So here we are at another Abbott anniversary – two years gone, one to go. And as we start the run-up to the final 12 months, it is time to take stock: just what have we got for it and what can we expect? Or, more brutally, just what is the point of the Abbott government?
This is a question I asked many years ago while interviewing the long-serving and successful New South Wales Premier Neville Wran. Wran, a wealthy and celebrated QC had taken over the Labor leadership of the lacklustre Pat Hills, and had become a political star: Wran was The Man.
But once elected, he didn’t actually seem to do very much. When I asked him to enumerate the highlights, he mentioned one of the big ones as the encouragement of outdoor dining in cafes.
It didn’t seem a lot: so what was it that made him go through the sacrifices – financial and personal, the awful hours, the constant frustrations, of climbing the greasy totem pole of state politics? What was his driving force? Wran replied in measured and, in those days, still mellifluous tones: “To keep the other bastards out.”
And so it is with Tony Abbott: he is defined not by his vision, but by his opponents. When he says, as he often does these days, it is not about him, he is quite correct; but he is dead wrong when he adds that it is really about jobs, growth and national security. These are not an end in themselves, but a means to wedge, denigrate and ultimately (he hopes) destroy Bill Shorten and the ALP.
Abbott says he is good at fighting Labor, and he is: his time as opposition leader was Olympic standard as a model how to bring down a vulnerable government. But fighting Labor is, it has now appeared, the only thing he is good at; when it came to the more complex task of building a replacement, there has been nothing to offer. Last weekend even his best friend, Greg Sheridan admitted in The Australian that the government was going around in circles, presumably as preliminary to disappearing up its own rectum, along with the suppository of all wisdom.
Sheridan, as with the other NewsCorp barrackers for Abbott and the Libs, was notably reticent about boosting the achievements of the last two years; they had to fall back almost entirely on negatives. Abbott ended the carbon tax and the mining tax, he stopped the boats.
They did not have much to say about the other magic slogan: fixing the debt and deficit. There are, of course, some positives – mainly the free trade agreements, although in the case of China that too has been deployed more of a weapon against Shorten than as a benefit in its own right. And not content with getting rid of some of things Labor has done, Abbott has now resorted to claiming credit for those that it didn’t.
Last week he boasted proudly hat he had scrapped the bank deposit tax – the insurance guarantee that the previous government had proposed to ensure the safety of assets in the event of a collapse among one or more of the big institutions. This had remained on the books for the first two Abbott budgets, propping up the bottom line to the extent of $500 million, but had never been legislated. Now it is gone – another swingeing blow against Labor’s financial waste and extravagance. Another straw man demolished instead of actually doing anything.
This has, of course, been the pattern: Labor’s suggestion of looking at any budget measures – superannuation, capital gains tax, negative gearing – have been dismissed, not because they are not worth considering, but simply because they are Labor ideas, and therefore to be summarily rejected. In their place we are repeatedly promised ‘conversations’ – about tax, federation, the cost of living, online gambling, – you name it, it is on the table. Just how, or with whom, these cosy chats are to be convened is unclear – in fact, they are no more than distractions from the principal agenda. Only when, and if, Labor raises an objection will they come into force – implacable, irresistible force.
As for action – well, Abbott says he will take any proposals for the next election – or perhaps the one after that. But there will be of course be income tax cuts – that’s a firm promise. Well, as firm as the circumstances allow. And this is the big problem; after two years of drift and dithering Abbott and his mates have left the Australian economy in a far worse position than when they found it.
It is not all their fault; the senate has resisted what were generally seen to be unfair and precipitate ambushes, and the international situation has obviously deteriorated. But the same could apply to Kevin and Rudd and Wayne Swan and they managed triumphantly. Now we are faced with almost unrelieved gloom, economic indicators dropping towards still uncharted depths.
The June quarter growth figure of a derisory 0.2 per cent, was, Hockey, noted, a bit below expectations (it was just half what was predicted) but look on the bright side – it was better than Canada, and, er, Brazil. But not as good as Greece, long held up as the basket case of bad management. And, it turned out, only remaining in the black at all because of a surge of government spending, which Hockey promptly disavowed: ‘I can promise you it wasn’t planned this way,’ insisted our accidental treasurer.
Hockey continues to be determinedly optimistic, as does his indefatigable finance minister Matthias Corman – it is their job. But it is hard to see much, if anything, to enthuse about. The 2015 budget has disappeared without trace; the much-vaunted stimulus to small business has now been buried like a belch in the barrage of bad news. And that appears to be that; there is nothing to look forward to until the next election, when all will be revealed – or at least promised, and we all know how much we can rely on that.
The best that can be said is that there is only about 12 months, or probably less, to go; but that does not provide much comfort either. The only certainty is that Tony Abbott will keep on punching to the end. We can only hope that he knocks himself out in the process.