Tony Abbott’s engaged on two fronts. His first objective is simple: to emerge from the budget melee with as much of his credibility intact as possible. He must compromise – he doesn’t have the numbers in the Senate to do otherwise and he’d meet with oblivion at the polls.
We’re told the Medicare surcharge is simply to create money for a research fund. By abandoning it Abbott can demonstrate he’s "listening". Later he can blame Labor for cuts to medical science. So why hasn’t he done it already? Forget everything in the past. Abbott’s crafting his image for posterity today and, from the point of view of Saturday, May 24, it’s not looking good.
The second problem is far more serious. Abbott is fighting a battle for the heart and soul of the Liberal Party. Don’t think that Labor’s the only party capable of getting rid of its leaders. There’s a solid Liberal tradition of eliminating electoral liabilities too. When politicians are under pressure there are two natural fallbacks: polling and policies.
When he led the opposition Abbott could always point to the polls demonstrating he was in the ascendant. Sure, there was the occasional stumble, such as the week Rudd returned to the Lodge, but essentially the Coalition had no doubt Abbott would lead them to victory. Today’s polling offers no such comfort to marginal backbenchers, and they’re just beginning to grow accustomed to the luxury of government. Sure, the country hasn’t had a one-term government since 1932, yet equally, no budget’s been this badly received since Paul Keating’s first effort post-election. Look what happened to that government.
The second bastion a Prime Minister can fall back on is ideological: stressing – and selling to the public – their own political beliefs and demonstrating how the many different elements of policy settings add up and paint a unified picture. But this requires a portrait that voters will find acceptable and want to look at. And this is Abbott’s real difficulty at the moment.
The PM has finally embarked on a task he should have begun the day he won the election – blaming Labor for the country’s debt. But his problem with the message doesn’t simply revolve around timing. Voters are now judging Abbott on his budget, because this represents the way he’s attempting to tackle the problems he inherited. The problem is it just doesn’t hang together. He understands the issues the country will have to address in the future: our seemingly uncontrollable willingness to see government expenditure growing exponentially while the revenue base shrinks. But Abbott’s only curbed spending, not touched taxes. One doesn’t need a National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling study to understand this will hit the poorest most. The rich will benefit. And that’s where his continuing as our PM takes on an ideological perspective.
Bob Hawke, Rudd and Julia Gillard were all blasted from their perch as PM because they’d lost the legitimacy that’s conferred by the polls. None had any unique policy foundation for their leadership. This is just the same for Abbott. His supposed avowal to the independents – later denied by Abbott – that he’d do anything to become PM undercuts any basis for reliance on policy as a bulwark that can protect his leadership.
Examine the budget and the policy chaos becomes evident. There’s general acceptance that the budget needed to be balanced, but this has been achieved in the most unequal way imaginable. Revenue’s been left untouched. Every tax rort continues just as before, no loophole closed. But responsibility for expenditure’s been shovelled off to the states and, eventually, the individual. It didn’t take the punters long to work out that they’d been stiffed.
This means, inevitably, that Abbott does possess an ideology and it appears to be very Old Testament. Life is unequal and God is capricious. Everyone bears the burden of their own future. Get with the program or get out. Oh, and we need plenty of Joint Strike Fighters to smite our enemies just in case Jehovah doesn’t heed our prayers. The trouble with these sorts of views is that they can't be articulated in polite society.
I hold no brief for the sort of student antics that paralysed the ANU this week. It seems apparent that our university sector is urgently in need of reform. Sydney University lecturer Thomas Adams pointed out this week how desperately our universities require government funding. Even with the recent donation of Tuckwell scholarships, the ANU’s private endowment is on a par with Lehigh University. Heard of it? No. It’s number 71 in the US.
How can we possibly establish and retain a “world-class education sector” without significant government involvement? And where’s the plan? There isn’t one. ‘Deregulation’ is the magic word expected to solve everything. Somehow the healthy will survive and thrive while the inefficient are thrown to the dogs. But the snapping fangs don’t offer a pleasant prospect and perhaps that’s why politicians are reluctant to advocate this publicly as the route we should be following. This is no excuse for attempting to bring in such changes by stealth.
That’s not the way Australia works.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.