Other than the Chinese and Indian leaders’ addresses due to be given to Parliament this week, the G20 wagon train has already moved on, leaving Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government with the same thorny domestic issues to resolve as they had before the international summit began.
If anything, the G20 has made Abbott’s life just that much more difficult.
Despite the summit’s communiqué providing an action plan with over 800 measures agreed to by the world leaders, most Australians will have focused only on the nightly news version of the event. Their take-home message will be that Abbott wimped on representing the interests of devastated MH17 families to Putin, and was overruled on his domestic approach to climate change.
Abbott could well have done without having metaphorical sand kicked in his face, considering his “protector of the realm” persona is one of only two strengths the Coalition has left to build its next election campaign upon.
As it is, only 49 per cent of Australians recently surveyed said they were confident in Abbott doing a good job in representing Australia to the international community. Being seen as a coward and a weakling diminishes the PM’s ability to exploit the national security issue, particularly when Labor’s strategy of sticking closely to the Government on the issue has seen the Opposition successfully minimise any point of differentiation and therefore electoral advantage to be gained.
That leaves the Coalition even more dependent for political survival upon its other perceived strength: superior economic management. Whether deserved or not, the Liberals have traditionally been seen as better economic managers, but this trust has taken a hit since Treasurer Joe Hockey handed down his first budget in May this year.
Through no-one’s fault but their own, the Government is burdened with a triply-flawed budget: no compelling case has been made for its harshness, it places an undue burden on those least able to pay, and its most unpopular measures do little to reduce the deficit.
The budget has so few redeeming features that the Senate has no compunction in blocking it. As a consequence, the Government is getting opprobrium for its unfair budget but gaining nothing from the pain because the measures are not being passed. On top of that, Clive Palmer’s shenanigans are making Abbott look weak and ineffectual.
The Government has only a few weeks left this year in which to turn this perception of incompetence around before it becomes entrenched in voters’ minds and they switch off for the long summer break instead.
We can therefore expect to see a lot of “getting down to the serious business of fixing the economy” during the next month or so.
The Government has already shown the ability to get creative on the budget, bringing on the petrol excise increase before getting the relevant law through Parliament, and threatening to find non-legislative ways to establish other revenue-raising measures.
That creativity has extended to using public debate on the budget and economy to cause tension within other parties, such as that created by the petrol excise within the Greens, and the ADF pay package in the Palmer United Party.
The latter move may pay particular dividends, if Tasmanian PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie leaves the party. Despite Palmer’s dismissal of Lambie as having just one vote if she becomes an independent, the reality is that the Government needs any six of the eight Senate crossbenchers to pass its legislation. And without Lambie, PUP has only two senators, which potentially leaves them as the irrelevant ones.
Past and present ADF personnel as well as the people of Tasmania would do well from Lambie becoming an independent who is able to negotiate with the Government on her own terms instead of Palmer’s. This would likely be seen as restoring some order to the chaos created by Palmer, and reflect well on Abbott.
The other way for the Government to revive its economic reputation over the fading days of 2014 will be with the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) report, which is due before Christmas.
Despite one economic consultancy reportedly predicting the budget will miss out on $51 billion of savings over the next four years, Hockey has insisted he will not use the MYEFO to deliver a mini-budget with new budget cuts. This is hardly surprising given the Government is unlikely to get its existing cuts approved by the Senate, and there is nothing to suggest any new cuts would be considered more favourably.
The MYEFO will have to do something other than cut spending to restore voter’s trust in the economic credentials of the Coalition. As a result, it could have implications that stretch as far as the next federal election in 2016.
As the PM learned over the past weekend, talking tough can only take one so far when it comes to being in control of a situation. Hollow threats and platitudes can be quickly exposed, leaving one considerably weaker for having been the one doing the big-noting.
In failing the international leadership test at the G20, Abbott managed to single-handedly set back the Coalition’s re-election strategy. He could however reverse that situation with more genuine and inclusive leadership on the budget.
The next couple of weeks will show whether the Prime Minister has learned this lesson. Or perhaps, like most voters, he simply saw the G20 as a series of pointless and expensive photo opportunities.