The real problem with Tony Abbott

Jamie Miller

After Tony Abbott decided to give a knighthood to Prince Philip last month, the right-wing Melbourne shock-jock Andrew Bolt laid into the prime minister: ‘This is just such a pathetically stupid – gosh, I didn’t mean to be that strong because I actually like Tony Abbott very much – but this is just such a very, very, very stupid decision, so damaging that it could be fatal.’ Rupert Murdoch agreed that there had been a failure of leadership: ‘Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin she must do her patriotic duty and resign,’ he tweeted.

Abbott has narrowly survived a vote on whether or not to open up his position to challengers, but his troubles are far from over. His collapsing poll numbers and waning credibility are for once about substance, not style. Leadership may be a lightning rod for discontent, but the underlying cause is the government’s inability to convince the public of the merits of its neoliberal economic agenda.

The Abbott administration is driven by an ideological urge to cut public services everywhere and shift payment for the remaining services onto individuals: the banner policies in the 2014 budget were deregulating higher education and introducing a levy for GP visits. The government has pursued the agenda across the board with very little regard for the context of individual policy areas. Last year, the government cut 2100 jobs at the Australian Tax Office. Never mind that cutting tax collection capacity actually costs money in the long-term – in this case as much as $6 for every $1 ‘saved’.

As Richard Cooke argues in the Monthly, polls consistently show that voters do not want this ideology. Not everything the public wants is good policy; that is where leadership, as opposed to pandering to public opinion, comes in. But you can’t pitch a neoliberal programme to a hostile crowd and then blame ‘leadership’ for a lack of traction.

In the Queensland state election at the end of last month, the government’s proposed privatisation of electricity infrastructure was the central issue. Going to the polls with 78 of 89 seats, the Liberal National Party now looks set to lose its majority.

The appeal of privatisation to governments is twofold (it’s worth pointing out that Labor is also in favour of selling off public assets, though with more hand-wringing). Politically, it cements an alliance between a party and private capital. The Liberal Party receives nearly two-and-a-half times as much funding from the resources and energy sector as Labor does. Privatisation also helps governments balance their budgets without raising taxes, by transforming off-the-books public assets into revenue. The Abbott administration has demonised taxes while promising to sort out the ‘debt and deficit disaster’ left behind by Labor: privatisation is the path of least resistance. The government recently sold off Medibank Private, a publicly owned, privately run health insurance provider. But as even the Business Spectator has pointed out, the privatisation merely delivers a short-term windfall by selling a long-term profitable asset. (Only 29 per cent of Australians supported the Medibank Private sale; 54 per cent opposed it.)

Where to from here? The government needs to remember that one of John Howard’s great strengths was his ability to keep traditional economic liberals and market fundamentalist neoliberals together under one political roof. He did this not only by appealing to big business, but also by incentivising the middle classes to buy into the ‘private’ idea, whether through subsidies for parents sending their children to private schools, or in asset sell-offs that targeted ‘mum and dad’ investors.

For Labor, the current crisis provides a real opportunity, but also a challenge. An election is too far off for them to coast to victory by simply opposing the government with soundbites (some nifty, some mangled). It needs to start aiming at the open goals: the places where public opinion and good policy coincide. One obvious area, which Labor has already identified, is closing tax loopholes. Another is corruption, following the revelations of widespread graft in New South Wales.

Both sides should also take serious notice of the central policy lesson of the Abbott era. If a government thinks a sclerotic asset could function better in private hands, it should say why, and then privatise the asset in such a way that the private-profit and public-interest incentives are transparently aligned: i.e. the company makes money while providing a better service at a lower price, not the opposite. But it shouldn’t privatise for the sake of doing so. Victoria has a privatised electricity market; prices and productivity are strikingly similar to those elsewhere in the country. Queensland voters knew that. The public might just be onto something and politicians would do well to listen.


  • 10 February 2015 at 7:08am
    rupert moloch says:
    In Australia as in perhaps most contemporary Western "Democracies" the function of government is reducing public expectations of service provision, while protecting oligarchic power and privilege (in grocery sales, media content delivery, resource extraction, banking and finance: to name a few).

    The problem is that these dual missions are near-impossible to reconcile with the task of achieving a popular mandate. The election cycle is becoming farcical because signature policy aspirations are declared on the hustings, but promptly abandoned upon incumbency.

  • 10 February 2015 at 7:22am
    rupert moloch says:
    (off-topic probably, but anyways) ... The LNP coalition's current hostility to climate science reminds me that in the hmm 1980s? the formerly CIA-funded journal of poetry and opinion, Quadrant, used to run a lot of very well researched material in support of a potential nuclear power industry; wonderful aggregations of medical and scientific data on eg radioactive particulate matter heedlessly vented into the firmament by conventional coal-powered electricity generators.

  • 10 February 2015 at 9:12am
    farthington says:
    Our Rupe bears a heavy responsibility for this government (indeed a heavy responsbility for the thrust of Australian politics in general, both domestic and in foreign affairs (colonial cringe to the max).
    And here is Rupe trying to shift the blame!
    It's time for Rupe to be put out to pasture.

    • 12 February 2015 at 4:23pm
      rupert moloch says: @ farthington
      My dear chap, you seem to have confused me with a bloodthirsty deity who demands child sacrifices throughout the Middle East.

  • 10 February 2015 at 9:59am
    philip proust says:
    "The underlying cause [of collapsing poll numbers] is the government’s inability to convince the public of the merits of its neo-liberal economic agenda." I would like to believe that this statement made by Jamie Miller was correct; however, the neo-liberal credentials and ambitions of the Liberal Party were perfectly obvious well before the last election. This did not stop a slim but clear majority of the electorate voting them into power.

    Polling also suggests that if the suave neo-liberal-with-a-human-face, Malcolm Turnbull, replaced Abbott as prime minister the Liberals would leap to an immediate lead over Labor. This suggests that Abbott's manifestly unsavoury personality may be the vital factor, contrary to Jamie Miller's view. The polls indicate that the Liberals could keep all their present policies and regain their electoral advantage if only they would throw out Abbott and appoint Turnbull.

    Australian politics have been notable in the past for throwing up some highly dubious party leaders; yet, in the post-war era at least, no-one comes close to Abbott for his stark projection of negative charisma.

    It is only when he became prime minister that his personal defects began to emerge in full force and in plain sight, registering unprecedentedly high scores on the Richter Scale of obnoxiousness. Labor's best hope is a continuation of misrule by Abbott.

    • 12 February 2015 at 4:13pm
      rupert moloch says: @ philip proust
      Abbott's failings have been long apparent. He happily assented to all the wrong-doings of the Howard government (the AWB's AUD $300 million bribe of Saddam's regime, shortly followed by the illegal war of aggression against same, etc etc) and provided a few of his own transgressions eg as Health minister his personal veto against provision of RU486 despite its expert endorsement. His true character has been nakedly apparent since his university student campaigning if anyone cares to look.

      As to Malcolm Turnbull: for all his supposed civility he is precisely the most dangerous of the Australian neo-cons, an Antipodean Eichmann. His ministerial performance over the NBN and the public broadcasting sector is already one kind of legacy.

      Turnbull is only entertained as prospective national leader, the alternative "good tyrant", because he's maintained professional networks within the Australian media. Much alike to Abbott in this later respect.

  • 12 February 2015 at 10:47pm
    wse9999 says:
    Mr Miller’s crack at Tony Abbott leaves out a lot.
    The real issue for Mr Abbott is not ‘privatisation’ but simply that he cannot run a Government. He was a good Opposition leader maybe, but in running a Government he has failed conspicuously, especially in not taking account of the LNP not controlling the Senate, having to work with the Cross Benchers to get legislation through. Thus with a couple of legislative proposals (higher education and health) they just publically beat their head against a wall, instead of managing a process, testing the Cross Benchers early and working with them so whatever is actually tabled in Parliament can pass without great fuss.
    Alas Mr Abbott appears to have a touch of the Rudd. A revealing recent column in “The Australian” (yes a Murdoch banner) told of Mr Abbott attending a function with his back benchers, one of whom quietly suggested Abbott’s “broken promises” were an electoral issue, which apparently ignited Mr Abbott, who loudly dropped the F-bomb upon the impudent courtier. Out of touch, as he demonstrated by his quite bizarre “Captain’s call” to “knight” Prince Philip. What on earth was he thinking?
    As to privatisation, yes Queensland voted against it but this was muddied by a big apparent personal dislike for the Premier, whereas in NSW a LNP Government is quietly privatising, but led by a personable Premier who remains well ahead in the polls.
    Tony will not last in the job. For the good of the country he should step down now, but he won’t, just like his hero Mr Howard did not step down when time was clearly up and hand over to Mr Costello (which may conceivably have saved Australia from Rudd and Gillard). Instead he will be carted out.

  • 13 February 2015 at 7:06am
    Rosalind says:
    Wait for it. The leadership crisis will be sorted before the end of February, with an unexpected occupant in the PM's Lodge in Canberra.

  • 14 February 2015 at 6:57am
    jysting says:
    The Australian Prime Minister’s policy reversals and rapid switch backs are a desperate ploy to win back the approval of the electorate that have deserted him in droves in recent times. Reform is crucial for Australia to progress. When push comes to shove, Tony Abbott reverts to the cynical politician’s compulsion to alter course of government to quell the mood of angry voters who believe their opinions wantonly disregarded and their aspirations trodden upon.

    Abbott’s bullish policies have been a disaster when justification for reforms are not explained and are unleashed for the sake of change alone. Climate change denial, the gutting of science funding, Medicare co-payments, commercializing higher education towards profitability, threats to public broadcasters and expensive and unnecessary paid parental leave scheme to boost childcare are driven by a political and ideological agenda that privilege the few but contravene the public spirit of Australia’s “fair go” ethos.

    Tax reform, workplace changes and myriad other important reforms are still required, but they must be widely consultative and be in Australia's best interest in her local and global context. Add to that the stupidity of making Prince Philip a knight, and is it any wonder that the task will be far harder now that Mr Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have lost so much credibility. The burden is not spread fairly with big business receiving favorable terms; implementation is crash through and damn the consequences; and most of all when it is not revealed to the voters before an election.

    Reform mixed with non-listening leadership is even worse. It can produce the bloodbath of a Liberal National Party electoral demise in my state of Queensland this last weekend. Abbott is heading for just that sort of rebuff unless he starts listening to the people who trusted him to deliver stable and honest government but now feel betrayed. His government, a shame on the international stage, has to change or voters will force a leadership change and even get rid of the Coalition after a single term in office. Australians are sick of being lied to.

    The Prime Minister has to reinvent himself as a listener and explainer of policies, rather than the stubborn reform at all costs and oppose everything else leader he has become in government.“Pride before the fall.” Throughout history, hubris has been visited upon the mighty who cared not for the people, nor listened to them. The time is ripe for a change, hopefully for the better.

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