Captain Abbott steers into choppy waters

Most parliamentarians enter politics because they want to make a difference. They soon find out the only real way to bring about change is to be in government.

There are exceptions of course, such as when MPs hold the balance of power in a minority government or the Senate, but in most cases the power to make and deliver policies lies in the hands of the politicians perched on the Treasury benches.

So having attained the golden prize, there is an understandable reluctance to let it go again. Even the faintest whiff of an electoral threat can be enough to set the hares racing.

This goes some way to explaining why anxious ministers and backbenchers are whingeing to the media about the deeply unpopular federal budget, and agitating for changes to be made to the way things are run on the Good Ship Coalition.

“A stinking carcass” and a “pollywaffle in the public pool” are two reported denunciations by Government members of their own budget. According to the same media report, even a leadership “shake-up” is being considered as an option sometime in the future.

This is because, like Kevin Rudd before him, Tony Abbott’s value to his colleagues is entirely measured by his capacity to keep them in government.

Both men were the begrudging choice of desperate MPs reduced to trying anything to find electoral success. Neither had a loyal following within their parliamentary parties, nor did their colleagues particularly respect them.

In Rudd’s case, any remaining regard vanished when, after presiding over an increasingly dysfunctional government, he mishandled the politics of the Copenhagen climate change meeting and abandoned action to address the greatest moral challenge of our time. The Rudd government’s opinion poll ratings plummeted, nervous Labor MPs began to chitter, and the rest is history.

Abbott too is losing what is left of his colleagues’ respect. Political indulgences like the Paid Parental Leave scheme and the reinstatement of knights and dames were unsettling at best, but now that lack of political nous is manifested on a grand scale with the internally contradictory budget (deep spending cuts AND excessive spending increases), its cack-handed PR campaign and avoidable stumbles on the budget’s details.

Yet instead of finding ways to right the ship, blame-shifting has become the Government’s new political past-time. One Liberal Party faction has been briefing the media that Treasurer Hockey isn’t up to the task or is captured by his department, while others have emphasised that Abbott presided over all the key budget decision-making processes.

One of the most pointed leaks has been the claim that Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin declared “this was a budget she would take to an election”, implying that she was complicit in the lack of political judgment shown in casting and selling the budget.

Critics of Credlin’s command and control style are also using the budget to discredit her centralised approach, most likely in the hope of dismantling it.

Former Costello staffer and now well-connected political columnist, Niki Savva, commented just after the budget that:

Overall, the budget has the mark of a prime minister who accepts he will never be popular, who will struggle to regain the trust of his fellow Australians and who should count himself lucky if, at the end of it all, he wins their respect … The pity of it is that the Coalition did not properly alert people to its intentions before the election. Abbott is paying the price now for a brutally effective campaign to destroy Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, a campaign orchestrated by those closest to him whose mission was to get him there no matter what, then worry about the rest later. [Emphasis added]

To make sure we were in no doubt as to her meaning, Savva said in a television interview this past weekend that Abbott is right to say the Australian people wouldn’t necessarily want to see another prime minister cut down by their own party, but that he should remember why Rudd and Gillard were removed.

Savva recounted that in addition to not living up to their commitments, Rudd had a dysfunctional office and government, while Gillard just wouldn’t listen.

She concluded by emphasising the leadership lessons Abbott should take from Rudd and Gillard’s political demise: change the way he and his office (Credlin) operates, and address his MPs’ anxiety and unrest.

The first test of whether Abbott is prepared to heed such advice will be this week’s sitting of the House of Representatives.

Ministers will be negotiating with the minor parties and other crossbench senators on legislation the Government believes has a better chance of being passed before the new Senate commences on July 1. This is when the balance of power shifts from the Greens to the broader crossbench.

It will be at this point that we see how many of the budget decisions are re-cast as mere ambit claims and negotiated into more electorally palatable forms.

Even if voter angst over the budget does subside over time, the real concern for Abbott should be the extent to which his perceived competence has taken a hit. The combination of an ill-judged budget, not being on top of its detail and ongoing political missteps like “winkgate“, could quickly add up to Abbott being seen as out of his depth if handled proficiently by the Labor Opposition.

This would be a significant political blow: the main reason the Gillard/Rudd government was rejected by voters in 2013 was because it was considered incompetent.

So it would be a mistake for the Prime Minister to dismiss talk of unrest and potential leadership challenges as mere backbench bleating because the water is getting a bit choppy.

Australia may still be two-and-a-half years away from the next federal election, but if a new leader was to be installed, he or she would need 18 months to establish themselves. That gives Abbott a year to pull things together.

One punch is OK? Unforgiveable, PM

We already know our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is susceptible to brain farts and mis-speaks.

From the Paid Parental Leave scheme that might have been a good idea at the time but is now a millstone round the PM’s neck, to the awkward and callous “shit happens” when discussing the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan, Abbott has consistently shown a troubling deficit in political acuity.

And now he has likened his role in defending the budget to throwing a punch in order to be best and fairest.

Yes, you read that right – our PM said that sometimes one must be the physical aggressor in order to be considered the epitome of fair sportsmanship.

Abbott was reportedly commenting at a media event on the ‘hits’ he was taking over the federal budget. He related an anecdote about a rugby match in his university days, a punch thrown to quell the dirty tactics of an opposing player, and how he was subsequently awarded a point for that punch in a newspaper’s best and fairest competition.

Abbott concluded his morality tale with the extraordinary exhortation:  “The point of the story is that sometimes you’ve got to throw a punch to be the best and fairest.”

The words “appalling” and “offensive” don’t even begin to describe this conclusion, both in isolation as well as the context within which it was made.

Last month, Tom Meagher, wrote a searing piece about the pernicious culture of everyday male violence against women, which had mostly escaped his notice until the rape and murder of his wife Jill Meagher.

Having since reached the conclusion that all instances of violence against women have the same cause, that is “violent men, and the silence of non-violent men”, Meagher presented us with the confronting truth that “most rapists are normal guys, guys we might work beside or socialise with, our neighbours or even members of our family” and that “violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.”

What does this have to do with a superficial media grab from the Prime Minister?

Everything.

Abbott’s clumsy suggestion, even as a joke, that decking an opponent on the football field is somehow fair play, is a perfect example of the normalising of violence that Bailey is warning us about.

Considering the persistent allegation that he punched a wall beside the head of a female political adversary to intimidate her during in his university days, and contemporary accusations of him being a sexist or misogynist, Abbott should have simply known better than to introduce a violent metaphor to the debate over the budget.

It’s one thing to be resilient in the face of turbulent political times, but quite another to condone – let alone celebrate – thuggish behaviour.

How will the men and boys of Australia learn that it’s not okay to give their wife, partner or child a smack in the mouth for giving lip, when the leader of the country implies that it’s not only okay to throw a punch at a troublesome adversary but jolly well sporting of one to do so?

How will the apparent targets of Abbott’s comment – the pensioners, disabled people, students and unemployed – feel about their PM suggesting he should give them a bit of biff in return for the hard time they’re giving him?

And how will the women of Australia – of which anywhere from one-quarter to one-third will experience physical or sexual violence by a man sometime in their lives – be anything other than horrified by the example set by the Prime Minister?

Abbott’s comments may seem inconsequential, but they are in fact the height of irresponsibility and disrespect towards the women who’ve lived with or been subjected to violence by men. For us, the condoning of violence is never an amusing or trivial thing.

Meagher is now promoting the White Ribbon campaign to stop violence against women. He quotes in his essay a call to action by feminist and anti-violence educator Lee Lakeman:

“Violent men, and men in authority over violent men, and the broader public that authorises those men, are not yet shamed by the harm of coercive control over women … Maybe we can rest some hope on the growing activity of men of goodwill calling on each other to change. When that group hits a critical mass, the majority of men will be more likely to want to change.”

There is no point resting that hope in Tony Abbott. Clearly the Prime Minister remains one of those who are not yet shamed. Pinning a white ribbon to his lapel and mouthing platitudes about preventing violence against women will do nothing to reverse the destructive impact of him normalising violence to further his own political agenda.

Originally published at The Hoopla.

Labor’s choice: chaos or kudos

With the delivery of the Abbott Government’s first Budget we move into the second stanza of the electoral cycle, where the Coalition’s main challenge is to convince Australians the Budget pain is worth it.

Opinion polls from Galaxy yesterday and Newspolltoday show the magnitude of the task, with about 70 per cent of respondents feeling worse off and only about 40 per cent believing the Budget is good for the country.

The Newspoll result is the worst for a first budget in more than 20 years.

Labor’s task is of a completely different nature but in some ways no less challenging – it must decide what sort of opposition it wants to be.

Since Labor was thrown out of office eight months ago the party has struggled not only with its identity but also with what is the “right” style of opposition to adopt: should it employ Tony Abbott’s grinding negativity or the Howard/Rudd model of selective differentiation?

These options were manifested in the two Labor leadership contenders. The pugnacious Anthony Albanese, champion of the Left and fighter of Tories who was ironically similar to Abbott in opposition, and the Right’s Bill Shorten who took a more nuanced approach and vowed not to oppose just for opposition’s sake.

Shorten’s victory in the leadership contest was by no means an endorsement of the less negative style, but that is nevertheless the approach he adopted. This led to some doubt and consternation among Labor supporters, as well as anxious whispers as to whether the leader was up to the job.

Last week’s feisty parliamentary response by Shorten to the Budget gave heart to the doubters.

The speech could also prove to be a pivotal moment for the Labor leader and his party. Shorten acknowledged as much in an address to party members on the weekend, saying the Budget had “defined the Labor Party”.

In his Budget reply Shorten highlighted the four “pillars of Australian society” that are being attacked by the Budget, which are also key Labor principles and differentiate the party from the Coalition: universal health care, education for all, fair pensions and full employment.

These issues – along with the cost of living – also happen to be the pitches on which Labor has chosen to fight the Coalition’s Budget: co-payment for GPs, cuts to education funding, changes to student loans and pensions, re-introduction of fuel excise indexation and measures to prevent people under 30 getting unemployment benefit.

It would be a mistake, however, to see this as Shorten emulating Abbott. Shorten may be emphasising the budget measures that Labor will block, but a closer inspection reveals Labor will support other measures such as the deficit levy on high income earners. The Labor leader has also indicated a willingness to discuss thresholds and means tests for certain welfare payments.

This is a smart move by Shorten. By basing his opposition on the best points of differentiation with the Coalition he is reinforcing in voters’ minds what the ALP stands for and what it will fight to protect. This tactic has been described as Labor choosing to fight on issues rather than making themselves the issue.

Selective differentiation also gives Labor more flexibility to adapt to the vagaries of the new Senate when it commences on July 1.

It’s true that the crossbenchers have the balance of power if Labor joins with the Greens to oppose legislation such as that to re-introduce the indexation of fuel excise.

Equally, though, Labor could negotiate with the Government to soften or delay certain Budget proposals in return for safe passage of others through the Senate. In doing so, Labor could deliver real improvements to affected voters.

Such an outcome would have the added benefit for both Labor and the Coalition of denying Clive Palmer or the Greens bragging rights for having caused the Government to back down on a Budget measure.

Such a denial is clearly on the minds of both major parties. It’s likely a proposal by the Greens to establish a national ICAC was thwarted by Labor and the Coalition to prevent the minor party getting any kudos for such an initiative. And Abbott is reportedly so determined to avoid any perception that he is beholden to Clive Palmer that he is willing to take voters back to another election if Palmer won’t let key legislation pass the Senate.

Labor supporters may be uncomfortable, however, with the Opposition siding with the Government to pass even the most sensible of Budget measures, particularly this early in the parliamentary cycle.

They’d rather see Shorten take more of an Old Testament approach, visiting as much havoc on the PM as Abbott did on Julia Gillard, and doing his best to create the perception of a chaotic and incompetent Government through obstructionism and negativity.

Chaos or kudos, these are the choices for Shorten. Only one will help him re-establish Labor’s links with its core supporters, grow that support base and build the party’s standing as a viable alternative government. The other will deliver delicious schadenfreude.

It’s a tough choice to make.

Squealing may mask a hidden GST agenda

Plenty of Australians are suckers for embarrassing overacting in daytime soaps and semi-scripted reality shows. But even those faux drama queens pale into insignificance next to the Liberal state leaders’ unconvincing collective dummy spit in response to the federal Budget this week.

The Budget revealed cuts to health and education funding for the states and territories commencing in four years’ time (which is conveniently after the next federal election).

By 2024-25, the Federal Government plans to be spending $25 billion a year on schools (compared to $30 billion) and $25 billion a year on hospitals (compared to $40 billion). This is an $80 billion cut on the amount previously promised by Labor.

State and territory leaders lined up to express their considerable displeasure at being raided to improve the feds’ bottom line in 10 years’ time.

Queensland LNP Premier Campbell Newman, who’s down in the polls and facing a state election in the first half of next year, says the cuts will not “be taken lying down”.

Victoria’s Liberal Premier Denis Napthine, who has an even more imminent election on November 29 this year, vowed “to absolutely shake the Federal Government from their top to their bottom so that they understand their responsibility to meet their share of public hospital payments”.

And newbie NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird accused the feds of outsourcing their budget problems to the states. Baird will convene an emergency meeting of the state and territory leaders this weekend to discuss the cuts. Incidentally, his state election is on March 28, 2015.

Tasmania’s Will Hodgman and Western Australia’s Colin Barnett appear much more sanguine about the cuts. This may be a product of their next elections being some way off.

Depending on whether one buys their amateur theatrics, the states are either being wedged by the Federal Government to initiate a national conversation about increasing the rate or coverage of the GST, or the state Liberal governments are in on the act.

The smart money is on the latter explanation. Exactly two weeks ago state and territory leaders were in Canberra for the latest Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting with the Prime Minister.

At that meeting the leaders considered the draft terms of reference for a white paper on Reform of the Federation and draft themes for a white paper on taxation reform. Through these processes, Tony Abbott wants to see “sensible adjustments” to funding arrangements, while Joe Hockey wants to “realign” the federation.

This is clearly code for revisiting the GST and perhaps repatriating some other revenue-raising powers back to the states and territories.

It’s not too long a bow to imagine Abbott holding a private meeting with the Liberal premiers – outside of COAG – to advise that they’d take a haircut in the Budget but would be the beneficiaries of federation and taxation reform. That is, play along and you will be rewarded.

The other clue to this being the true state of play is the states protesting that they only want a fairer share of the existing GST pie. This is an unsustainable position if the pie remains static.

For every state that gains more GST revenue there will be another that gets less, so the only way for all states to get more (in actual terms) is for the overall pie to grow. And to do that the GST must be increased or broadened.

The states and territories know this. They also know they must play the reluctant bride if they are to avoid the worst of the opprobrium for requesting that the GST be increased.

Just the right amount of squealing will make everyone look good, even Abbott.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right

Aside from its alarming treatment of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, one of the other disconcerting things about the first Abbott Government Budget is the counterintuitive behaviour it’s provoked from the major players.

Not only the Coalition government itself, but the Labor opposition and the Greens are behaving in ways that are counter to what voters would normally expect of them.

This is making it more difficult to work out who exactly is on the side of the angels, and could further entrench the unease that voters are currently feeling about the Budget and politics more broadly.

These behavioural contradictions are disturbingly numerous, and seemingly without logic.

For example, anyone with a half a brain would have thought the Government would avoid any perceived or real broken promises after Tony Abbott brutally reframed oath-breaking as a sign of political incompetence during his time as opposition leader.

And yet we find Abbott in recent weeks audaciously denying that clearly breached promises have been flouted; claiming that a previously unknown hierarchy of commitments somehow forgives lesser oaths being sacrificed for major ones; and insisting that Budget decisions that are “consistent with our promises” will suffice.

Continue reading “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”