and destructive than the original version. At least the only way to go for Ley is up: her predecessor Peter Dutton was voted by the medicos as the worst health minister in 30 years. Ley has very small surgical boots to fill.
And another survey, this time in the United States, claims that Australia’s internet speeds have slumped to 44th in the world. Malcolm Turnbull will have his work cut out to bog up his makeshift copper wire connections.
And underlying all that, the team is becoming not less fractious but more so. While Abbott has been away in the Middle East and on leave, the mice have been playing. Apart from the bickering over the GST, the backbench continues to rumble about the PM’s style, delivery and consistency. And the worries have become more widespread and vocal within the Liberals’ broad church. Apart from the all-important business community, the insiders are becoming less inhibited about speaking publicly. Not just the usual suspects, like Peter Costello and Peter Reith; even the ultra-cautious John Howard has surfaced to suggest, in the most indirect and tactful way, that perhaps Abbott could do with bit of makeover.
There is still plenty of time for Abbott; but while it may not be too late, it may be too little. He had promised for 2015 not only jobs and families, but actual delivery: and like so many of his promises, this is easy to say, but it might be difficult to achieve. The economy is both stubborn and unpredictable, the public is recalcitrant and edgy and his own troops are unhappy – not to the point of rebellion, but certainly starting to put him on notice: lift your game.
2015 may well produce many resolutions, but in the unforgiving world of politics it is shaping up to be a year of no return.