Having not done so for some months, I thought this week I might return to the subject of politics.
There was always the temptation to comment on international affairs but it all seems so depressing. Mind you our politics might not seem much better. Except in politics we have at least one of the greatest clowns to appear outside a circus with Clive Palmer.
This weekend we have complete the first twelve months of the Abbott Government. As I have previously written this has come with some disappointments. The government has struggled without a sustained compelling narrative and often confusing us with mixed messages.
No doubt many will argue the government has been hamstrung because of a hostile senate where a grab-bag of independents and minor parties hold the balance of power. Getting legislation through the Senate is certainly difficult but other governments have succeeded despite a hostile Senate. The fact that the Government can’t win its arguments in the Senate however seems to be a lesser problem than the fact that the Government doesn’t seem to be able to convince the voters. We will come back to this a little later.
Despite this, Abbott has had some success. To begin with, he has managed to stop the boats. A deal of the credit for this must go to the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison. Despite the cacophony of the naysayers and the confected outrage of some of those purporting to stand up for the rights of the self-declared and usually illegal refugees, illegal entry by boat is now almost non-existent. As a result our resources can be better devoted to other things and we are able to better manage who should be allowed into the country.
Secondly, the carbon tax has been repealed. Whether or not you believe in anthropogenically induced global warming or not, the Government came to power with this top of its agenda and could rightfully claim a mandate from voters to remove this tax. It is beyond comprehension that the opposition has vowed to restore it if elected.
Finally, this week, despite some awkward compromises to gain the support of the Palmer United Party (PUP), the Mining Tax has also been abolished. (It is concerning that in order to buy the support of the PUP the government has agreed to establish a senate committee to look at a funding arrangement to prop up failing businesses. This is another example of the Government sending mixed messages. It wasn’t so long ago it eschewed more support to the automotive industry, SPC Ardmona and so on.)
The above achievements were all key promises the Coalition made at the last election.
Surprising many of its critics, the Abbott Government has also performed well on the international stage. Many expressed dismay when the revelations emerged of Australia tapping the phones of the President of Indonesia and his wife (a misdemeanour which actually occurred on Labor’s watch) and suggested that Australia’s relationship was irreparably damaged. Abbot and his very competent Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop quietly worked away and (even though despite many in the press portraying the relationship as being strained, I don’t believe it ever was) emerged with a stronger position than we have ever had. As well there have been major improvements in our trade agreements with our significant trading partners which is a tribute to Andrew Robb, the Minister for Trade and Investment.
Abbott and Bishop have succeeded in improving our relationships with Indonesia, China, Japan, India, Malaysia and even (surprisingly) the United States. Not too bad for a Prime Minster who can’t speak Mandarin and who has never worked in International Affairs!
The final promise of consequence was to restore the budget to a surplus and begin paying down debt. This has not gone so well and I will provide some commentary on this later in my essay.
Now one would have thought that the Abbott Government would have been able to commence its reign with some authority. To begin with it achieved a huge majority at the election. As well it was gifted an opposition of a very discredited Labor Party.
When Bill Shorten gravitated to the position of Opposition Leader he could look back and wince at the leadership tussles (in which he had played a principal role) that had destabilised his once great party. He was also gifted the legacy of failed policy with respect to pink batts, school halls, “cash for clunkers” and so on.
This has been aggravated by the Royal Commission into the pink batts fiasco which found considerable failings in the Rudd Government’s stewardship of this program which resulted in the deaths of four young men and more than twenty house fires.
The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption has unearthed a host of damning evidence indicating, at best, poor governance and, at worst, blatant corruption and thuggery. The unions involved are the prime supporters financially of the Labor party and have close ties with many of the opposition members whose political careers began with their roles in the trades unions.
The Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments left a legacy of burgeoning debt and ongoing deficits. All of this, combined with the policy fiascos referred to above served to mark them as the worst Governments in recent Australian history.
To make matters worse, on assuming leadership of the ALP opposition, Bill Shorten seems reluctant to admit of any errors in the Rudd/Gillard regimes and is doggedly pursuing many of the same policies which caused Labor to lose government.
With that sort of a background one would have thought it should have been plain sailing for the coalition on assuming government. But this has been far from true with a marked fall of support for the Abbott government and a decline in the Prime Minister’s own approval rating.
Perhaps the biggest contribution to the dissatisfaction was the budget. Even though, as many economic commentators have pointed out, the budget was not unduly harsh, it was poorly received by the average voter.
Now the Coalition had given ample notice at the election that getting the budget under control was a high priority for them and had flagged there would be cuts. However, after the election, for whatever reason, little was said about it. This was a mistake. The Government should have taken every opportunity to reinforce this message. The public need to be told again and again:
- We have just gone through a period where the previous government has spent profligately and often unwisely. A continuation of such spending will result in ongoing deficits and increasing debt which threatens the Australian economy and places an undue burden on future generations. (This was easy to demonstrate by drawing on the example of a number of EU countries.)
- Considerable spending committed to by the Labor Government was unfunded and would have to be curtailed.
- The new Government will not introduce new programs unless they can be properly funded without increasing debt and restoring the budget to a surplus within a reasonable time frame.
In business I used to tell my managers that until you had told the workforce something seven times you hadn’t told them! Communicating to the public at large is no different and they should not have shirked from the task until we were sick of hearing the message.
Of course the Government’s position in restoring the budget was made unduly difficult because of the Prime Minister’s insistence of introducing a very generous Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme. It was at best confusing to tell the public on the one hand that budget stringency was required and then on the other to extend generous payments to many in the community who were reasonably well off. One suspects that Abbott originally proposed the PPL to shield himself from the common criticism that he did not appeal to women. It is apparent he has hung on too long to his pet proposal providing ammunition for the opposition to argue his budget approach was unduly alarmist if the country can afford this expensive ill-targeted addition to welfare.
The Government’s communication effort on the budget seemed initially to fall on the shoulders of the Treasurer. Whilst Hockey seems to be a competent performer in the Parliament his efforts at communicating the budget left a lot to be desired. Latterly the Minister for Finance, Matthias Corman has stepped into the breach and has performed quite well. Commentators have also pointed out that the Government has been fettered in the budget communication process by the loss of the Assistant Treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos. Sinodinos is an able communicator but was forced to step aside after allegations were made against him in his role as Chair of Australian Water Holdings before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption enquiry.
The PPL, attracting internal criticism from Government members, also raised concerns about the Prime Minister’s willingness to consult. There had been considerable, and deserved, criticism of Kevin Rudd in this regard. It is always going to be difficult for a Government to sell to the public something it hasn’t been able to sell to cabinet and its backbench. Bob Hawke is remembered for the way he was able to engage broadly within his parliamentary team and form a consensus. Certainly participative decision making can be cumbersome (and as a result sometimes not applicable) but it should be used wherever possible because of the commitment it creates. It would also help prevent the Prime Minister acting injudiciously on so-called “thought bubbles”, which is probably the kindest description of Abbott’s unilateral decision to reinstate Knights and Dames to our honours lists.
No doubt Tony Abbott has proved more effective on the international stage than his critics would ever have countenanced. This has certainly contributed to the recent modest lift in the Government’s approval rating. However it would be folly if in the rest of his term he allows this to distract him from pressing matters on the national front. And of course the foremost of these is the budget.
It is time for the Government to recast its message. Abbott needs to convince the Australian population of the need to return the budget to surplus. This is obviously to Australia’s advantage in the medium term. There is also a moral argument about spreading the intergenerational load. We can see the future if we don’t take the hard yards now, by looking for example, at Greece.
Good leaders are able to articulate engaging narratives of the future and show us all how we contribute to that vision. Whilst Hockey, Corman and, perhaps eventually, Sinodinos can propagate this story, it is such a significant part of the Government’s long-term strategy that it must be led by Abbott. It has to be framed in such a way that every member of the coalition can deliver it to the voters of their electorates. Abbott needs to re-establish the conservatives as the preferred financial managers.
There is of course a bigger issue here that all major parties need to address. The electorate needs to be educated to the fact that we can’t have everything we want and sometimes there will need to be sacrifices.
The Rudd/Gillard Governments made commitments with respect to educational reform, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Broadband Network that were beyond the country’s capacity to fund. In the election campaign the Coalition foolishly affirmed their commitments to these and other programs that they couldn’t fund either if they were to fulfill their promise of bringing the budget back under control. Under these parameters we are encouraging the electorate to believe that we can have anything we want and we can have it now. Some lessons in delayed gratification are sorely needed.
In the old days I can always remember at election rallies when a new proposal was made someone in the crowd would interject, “But where’s the money coming from?” After hearing this repeatedly we would roll our eyes and hope for some more enlightened debate. Unfortunately today it seems that no one is asking that difficult question any more. It would be to the nation’s great benefit that instead of inflaming and inflating community expectations the major parties were a little more circumspect!
So what happens now? Despite the poor polls at this stage I don’t think the conservatives cause is lost. But I think their long-term success is closely tied up with the economic narrative I outlined above. Traditionally in Australia we have turned to the conservatives for financial management and when they went too far in promoting economic outcomes at the expense of social justice and welfare, we would allow Labor an opportunity to redress the balance. Right now I suspect that the economic issues should dominate and the conservatives need to re-establish their credentials as economic managers.
As for Labor their principal tests are yet to come. It is easy right now for Bill Shorten to gnash his teeth and confect outrage at the possibility that the Abbott Government in their efforts to right the economic ship might make anyone worse off. As we get closer to an election, provided he is still in charge, he is going to have to make a case for how he will manage the economy. (Of course he could just co-opt Wayne Swan to do what he always did – viz, in the face of all evidence to the contrary just proclaim that Labor would bring the budget back to surplus!) In view of all of the cost cutting that Labor has blocked, including some that the Labor Government itself had proposed, that should be an interesting exercise. And I can’t believe when voters finally have to make the choice at the ballot box they will easily forget the failings of the Rudd/Gillard Governments.
There will be other factors of course. One of the most potent could well be the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. With the evidence it has so far garnered it is very likely that the union movement will be considerably damaged. This could have many possible ramifications. As I mentioned above it could impact on Labor politicians and perhaps even the leader of the Opposition. The thuggery of the CFMEU in the building industry will no doubt lead to moves to reinstate a more powerful building industry watchdog. But more importantly it will deal a blow to the integrity of the union movement. It may lead to constraints on their ability to fund political activity. If nothing else, when the union movement inevitably leads another crusade against the conservative government and its industrial relations policies, its influence will be substantially diminished. It might, although I doubt it, embolden the Government to look at some IR reform before the next election.
So despite the reported dissatisfaction my money is still with a re-election of the Abbott Government the next time we go to the polls. He needs of course to learn some lessons from the first twelve months, not the least of which is to construct an engaging narrative and to step up to the plate to deliver the budget message.
(Oh, sorry – I forgot to mention Clive Palmer. The Abbott Government would be well-advised to hold him at arm’s length, and the longer the arm the better! Clive is going to problematic in the short term. But in the long term he reminds me of a meteorite. Meteorites are comparatively large bodies that enter the atmosphere and because of their mass and friction generate a lot of heat and light. Fortunately they are usually soon burnt up! We can only hope!)