Weekly column for The New Daily.
Weekly column for The New Daily.
Given the events of the past week, it’s time to recognise some of the government’s outdated views on women.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the festival of bad behaviour brought to us by Jamie Briggs and his supporters is that the victim blaming and political opportunism is not likely to be over any time soon.
It’s hard not to get the sense the Abbott Government’s budget strategy is spiralling out of control.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann insisted repeatedly yesterday in a television interview that he and his colleagues were “working in an orderly and methodical fashion” to implement the budget. Yet one only had to listen closely to pick up the quiet keen of panic underlying his rushed and automated responses to see that even Cormann does not believe his own lines.
The Minister’s weekend television appearance was in stark contrast to his interventions last week, when he had to mop up after Treasurer Joe Hockey’s unfortunate comment about poor people not driving cars.
Cormann was assured and confident at the time, dismissing Labor’s clunky allusions to the budget having more reboots than a Macintosh or Commodore 64.
He wrested back control of the budget debate, pointing out that “no government in recent political history had passed all of its budget measures through both houses of Parliament by the end of August”, and that “a number of the measures that are the subject of the most intensive post-budget debate are not due to take effect for some time”, which left ample time to keep engaging with the Senate crossbenchers.
This was necessary because voters not only think of the budget as unfair, they perceive the Government as having lost control of its implementation.
Coalition strategists would see the latter as far more troubling because the Government can ride through, or if necessary change, a tough budget but it is much harder to cast off the burden of perceived incompetence. Just ask members of the former Gillard government.
And yet yesterday, just one week later, Cormann had been reduced to the same gibbering mess as his Government colleagues, rapidly reeling off numbers, acronyms and other econo-babble and attacking Labor instead of reminding voters what “orderly and methodical” is supposed to look like:
If we stay on a spending growth trajectory that takes us to 26.5 per cent of the share of GDP, when tax revenue on average over the last 20 years was 22.4 per cent of the share of GDP and you don’t want to balance the books by reducing spending, then the only alternative to balance the books is to increase taxes.
The Finance Minister may be correct, but such an “explanation” would have caused most voters’ eyes to glaze over rather than win Cormann any new-found support or respect.
Cormann’s interview was an unfortunate conclusion to the five-week parliamentary break in which the Government was meant to consult and ideally negotiate with the crossbench on the more contentious elements of the budget.
Instead of doing this in a low-key fashion, the Government chose to accompany the negotiations with ham-fisted threats in the media, deploying an artillery of dud firecrackers in an attempt to soften-up the belligerent Senators.
Hockey’s threat to re-introduce legislation on asset recycling/privatisation as an appropriation bill, only gave Clive Palmer a free kick with a headline on being prepared to block supply.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s “speculation” that he may have to cut university research funding if the Government’s reforms to university fees are not accepted, will have gone down as well with Senators as his comment that university students are being asked to pay an additional 10 per cent of their course cost, not “donate their left kidney”.
And now tax increases are being threatened as the way of repairing the budget, which in itself is nonsensical and empty: if the Government can’t get any of its existing tough measures passed, how does it intend to get tax hikes through the same intransigent Senate? It’s certainly not the policy an unpopular Government would take to the next election either.
Very little seems to have been gained from all this tough talk. Palmer said a week ago that his Senators would not support the GP co-payment or the changes to university fees, although he has been known in the recent past to simply change his mind when presented with more information. It would seem this variability is the constant upon which the Government is depending.
Judging from the previous sitting of the new Senate, Palmer will deliver in spades his very own brand of parliamentary unpredictability and its attendant drama. His political viability and that of his party depends upon it.
And yet, there is another path that Abbott could take to dispel the sense of chaos that pervades the budget and his Government.
Instead of making empty threats in an attempt to arrest its ill-fated budget, the Government could make better use of its time working out which is the greater threat to its political survival. Labor may compete with the Coalition for the swinging vote, but Palmer and PUP are stealing the Coalition’s base.
On this measure, Labor is clearly the lesser evil and ironically the means by which Abbott could regain control of his careening budget.
By negotiating with Labor, the Prime Minister could secure Senate passage of mutually agreeable legislation. This would of course require some eating of humble pie and incorporation perhaps of uncomfortable changes into Government policies. It would also give the main opposition parties some brownie points in the eyes of voters.
But such an approach would completely neutralise Palmer. It would negate his balance of power position and relegate his media stunts to irrelevancy. Most importantly it would rob the renegade MP of the kudos and increased support he gets every time he makes life difficult for Abbott.
Those listening carefully last Friday may have almost caught Treasurer Joe Hockey humming a few bars from “Sadie the cleaning lady” as he announced his innovative infrastructure deal with state and territory treasurers.
For it was left to the Government’s chief budget spruiker to mop up the political detritus left by his colleagues over the preceding week and get the budget expectations campaign back on track.
The Treasurer, formerly known as Sloppy Joe, is painfully aware that his own credibility as well as that of the Abbott Government is vested in how well the public and the media receive his first budget.
That reception is reliant on a campaign of softening up the voters to expect decisions that are tough but fair, and to build acceptance even before the budget is handed down by creating a sense of momentum and inevitability.
Traditionally, the government uses the final week of Parliament before the six-week break leading up to the budget to create that sense of momentum. So a week playing Knights and Bigots was a distraction Hockey could ill afford.
Nevertheless, Hockey took to the clean-up task with relish. On Friday he threw the states and territories a juicy incentive to sell off their assets, under the guise of an almost too clever euphemism “asset recycling“, thereby effecting a workmanlike attempt to draw our eyes away from the car crash that was last week’s Parliament and refocus our gaze on matters economic.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rolled up his sleeves and joined in on Sunday, authoritatively re-establishing the narrative about “Operation Repair the Budget”. He attended to a few stray splashes by reaffirming the Coalition had committed only to the first four years of Gonski funding and that the NDIS would be implemented in a way that was “efficient and as well-targetted as possible”.
Cormann devoted considerable elbow grease to the troublesome Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms, hoping to dispel concerns over what he claimed to be inaccurate depictions of the changes. He repeated, again, that he developed the reforms as the shadow minister for financial services and superannuation after extensive consultation and a series of parliamentary inquiries that looked at financial products and services.
This appeared to be as much an effort to distance the reforms from the standing-aside Assistant Treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos, as they were to calm citizens concerned about rampaging financial advisers. The former Australian Water Holdings chairman is due to give evidence to the ICAC on Wednesday, at which time Sinodinos’s many fans may be confronted with uncomfortable truths about the fallibility of their man’s widely-regarded political acumen.
Sinodinos has undoubtedly opened a chink on the Government’s flank, causing them to be at least temporarily circumspect when it comes to dodgy deals and corruption. This became clear when, amongst the many dramas unravelling in Parliament last week, barely a peep was heard about the sentencing of former Labor MP Craig Thomson and former ALP President Michael Williamson, for misusing union funds.
Had Sinodinos not been in the picture, Thomson and Williamson would have been brandished by the Government as further justification of the need for the royal commission into union corruption and used to wedge Opposition Leader Bill Shorten from his union support base.
Instead, the Parliament was subjected to the Prime Minister’s twin indulgences, a Racial Discrimination Act retrofitted to accommodate Andrew Bolt and the reintroduction of an archaic honours system.
Perhaps Liberal voters in Western Australia, who are required to attend a polling booth this weekend for the fourth time in 12 months, consider these relics attractive. It’s more likely they’re interested in jobs, health and education, all of which were barely mentioned by the Government last week.
Ironically, Shorten was more on-song with Hockey than the Prime Minister. In his first address to the National Press Club since becoming Leader of the Opposition, Shorten contributed Labor’s threads to the budget narrative by defending his party’s economic record while in government and helpfully nominating four criteria by which the opposition would (and the media “should”) judge the budget.
Shorten also sounded a curious dog whistle to conservative voters, who are traditionally wary of change, warning that a government’s priorities determine whether people are the victims or beneficiaries of change. Shorten cautioned that Abbott’s “bleak, hopeless brand of Darwinsim” means adapting to economic change will require “deep cuts to services, longer unemployment queues, lower wages and lower levels of government support.” We can expect to hear more of that refrain in the coming weeks.
Parliament may be over until the budget is brought down in May, but Hockey shouldn’t put his mop and bucket away just yet. This time next week, he’ll have to contend with another distraction from the budget as parties and commentators alike paw through the entrails of the WA Senate election re-run.
Depending on the election outcome, political strategies and budget narratives may have to be adjusted. Hockey may have to kickstart the budget expectations campaign yet again to create the momentum needed to consolidate public acceptance. And with less than five weeks to go to the budget, there will be little or no time left to mop up after any further prime ministerial acts of self-indulgence.