Buoyed by the successful visit to Australia this week of Japan’s Shinzo Abe and the expectation of finally expunging the carbon tax from the law books, Tony Abbott was in a positive mood on Thursday morning, describing the tax’s expected demise within hours as ‘‘good news’’ for the country.
Wisely, he stopped short of counting his chickens, but his confidence was clear.
Clive Palmer: A spanner in the works. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
‘‘Today should be the day when the Parliament acts upon the clear mandate of the people in the election last September,’’ he decreed authoritatively, describing the carbon tax as a 9 per cent impost on power bills and a $9 billion-a-year handbrake on the economy.
‘‘So getting rid of the carbon tax is good news for families, it’s good news for business, good news for jobs and good news for prices."
Yet by lunchtime that expectation had been dashed at the hands of a non-government party that clearly believes its mandate to protect households from rapacious power companies and a double-dealing government is even greater.
Confusion reigned as, not for the first time this week, the government failed to either count or wrangle the numbers in the new Senate to push the repeal bills through.
Even a government senator called it ‘‘a disordered morning’’.
Self-evidently, the tussle between the Coalition and the millionaire businessman’s Palmer United Party reflects the latter’s new centrality to national affairs and Clive Palmer’s own determination to apply a populist wedge wherever possible.
More worryingly, it reveals the essential weakness of the government’s negotiating position – a weakness that will extend far beyond the carbon and mining tax repeals to a raft of budget cuts for which the mandate question is entirely contestable.
In its major features, the budget was a very different fiscal prescription from the one Abbott had promised voters.
There was no mention of increased university fees, a fuel tax rise, a GP co-payment, an extended retirement age, a temporary income tax rise, lower indexation for pensions, an $80 billion haircut in future Commonwealth outlays in health and education, cuts to family tax benefits, cuts to a range of payments and supplements, and so on.
In fact, all these things were either expressly ruled out when raised or were covered off by overarching assurances such as the oft-quoted formula of ‘‘no new or increased taxes, no cuts to education or health, no cuts to pensions" etc.
It’s been two months since the budget now and almost none of the above has been passed into law – save for the deficit levy. That is far from normal.
Abbott, as always, is putting a positive spin on things.
‘‘The important thing is that the government gets on with delivering the commitments that we made to the Australian people before the election,’’ he insisted, before helpfully reducing them to ‘‘stop the boats, scrap the carbon tax, build the roads of the 21st century and get the budget back under control’’.
"I don’t say everything’s gone perfectly over the last 10 months, but all of those commitments are coming to fruition." he said.
Then came this: ‘‘This is a government which says what it means and does what it says and I’m pleased to see that so many of the commitments that we made to the people at the election are on the point, I hope, of coming to pass.’’
Really? Marks for optimism at least.
One problem is that even if voters accepted the Coalition boast of providing a government that ‘‘says what it means and does what it says’’, it’s the mismatch between now and what it said when in opposition that stands out to voters. And to Palmer too.
Right now he, and the others in the Senate looking to build their constituencies, see a weakened government.
The danger for Abbott therefore is that it will get worse in coming months.
If the PUP is prepared to frustrate the government so directly on a measure for which it has a clear mandate from voters, why would it roll over on unpopular measures that will actually hurt some voters? Ditto for the others.
Mark Kenny is chief political correspondent