Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
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Armies and defence departments are always being accused of being prepared to refight the last war rather than fight the new one, but for governments, similar mistakes are just as fatal.
Tony Abbott and his followers were entitled on Tuesday to all of their smiles and triumphalism, not least as they looked across to a depleted and demoralised opposition which has further to fall before it can regain the public’s confidence. This Prime Minister is determined to carry out his promises, and the Governor-General’s speech was as elegant a testimony to them, and to the government’s broad philosophies, as the rejoicers could have hoped for or expected.
Abbott has already adopted a useful phrase – employed in justifying a major extension to government debt limits – of the previous tenants having trashed the place, with a consequent need for systematic repairs. At just the same time, the Governor-General’s speech was confirming election expenditures on infrastructure, health and education, even with a little extra wiggle room for some changes in direction. Abbott now ‘‘owns’’ the economy.
Abbott must also look ahead, because most of the things about which he must make politics are before him, not behind him. One way or another, he will have less than the usual amount of time to be blaming deficiencies on the last lot. He has already been two months in office – and government generally will soon be moving into a Christmas and January slowdown, even if, this time, there might be rather more action over that period in slowing the pace of government expenditure – if that is what the economy really needs. Even for those for whom the last days of Gillard or Rudd, or both, were a nightmare, that period is starting to seem a long time ago.
The longer away, the more the problems of government come from events beyond election-campaign plans or expectations. The Coalition, for example, had not expected the success of the Palmer United Party, or for Clive Palmer’s seeming capacity to strengthen his voting bloc. Abbott ought to be entitled to expect that Palmer and co would generally support his approach – but then again Abbott and co thought much the same about securing the general support of disaffected Nationals-turned-independents at the last election. They were rudely put in their place. Abbott must wonder, in any event, whether making deals with Palmer – assuming Palmer can speak or deliver for his team, however defined – might not be more trouble than it is worth. The Nationals, (and others, including Abbott himself) were scalded, from 1996, by the manner of dealings with Hansonism in Queensland and elsewhere. All the more so if the somewhat quaint and folksy appearance of Palmer is seen by voters, or by business constituencies, as getting him insider status, or business favours, or freedom from his taxation liabilities.
It is already clear Palmer is no fool and that he does not play the game the same way as other politicians. Least of all does he proclaim himself willing to be judged according to conventional standards of disinterestedness, or want of conflict of interest, in decisions to be made by government. Like his old mentor Joh Bjelke-Petersen, he seems shameless. Abbott had not been particularly thinking of Palmer, or a right-wing rump of Senate politicians, when he promised, during the last election, he would make no deals with the Greens or independents. In one sense he can wait until August, when the new Senate meets. But it is unlikely Palmer, now in the House of Representatives, will be absent from the headlines in the interim. How many parliamentary novices have addressed the National Press Club – and not for the first time – on their first day in Parliament?
The Palmer problem is aggravated by the virtual inevitability of a new Senate election in Western Australia in the next few months, perhaps during just the period that Abbott is trying to bluster some of his ‘‘mandate’’ items, such as the abolition of carbon and mining taxes, through the Senate. Labor and the Greens have already signalled they will defeat this legislation. It may be opposition to such taxes runs particularly strongly in Western Australia, and that Abbott can harness this to create some sort of mini-referendum. But any such election, like most byelections, may excite more enthusiasm from those already disappointed by the government.
Forty years ago Gough Whitlam thought he was being brave and principled by refusing to adjust his political pace to the fact of an approaching byelection. He actually thought that voters in northern Sydney would admire his honesty and straightforwardness when he announced that Sydney’s second airport would be built at Galston, near Hornsby close to the seat of Parramatta, where the Liberal candidate was the then untried Philip Ruddock.
Abbott cannot put government, or hard spending cuts in neutral until after the Western Australia Senate election. Anyway the outcome is not likely to affect his problems too much from after June 30. But, with or without a good result, he must be prepared for at least the possibility of a double dissolution in the second half of next year, by when any promises or concessions designed to appeal to West Australians will have to fit in with his campaign pitch to a bigger and broader electorate. He may calculate that Palmer is all bluff in threatening to vote down his program. Yet it is of the essence of a Palmer (and for that matter the micro-parties beginning to agglomerate around him) that they are most successful, and most likely to hold on, where they are seen to actually exercise power.
That requires confrontations and brinksmanship, not surrender. Concessions haggled for. Little victories gained for Queensland, and Tasmania, and perhaps NSW, Victoria and Western Australia too. Victories of a sort Labor, or the Coalition, could not have, or would not have, delivered. Victories that stick in the craw of the Nationals, or libertarian Liberals, or both, or which involve obvious payback to people such as Campbell Newman. With all of this juggling, ethics, transparency and good governance are becoming more clearly issues. As yet this is not a consequence of Scott Morrison’s particular compulsion to close down on public accountability, Peta Credlin’s Rudd-like micro-managing manias, or a strong attempt to break out of the regimens brought on by the 24-hour news cycle. These hurt too, but the real time bomb is with expenses rorts. The damage is probably aggravated rather than quietened, by the ineffectual tweaks announced at the weekend.
Nothing turns new governments into old, worn and shop-soiled governments quicker than public perceptions of greed, complacency and contempt for public opinion.
Abbott looks as guilty, and shifty about it as colleagues such as George Brandis and Barnaby Joyce. He could hardly choose a more silly excuse than insisting that others were equally guilty.
The feeling that he doesn’t even feel contrite, other than for being exposed, is the stronger for the fact that not one of the tweaks actually addresses any of the situations – including the posited Labor ones – that had caused the public dismay about the new tenants being as bad as the last.
Jack Waterford is editor at large