Treasurer Joe Hockey is having trouble selling his budget. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Robert Menzies chose wisely when deciding on a name for his new political party. Earlier he had led the United Australia Party, a successor of Billy Hughes’ Nationalist Party, which itself included elements of Labor and Fusion (a combination of Protectionists and Anti-socialists). Confused? That’s exactly why Menzies chose the name “Liberal Party”. After all, who isn’t liberal? It sounds so sensible. A little progressive but neither obliged to capitalists or locked to the workers. In essence a reasonable, middle-of-the-road compromise; the sort of thing everyone could vote for. That is why we did.
Although not formed until 1945, the Liberals have held government longer than any party and provided our two longest-serving PM’s – Menzies and John Howard – as well as the current one. Communism has collapsed, the alliance between workers and social progressives is bankrupt, and free-enterprise capitalism is the ideology of choice. Tony Abbott is in power with Liberal Premiers in five states and one territory (South Australia and the ACT are the odd ones out). Theoretically, the party should be on top of the world. So why have things gone belly-up?
The explanation is not just technical incompetence. Attempts to explain away bad polling by insisting policy hasn’t been '‘sold’' properly won’t wash. Joe Hockey is to blame, but not simply because the budget narrative has not been explained to voters. Hockey is, of course, hopeless. First the cigar, then the book ... but these things always run in threes, so I can’t wait for whatever is coming next. It is bound to be a doozy!
Yet Hockey’s incompetence alone can not explain the full extent of the failure and that is what is so troubling for the government. Inconsistency resides at the heart of this budget. It lacks intellectual coherence. Why? Precisely because it is not genuinely liberal. Instead of arising out of the centre of mainstream liberalism, it displays a pastiche of special pleading, ideological dogmatism and, most critically, a rush to change the world and impose radical solutions that are anything but moderate in their outcome. In other words, Abbott’s problem is fundamental. This is not a truly “liberal” government – its agenda is confused. The problem is not dogma, it is inconsistency. The contradictions lie deeply embedded in the party and are ripping his government apart.
This is why Hockey can’t sell the budget; can not even work out how to salvage bits of it. His problem is it does not hang together logically.
Take young Christopher Pyne’s changes to education. Is the rationale behind the savaging of universities and bolstering of private schooling to, (a) give more people the chance to become barista’s after studying at crappy universities? (b) To give fewer people the chance to become barristers after studying at great universities? Or simply, (c) a cheaper education system so the government can hand out huge tax cuts at the next election? There is no correct answer to the question because there is no coherent strategy behind the cuts.
Take Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews’ marriage-counselling advice. For a start, the poor bloke does not really understand how imbedded bias underlies and skews his every thought. He insists, for example, that de-facto couples are more likely to separate – even though his own government says “data [is] not yet available on the relative incidence of separation and divorce in cohabiting and married couples that have children”. Rather than deal intellectually with the problem, Andrews imposes his own ideology onto complex issues without regard to the facts. Much easier to make them up as you go along. But the essence of his failure is it is born of the dogma that insists marriage is the solution to marriage breakdown. This is ridiculous and, because he wants to impose particular structures onto individual decision-making, is fundamentally illiberal. Instead of representing the core values upon which Menzies built his party, Andrews approaches issues of personal choice from a prescriptive, blinkered and doctrinaire position.
To complete the three stooges, let us drag out Health Minister Peter Dutton. His deadpan humour is always worth seeing, so try and catch one of his sold-out shows in a hospital near you before the reshuffle intervenes. It is terrific watching him attempt to explain why money needs to be taken from pensioners now to research disease in the future (if you want to see him squirm ask, “which diseases in particular” before following up with “and how, exactly, will such funds be allocated”). Selling this idea should be easy – but to do so you need to begin from firm foundations. Start by deciding how much money is needed for research – not from the vague idea that people need to be discouraged from going to the doctor. Then get accurate stats. Understand exactly how many times people visit their GP a year and why. Do not go off half-cocked arguing with incorrect facts because it exposes the real agenda behind the new fee. It is designed to penalise people visiting doctors and to keep the poor away.
This is why neither Abbott nor Hockey is capable of finding a way to negotiate this budget through the Senate. Ask them what is non-negotiable and they really don’t know.
That is because the budget is a collection of wish-lists compiled without any underlying world view. This remains the most disturbing element of this government. It is not that it is ideologically driven, the problem is that every minister is driving off in a different direction.
Hockey thinks his job is just to wave the chequered flag: he is only now waking up to the fact that it is his responsibility to fuel the engines. Abbott is only now understanding that his job is to make sure everyone is heading in the same direction. They are not. The path should be in accordance with the fundamental values of the party. But what, prey tell, are these?
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer