Liberals close ranks on SPC 'lying'
Liberal Josh Frydenberg defends Tony Abbott's SPC Ardmona claims, but Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon accuses the government of not doing its homework.PT3M17S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-320q1 620 349 February 5, 2014
How to define the still untested Abbott coalition government? Ideological or pragmatic? Hardline conservative or more free market? Is it interested in economic reforms even where these are unpopular, or the narrow politics of advantage?
Abbott's spectacularly successful campaign at the 2013 poll did not answer these questions.
Learning on the job: Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
What it did was establish that it was not Labor. This positioning was more than enough to ensure a run-away win in September, but since then, voter loyalty has evaporated.
Within just three months, collapsing Coalition support put it decisively behind Labor heading into the summer break.
Those close to Abbott say the Prime Minister, and indeed the broader government, have a partial excuse: summer holidays. They say the entire administration has emerged from the break renewed and refreshed.
Speak to anyone on the government side and they admit to having reached a state of utter exhaustion by the end of last year, citing three years of constant campaigning and the under-appreciated enormity of setting up a new administration.
Yet it will take more than energy to right the Coalition ship.
By his own admission, Abbott is learning on the job, and learning, too, that running the country is a hundred times more complex than complaining about it.
There have been mistakes in policy substance - education stands out - and more again in political salesmanship.
And there are internal tensions as well. Since last year's capitulation to the Nationals over GrainCorp, the economic dries in the Liberal Party, led by the Treasurer Joe Hockey (the man incidentally who blocked the GrainCorp take-over), have been swinging their elbows.
The withdrawal of General Motors Holden showed how quickly the game had changed, with the government holding its nerve.
Last week's refusal to stump up a relatively modest $25 million in taxpayer assistance for SPC Ardmona to protect the Shepparton cannery, confirmed the new toughened approach.
The message, as Hockey has since explained, is that the era of corporate hand-outs is over, and the era of self-reliance is at hand.
GrainCorp notwithstanding, Hockey has emerged as the hard man and the clear stand-out minister in the government - a fact that may itself become an issue for Abbott as this term matures if the Prime Minister's persistently low popularity is seen to be holding the coalition vote down.
No one is considering that at present, but just as Liberals figured Labor MPs would eventually dump Julia Gillard because they could not win under her leadership, Coalition MPs could find themselves in a similar bind. Both within the parliament and within the government, it is Hockey's direction that is providing much of the impetus of the Abbott government.
This is a big responsibility because the immediate outlook is extremely complex with ballooning debt (Hockey recently authorised Treasury to borrow up to half a trillion dollars), below-trend growth, a jobless rate heading over 6 per cent, inflation leaning the wrong way, and the attendant possibility of rising mortgage rates. Throw in a health budget struggling to service an ageing population, new school funding, disability insurance, and the paid parental leave scheme, and there are plenty of calls on the public purse lining up.
On top of that, much of Queensland and NSW are gripped by drought, leading to renewed calls from the Nationals for interest rate relief, and financial aid for farmers.
Hockey must gauge how to wind in public spending without making the economic situation worse.
This will require deftness and subtlety - the very antithesis of the simplistic policy tomahawks with which Abbott is so associated and had deployed so effectively to dismantle Labor.
It is the very fact that SPC was seeking a relatively small amount of money, that has made the case so important. The Abbott cabinet opposed it on the principle of not subsidising private enterprise with public dollars, choosing to stare down the political cost of being seen to allow jobs to be lost. And it did so in one of its own electorates.
The full ramifications of this are not yet clear.
The loss of Sophie Mirabella's solid conservative seat of Indi last year to the independent, Cathy McGowan, has heightened sensitivities in the Coalition, revealing how easily the politics can go south. The neighbouring seat of Murray, held by Liberal Sharman Stone, contains the Shepparton SPC cannery.
Judging by the tone of her comments, branding Abbott a liar for his description of SPC working conditions as vastly above community standards, Stone may be the next to abandon her party.
Mark Kenny is Chief Political Correspondent.