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Tony Abbott's budget to make his mentor smile

Date

Bianca Hall

Is Abbott merely playing to old ideology? Insiders are adamant he is his own man.

Tony Abbott with his political mentor John Howard at the Melbourne Showgrounds during the election campaign last June.

Tony Abbott with his political mentor John Howard at the Melbourne Showgrounds during the election campaign last June. Photo: Joe Armao

It's just gone 5pm and former Howard government hard man Peter Reith is in a reflective mood. He's agreed to take a rare turn cooking the dinner, and he's stirring a bolognese sauce as he turns his mind to Tony Abbott's fledgling government.

Parliament prepares to resume in Canberra this week, and voters could be forgiven for thinking they'd stumbled onto the set of Back to the Future. On the agenda will be union influence, proposed cuts to the welfare system and the government's refusal to bail out businesses to support blue-collar jobs.

Reith dismisses the charge levelled by the government's critics that its policy agenda is being driven by some sort of ideological fervour. Rather, he says, it's necessary pragmatism: the Coalition can't afford not to cut expenditure. And if there's a sense that the government is suddenly in a hurry, it's probably because it is.

''It is a bit of a turning point, there's no doubt about that. Because the circumstances demand it. There's no question that the first budget you put together counts. Because if you don't do it in your first term, the second time round you're halfway to the next election.''

Like sharks smelling blood, Labor and the Greens are stepping up their attacks, arguing that the government is finally revealing its true colours. We are now hearing the words ''ideology'' and ''ideological'' from their senior spokesmen almost daily.

''This government has failed to back Australian jobs,'' Griffith Labor candidate Terri Butler intoned last week. ''They have failed to back Australian jobs for purely ideological reasons.''

Greens leader Christine Milne decried the government's ''ideological opposition to effective action on global warming'' and its ''pro-logging ideology''. And Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the government was a shabby reflection of John Howard's government, borrowing policies ''from the same ideological playbook''.

''Tony Abbott will never be John Howard - he's just doing a B-grade job impersonating him because he's got no ideas or plans of his own,'' Shorten said. ''Just as Tony Abbott pursued WorkChoices as part of the Howard government, he's now proposing to cut penalty rates. Just as the last Liberal government attacked superannuation, Medicare and schools, Tony Abbott is attacking superannuation, Medicare and schools [and] just as they cut funding to schools and hospitals before, they're lining up to do it again.''

But Reith rejects the ''ideological'' tag. ''They think that's a terribly clever remark,'' he scoffs. ''Well, if you don't stand for anything - OK. Personally I like a government that does stand for something, and I think the Australian public does too … I think what they're really saying is some sort of extreme ideology and this is just complete nonsense.''

As Abbott now carves out his own leadership, comparisons to that of his political mentor, John Howard, are inevitable. Abbott himself spent much of last year's election campaign invoking Howard's memory, and has moved, in the first months of his prime ministership, to revive Howard-era policies, including the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the work-for-the-dole scheme and turning back asylum seeker boats.

''Comparisons can be odious,'' Reith laughs. ''Ask a Howard minister and they'll tell you it was the greatest government ever.''

Howard himself moved to end the comparison last week, saying while he and the new Prime Minister spoke fairly frequently, Abbott was his ''own man''.

''He's running the first Abbott government,'' Howard said. ''He's not running some carry-over of the Howard government. It ended in 2007.''

Howard's government was moderated by a strong reliance on middle-class welfare. And yet, while Abbott's government seeks to differentiate itself by an avowed commitment to ending this ''age of entitlement'', the signals are sometimes mixed.

''Everyone in Australia must do the heavy lifting now,'' Treasurer Joe Hockey said last week. ''The age of entitlement is over. The age of personal responsibility has begun.''

He went on to tell Fairfax paper The Australian Financial Review the government was preparing to implement the ''great majority'' of the cuts recommended by its Commission of Audit, as well as additional savings in the May budget.

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has made plain that cuts to middle-class welfare, as well as working-class welfare, will likely form part of that.

Hockey told the Lowy Institute on Thursday that: ''Too many taxpayers' dollars have been spent on corporate and middle-class welfare and too often previous governments have been drawn into areas that are better left to the private sector.''

The predictions of cuts have been welcomed by those on the conservative side of politics and received with a shudder by progressives.

But could Hockey have been signalling that the Abbott government is preparing to introduce a ''small government'' model straight from the classic liberal playbook that even Howard's government would not adopt?

Not quite, says Reith. ''These are not so much philosophical issues, these are more how we achieve our objective,'' he says.

''Whether it's difficult or not, there's still a huge imperative for winding back a lot of expenditure. We just don't have the luxury for thinking oh, yeah, we can keep running up these bills, it's not on the list of possibles, really.''

Julie Novak, a senior fellow with conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, is heartened by Hockey's ''positive noises'' about the end of the age of entitlement. But she is concerned that some of the government's policies run contrary to that message, pointing to the multibillion-dollar paid parental leave scheme, and its pre-election commitments to maintaining Labor policies such as the national disability insurance scheme.

''There's always a disparity in political parties between the rhetoric to energise and feed the political base, and the practical policies that they implement,'' she says. ''There's this fundamental incongruity between an ending of the 'age of entitlement' and the implementation of new forms of entitlement, such as paid parental leave.''

And here, she says, the Abbott government is following the Howard government's lead. ''The Howard government, as part of the GST process, implemented a new elaborate array of middle-class welfare, particularly Family Tax Benefit part A and B.

''Over much of the period of the Howard government they, rhetorically at least, had an avowed position of reducing the size of government, and they did that marginally in some senses, but there's always this fundamental tension between the rhetoric and the practice.''

There is no doubt the new government is wasting little time introducing its agenda, and many of its first priorities appear to have been lifted straight from the conservative script.

It has moved on environmental issues (making good on its pre-election vow to try to reduce the amount of Tasmanian forests under World Heritage protection), union influence (with its planned restoration of the ABCC and the judicial inquiry into union rorts), climate change, the mining tax, cutting regulation and asylum seekers.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne sparked claims he was re-starting the ''culture wars'' when he announced a sweeping review of Australia's national curriculum to weed out ''partisan bias'' and refocus teaching on Western civilisation.

The government can claim a mandate, having announced and aired all these policies before the election.

But conservatives like Novak hope it will go further.

''As a practical, rather than an ideological, matter, the government has to cut government spending particularly in wasteful areas, in order to allow the private sector to grow,'' she says.

''And let there be no doubt; middle-class welfare is actually politically very popular, but I argue it's also economically and fiscally unnecessary, so we've got this problem where democratic politics trumps the economic interests of those voters.''

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