By Mungo MacCallum
Tony Abbott kept his new year’s resolution simple: ‘To be a better prime minister with a better government and a more effective parliament’.
Worthy enough, certainly; but it’s a bit vague. Better at what? How, where and when? So far all the signs are that it’s still more about the message than the substance.
Certainly there has been a lot of spin about Abbott’s consulting more widely, tidying up his office (apart, of course, from the implacable chief barnacle Petra Credlin) and reshuffling the ministers, reportedly to produce better communicators. But the hard core, the government’s determined and unpopular program, remains largely intact.
The commentariat, of course, has plenty of resolutions for Abbott and his colleagues to fill the gap. The silliest is the one from the frothing conservatives and not from the government at all: it is all about the opposition. If only the pig-headed and perverse Labor, Green and crossbench contrarians would abandon all their principles, pledges and policies and join Team Abbott all would be well. Among other absurdities that would reverse centuries of the democratic adversarial system of party government, but sanity must prevail: the denialists must give way to authority!
Slightly more rational is the perennial chestnut from Peter Reith: the answer is labour market reform – Liberal code for cutting wages and conditions. This is, to put it mildly, counter-intuitive; at a time when the profit share of the national cake is increasing while the wages share is reducing and the economists are warning direly about reduced living standards, this recipe is only likely to be embraced by the business community, and not all of that.
But the most frequent suggestion, prompted perhaps by the release of cabinet records from almost 30 years ago, is that Abbott should go back, not to John Howard, but to the old enemies: Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. In 1984 they hoed into the budget and got away with a massive reform agenda, so why can’t Abbott? Well, for a lot of reasons, actually.
For starters Hawke arrived at the Lodge not only hugely popular, but generally trusted; Abbott is neither. And Hawke’s treasurer was a serious player; like him or loathe him, Keating was treated as a man to listen to. Abbott’s treasurer has been a reduced to figure of fun, a sort of cartoon Mr Moneybags.
But most importantly the Hawke government, while undoubtedly firm, was fair: after an exhaustive summit, the prices and income accord endorsed the principle of equality of effort and sacrifice. So when the nasty cuts began for the punters, the fat cats got hit with a fringe benefit tax to slash their own lurks and perks. There were big changes, but there were no ambushes and no trickiness. If Abbott ever had the nerve to attempt a similar course, he has squandered it in his first year.
If 2015 is to be the year of redemption, it will be a very hard road to both Damascus and re-election. But any case there is no indication he intends to change; instead he insists that the glass is at least half full, and there is plenty to celebrate. So let’s have a look at the core outcomes from his year of achievement.
The first thing to notice is that they are overwhelmingly negative – not things the government has done, but things that the previous government did and which have now been undone. First and foremost, of course, is stopping the boats – a promise largely fulfilled. The problem is that even for its most vociferous supporters, it has made no discernible difference. The headlines may have changed, but life has not. In fact, security concerns have been heightened – not as a result of anything to do with the hapless asylum seekers, but because of real and perceived threats which have emerged in the real and perceived world, not in the fantasies and paranoia about an invasion of leaky boats.
Still, stopping the boats gets a tick. And so does abolishing the carbon tax – but again, so what? Prices of everything, including electricity, continue to rise. If the foreshadowed bonanza of $550 a year for every household has ever been delivered, few if any have been able to trouser it. And as for abolishing the mining tax – well, no one cared about that except the rapacious miners themselves, and they managed to avoid most of it anyway.
Then there was repairing the budget deficit, the debt and deficit disaster bequeathed, yet again, by the previous government. Self-evidently the positions have got worse, not better, under Abbott’s watch and there are more dark clouds to come. It has now become clear that the problem was not just the stimulus measures put in place to cushion the worst effects of the Global Financial Crisis; it had its roots on the reckless spending and unaffordable tax cuts, overwhelmingly for the wealthy, of the Howard government before it. The underlying structural deficit was already in place before Labor took over in 2007. Certainly overspending by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard did not help, but nor have the extra commitments promised and in some cases splurged by Tony Abbott. A big fail on that one.
Which leaves the only genuine positive among all the negatives: the somewhat belated rider to the 2010 mantra, building the roads of the 21st century. Even if this was a good idea in a world looking for ways to save and sustain energy efficiency, the hard fact is that there have been few genuine initiatives: much of the infrastructure bonanza had already been scheduled by Labor. And in any case it will be years before anything actually happens; for the moment all that can be seen is billboards and occasional traffic holdups. So much for the slogans.
Over and above them, the Abbott government has completed some of the partially free trade agreements begun by its predecessors, but once again it will be a while until the benefits trickle down to the punters, if they ever do. So for all the ballyhoo, the sad fact is that there has been precious little in the way of real outcomes and achievements during the past year and not much genuine optimism about the next.
And Abbott has started 2015 signalling that he is not really interested in advice anyway. One fervent admonition from well-wisher was that he should spend less time abroad; so he immediately took off for the Middle East, because he could. How’s that for a resolution?