Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott

Rupert Murdoch wants him. Gina Rinehart wants him. The miners want him. Big business wants him. Most of the media want him. But does the public want him? By September 8 we will know if the voters really did want him, whether they have been persuaded by the continual media promotion of Tony Abbott and his Coalition, and the incessant denigration of Kevin Rudd and Labor.

Abbott supporters insist that he is the one this country needs as its leader for the next three years.

But how many will reflect on what it will mean to this nation to have Tony Abbott, whom we now know so well, as its Prime Minister?

It takes little serious reflection to conclude that this nation does not deserve to have Abbott inflicted on it. Let me elaborate on why we ought to say no, no, no to Tony Abbott.

Contemplate an Abbott prime ministership, an Abbott government.

In my opinion, we can confidently expect Abbott to exhibit seemingly conflicting attributes: vengefulness and weakness.

The vengeful Abbott

Although this 55-year-old has been telling us recently that he 'has grown, developed and matured' since those long past days when he embraced quite different policies and exhibited very different attitudes and behaviour, how convinced are you? The old saying about the leopard’s spots applies.

Is this man, who in student days resented losing, any different now? Is this the man who kicked in a glass door when he narrowly lost in a University Senate election? Is this the man who punched the wall close to Barbara Ramjan when he lost an SRC election to her? It was an event he couldn’t at first ‘remember’, and then said ‘it never happened’, despite witnesses to the contrary. But we all know Abbott is a self-confessed liar. Is this the man who subsequently called Ramjan ‘chair-thing’ during her subsequent term rather than her preferred title ‘chair person’?  Is this the man who abused Nicola Roxon and insulted the dying Bernie Banton?

Is this the man who as recently as last week in the leaders’ debate asked about Rudd: “Does this guy ever shut up?” It was a small infraction, of course grasped eagerly by the media, but it portrayed brittleness, it signalled thinly disguised aggression lurking just under the surface, aggression that could erupt with little provocation, as it did during university days. Hardly a desirable attribute in a national leader who would need to liaise with world leaders! Greg Jericho says this: “This could be Abbott’s version of the Latham handshake, because it feeds into the perception that already exists that Abbott is a bit of a brute – someone who is liable to snap if pushed a bit too hard." Happy Antipodean was blunter: “But every now and then - like last night - Abbott slips up and lowers the tone of social discourse to a level with which he – a father of three daughters! – is happiest with the after-game fly-off-the-rails barbarism of the teenage schoolboy. He's a disgrace to Australia.” Abbott’s recent sexist remarks about some of his candidates for election fit with this image. Read YaThink’s satirical take on his remarks.

Is this the man who from the moment Julia Gillard won the support of a majority of Independents and formed Government in 2010, labeled her as an illegitimate prime minister and her Government illegitimate? Is this the man who used over sixty motions to suspend standing orders to delegitimize her, the man who demonized her daily with vile appellations: ‘liar’, ‘incompetent’, ‘worst prime minister leading the worst government in Australian political history’, who sneered at her at every opportunity despite her record legislative achievements?

Abbott’s approach to opposition has been consistently denigratory and viciously revengeful. Abbott cannot tolerate being a loser. Losing brings out the vengeful side of his nature, the nastiest aspects of his behaviour.

Look at his opposition to Labor bills. He has opposed measures that he has supported in the past (an ETS is one example), simply to enjoy the satisfaction opposition afforded. He is a disciple of Randolph Churchill, and slavishly follows his dictum: “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out”.

We would expect him to enjoy wreaking vengeance by repealing the carbon tax, the mining tax, and other Labor bills. Smashing what Labor has done is his pugilistic intent; demolition gives him satisfaction.

If he were to win, the bigger the majority the more intense and personal his vengeance would be. Voters need to know that vengeance is in his DNA. It would override any tendency to munificence that might emerge after a substantial victory. Remember his instruction to Malcolm Turnbull: “demolish the NBN”, an instruction Turnbull found a way to partly ignore. Demolition is Abbott’s preference.

Let’s look at some pretty obvious changes we could expect if Abbott prevails. Preston Towers has a nice account at AUSVOTES2013.

Tax changes
If he were to get a majority in both houses, we should expect not only the two major taxes to go, but also the carbon tax to be replaced by the underfunded, derisory Direct Action Plan, a plan way outside the carbon market system. There would also be a reversal of means testing of the private health insurance rebate, despite the Coalition agreeing to it earlier this year. Abandoned would be the recently mooted changes in the Fringe Benefits Tax in salary packages that enable the claiming of car expenses even when not used for business. Abbott would continue the rorting by the recipients, at taxpayers’ expense.

Industrial Relations
We would expect a revisiting of industrial relations despite Abbott’s ‘dead, buried and cremated’ reassurance, repeated again in the latest debate between the leaders. The pressure that commerce and industry is placing on Abbott would prove irresistible. Independent Australia sets out Abbott’s IR agenda in detail. Already he is talking about ‘flexible workplace reform’, and ‘moving the pendulum closer to the sensible middle’, which is code for the reintroduction of elements of WorkChoices by whatever more benign name Abbott invents. He would reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission with all its anti-union provisions. He would introduce union-bashing legislation to penalize dishonest union officials. In the event of his not having control of the Senate, some pay-offs might have to be made to the lesser parties and independents to implement his IR changes, which might include, for example, compromises to pro-lifer DLP John Madigan over the abortion issue.

Attacks on school funding
Although Abbott encouraged the Premiers to reject the Gonski reforms of school funding, when it became apparent that the people really did want the School Improvement Program implemented, and as more and more Premiers came on board, Abbott realized that to oppose it was such a vote loser that he endorsed it, claiming that he and Kevin Rudd were then on ‘a unity ticket’. Of course he has endorsed funding for only the first four years, whereas it is years five and six that are the most expensive. After all the talk of the program being a ‘Conski’, after Christopher Pyne’s insistence that the school funding system was not broken, after Abbott himself saying that if there was any funding inequity, it was the private schools that were missing out, we would expect Gonski to be revisited, subjected to yet another inquiry, and then watered down to reduce federal government support for public schools, thereby perpetuating the existing inequity. Abbott is even talking about encouraging public schools to become independent. Of course this would partly let him off the funding hook and satisfy his free market, user-pays ideology.

At the level of the family he has already announced the repeal of the ‘school kids bonus’, a move that would have its greatest effect on the poor in our community. He says he would use the money to fund in part his lavish PPL, one that so disproportionately favours the well off.

Attacks on the health system
We would expect an attack on elements of the health care system with GP super clinics and Medicare Locals his targets. We would wait with trepidation to see how he manages the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and in particular drugs that are used to assist abortion. And his push against the NBN would be reflected in the health sector too, as some of the planned innovations, such as home monitoring, would be curtailed or rendered impossible.

On nurses and aged care workers, Abbott wants to support them by ‘reducing red tape’, and ‘paperwork’. Sounds great, doesn’t it. But where does the reducing begin? As Clarencegirl asks: “Would it be daily observation charts, case notes, individual treatment plans, outcomes of multidisciplinary case management conferences, filling in accident/incident registers, or more simple tasks like placing patients/residents on lists for podiatry treatment and filling in weekly menus for those who can no longer do such tasks for themselves? Or would it be paperwork proving staffing levels, that all staff were suitably qualified for the positions they hold and that emergency medical equipment is tested/serviced regularly?”

All of these moves would be characterized as necessary cost-saving exercises to repair ‘the desperately bad financial situation Labor bequeathed the Coalition’.

Global warming
Lurking beneath an exterior that now acknowledges the reality of global warming, and the possibility that human activity contributes to it, is a denier. Why else would Abbott propose a scheme such as his Direct Action Plan? Malcolm Turnbull sees it as a bogus scheme that could easily be ditched when it all becomes too difficult, too costly, too logistically impossible, and ineffectual in lowering pollution to boot, as most economists and environmentalists predict. Abbott would cite the budget situation as his excuse for not proceeding, but the real reason would be that he doesn’t believe global warming is worth bothering about. After all, ‘it was hotter in Jesus’ time’. He keeps insisting, as does the sycophantic Greg Hunt, that there is no move to carbon trading elsewhere, which there is, and that the US is adopting ‘direct action’, which it isn’t. Being into short-termism, Abbott would let the planet look after itself, while he goes about doing the easier things, and Hunt would go on spinning a story that does not coincide with his own beliefs. As Tristan Edis writes: “Last week the Climate Institute called Hunt’s bluff, releasing a study examining the economics of Hunt’s Direct Action fund. In spite of its generous assumptions in Hunt’s favour, the study concluded Direct Action was underfunded by at least $4 billion to achieve the minimum Coalition emission reduction target.”

One area in which Malcolm Turnbull excels is obfuscation. He is not only incapable of making complex telecommunications issues simple enough for the public to comprehend, he is even less capable when he is trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. When his heart is not in it, he stammers and stumbles and becomes incomprehensible. Again and again he has tried to represent his NBN-Lite as superior on the grounds that it would cost less and would roll out faster. But that advantage comes at the expense of quality. The Coalition scheme would give Australia a second rate NBN, which would leave business and agriculture less competitive internationally, and would make home health care, aged care and remote consultations much more difficult, if not impossible. But both Turnbull and Abbott insist that it would be ‘good enough’ for most users, and that the aging copper he would use for the last kilometre is capable of the speeds he is promising, which it isn’t. If it’s OK for Abbott’s daughters to download movies, and for him to send emails, I suppose that would have to do!

Talking about a Google+hangout in which Turnbull participated last week, Sortius is a Geek reports that Turnbull’s “…answers were dripped in the same arrogant dismissive tone that we’ve become accustomed to when Turnbull is interviewed or debated.” And “This was a deliberate attempt to derail any concerns over his plan being short sighted, and essentially a waste of money.”

The Coalition’s NBN-Lite costings are shrouded in mystery. Renai LeMay reported this week: “Delimiter requested a formal position from Turnbull’s spokesperson last week about whether the Shadow Communications Minister would submit the Coalition’s NBN policy to the Treasury, but has not yet received a direct answer on the issue.”

For an excellent appraisal of Labor’s NBN read Michael Taylor’s post on The Australian Independent Media Network, which concludes: “The future is an exciting place and the technological possibilities seem endless. But life and society will increasingly revolve around fast, ubiquitous, and always-on network connectivity. Labor’s NBN sets Australia up to be a part of this, and potentially to be a leading developer of the technologies that will shape the lives of the next generations.” Abbott cannot stomach Labor’s plan being the best.

After his initial instruction to Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’, Abbott would want to get as close as he could to that destructive approach with his NBN-Lite. And he certainly wouldn’t want to upset his idol, Rupert Murdoch. Be certain that he would move his NBN-Lite as close as he could to Murdoch’s requirements.

Asylum seeker policy
Little needs to said about this, except that Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison would drag the Coalition even deeper into the morass in which this issue wallows. They would seek to look more aggressive than the Government, would add more and more disincentives to their already punitive policy, as we have seen this week, and the dog whistling would heighten.

Just when it seemed they couldn’t possibly become more hairy-chested, they are now planning to spend millions ‘buying back the fishing boats’, presumably outbidding the people smugglers. As there are estimated to be three quarters of a million fishing boats in Indonesia, Morrison would be pretty busy, and would needs lots of money. If he were to buy them all, who would do the fishing? Crazy. Greg Jericho describes just how crazy.

Fiscal responsibility
Notwithstanding all the Coalition hype about Government debt and deficit, and how fiscal management would be so much better under the Coalition, the approach of Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann to fiscal responsibility gives voters no confidence that the Coalition could and would do what it says it will. They often misrepresent the facts, distort the evidence, and cherry pick the data to push their point of view, and so far we have seen little of their policy costings, which they will hide until the last week of the election, when thorough critique will be impossible. They plan simply to bluff their way through. At his campaign launch today, Abbott set out an extended timeframe for a $4 billion surplus: the end of his first term! And a budget surplus of one per cent of GDP a decade hence! He’s retreating fast.

Ross Gittins insists that the Coalition has an obligation to show how it will pay for its election promises. He goes on to outline “the unworthy reasons for avoiding any firm commitment on when an Abbott government would get the budget back to surplus. I can think of three. Because it's a safe bet the Coalition parties intend to put their debt-and-deficit rhetoric on the back burner as soon as they're back in power and the fear campaign has served its purpose. Because, even in government, Tony Abbott is likely to prove an incorrigible populist with little interest in or sympathy for the precepts of rational economics. As is clear from the way he keeps departing from the agreed line in this campaign, Hockey, Arthur Sinodinos and Malcolm Turnbull would have an unending struggle trying to keep the boss up to the mark." Gittins concludes: “…because an Abbott government would have handicapped itself so badly on the tax side of the budget that fiscal responsibility would require a degree of continuing restraint on the spending side of which no flesh-and-blood government is capable.”

If an example of this is needed, just think about the fiscal contortions that have beset the funding of Abbott’s ‘signature policy’, his Paid Parental Leave scheme, which economists and many in his party, now including Nick Minchin, believe is not capable of being responsibly implemented.

We could expect no fiscal magic from Abbott, Hockey, and Co, and certainly no move that would up the ante on the wealthy. In contrast, we can see already their preparedness to move against the underprivileged, the workers, and the indigent. They have said they would kill the School Kids Bonus and the low income tax offset, reduce the tax free ceiling thereby disadvantaging the poorest, reverse the changes to the means tested private health insurance rebate, which would advantage the wealthy, and defer for two years the moving of superannuation from nine to twelve percent. And so the attack on the less-well-off would continue. Expect more, as Abbott believes these are Labor voters anyway.

I could go on and on describing what to expect should Abbott become PM, what vengeance to anticipate, but what I have described will have to suffice.

What is more disconcerting though than Abbott’s vengefulness is his weakness, weakness that would render him unable to resist the requests, the demands of his wealthy and influential sponsors.

Abbott the weak man

The ones who would call the shots, who would shout the orders to which Abbott would jump, are Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart. Look at how obsequious Abbott is in the presence of these wealthy moguls.

Murdoch would want the threat to his Foxtel empire from the NBN neutralized. He would want no restrictions to his precious ‘freedom of the press’, which is code for him being able to say and print whatever he likes to support his commercial interests and his ideological preferences. Abbott would meekly comply; Murdoch would never see Abbott’s hairy chest. He would never see Abbott the boxer ready to flatten his adversary, or Abbott the student threatening his opponents.

Rinehart would want every concession she could wrench from Abbott, and would get it. He would make it easier for her to develop her mines, easier for her to avoid taxes that rightfully should support the common good. He would repeal the mining tax. He would support workers on 457 visas to build her mines. He would kiss her hand and give her what she demands, such as her plan for development of the North. The bravado Abbott shows against helpless asylum seekers would never be directed towards her; she is too prepossessing, too powerful, too determined to get her own way, too used to winning.

Of course, lesser lights such as Andrew Forrest would soon have his arm around Abbott seducing him to support Twiggy’s enterprises. Mitch Hooke of the Minerals Council of Australia would know that Abbott would jump if he clicks his fingers – he wouldn’t have to spend another $22 million on ads to get his way.

Peter Anderson of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry would have Abbott’s ear, urging him to reduce taxes, make the workplace more flexible, lessen red and green tape, minimize regulation, reduce company tax, and give business lots of incentives. Abbott would present an open door to the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group.

Abbott is a weak man who would not be able to resist the demands of powerful business and industry leaders. He would go wobbly at the knees and comply. He hasn’t got the ticker to stand firm.

Abbott has never acknowledged the reality of the global financial crisis and its ongoing sequelae; he has never acknowledged the ever-changing global economic circumstances and how Australia must adapt to them, even in his campaign launch today. It’s as if these situations never existed. Instead of giving voters a concrete ‘narrative’, the Holy Grail political journalists demanded of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, all he gave us today were his aspirations, some now stretched out over a decade. There were few concrete plans to achieve them, and no vision of what he wanted for this nation ten years from now. It’s so easy to mouth motherhood statements such his desire for ‘a stronger economy’, ‘more jobs’, ‘lower taxes’, ‘budget surpluses’, ‘better hospitals and schools’, and so on, but without concrete plans, they are just fine-sounding words, empty of substance. Why the paltry narrative? Is it because he awaits directives from the wealthy and the powerful? He creative slate looks blank, waiting as it seems to be for his mentors to write their narrative.

Perhaps even more sinisterly, Abbott would be subject to the pressure of his mentor, Cardinal George Pell. With his Catholic upbringing, with his Jesuit education so deeply entrenched in his psyche, he would weakly submit to the power of his Church, to the influence of his mentor. He would avoid policies that run counter to his Church’s dogma, as we are seeing manifest in his continuing unwillingness to allow a conscience vote in the Coalition on the matter of gay marriage. He would not be able to resist lobbying against abortion by his Church and the pro-lifers.

Should he become PM, this weakness of character would be even more detrimental to good governance, more dangerous to equity and fairness than the vengefulness that he would parade against the weak, against those who have no defence. The wealthy and powerful would prevail. Abbott, the weak man, would not resist.

Be afraid of an Abbott prime ministership, very afraid.

Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott.

Should you wish to ‘disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Mathias Cormann, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Christine Milne, Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

The Great Debate Debacle

Has anyone had a good word to say about the Great Debate last Sunday? What was it all about? What was the intent of the organizers?

Was it to provide entertainment for the viewers of the channels involved?
Was it to try out some new opinion-counting gadgetry?
Was it to stage a head-to-head contest to pick a winner?
Was it to see who was the best debater?
Was it to satisfy the debating elite by following their preferred format?
Was it to see who had the sharpest repartee, the best rejoinder?
Was it to see who exhibited the coolest demeanour, the highest confidence?
Was it to look for stumbles, inept utterances, embarrassing gaffes, headline makers?
Was it to make the involved journalists look erudite, sharp, and perceptive?
Was it to give fodder for the TV and radio news, and the next day’s papers?

I suspect it was all of the above.

Yet it turned out to be paltry entertainment and showed lamentable inconsistency between counting gadgets, with several picking Kevin Rudd a comfortable winner, while another recorded the striking reverse. It never assessed debating attributes and oral skills directly, and failed to satisfy the debating pundits. It only obliquely addressed demeanour and confidence and found a few stumbles, Rudd’s use of notes being the one most mentioned. It did show though how out of touch and inept the journalists were at organizing and conducting such an event. It certainly did provide fodder for lots of news and opinion writing, most of it inconsequential or uninformed. Overall though, the Great Debate was a debacle.

Was it to help voters decide who was the most suitable leader to be the next PM?
Was it to enlighten voters about the salient issues of the election?
Was it to tell voters about the vision the leaders have for the nation?
Was it to inform voters about how the leaders viewed the challenges ahead?
Was it to help voters decide who had the best policies to cope with them?
Was it to help voters decide who had the most accurate costings?
Was it to help voters feel confident that at least one of the leaders had what it takes to lead the nation effectively, efficiently, and wisely for the next triennium?

In my view, it was none of the above. I doubt if these aims entered into the minds of the organizers. If they did, if the organizers were hoping to elucidate these matters, the ‘debate’ was an abject failure.

Yet, we ought not to be surprised. If one were hoping to address these issues, why would the organizers and interrogators be drawn from a decaying and incompetent Fourth Estate that has shown itself to be remote from mainstream Australians, trapped in the Canberra echo-chamber where groupthink abounds and reverberations deafen, where a foreign mogul issues instructions from on high about what he wants and how his journalists shall get it for him?

If we have a repeat of the Great Debate, the concept of debates between leaders at election time will atrophy and die. The format was wrong, the organizers were unsuitable, the interrogators inappropriate, and it was not even enjoyable entertainment.

It’s easy to be critical. It’s not so easy to be innovative, to be constructive. What follows is an attempt to outline a foundation for a debate that has a chance of being more informative for voters. I recognize that there may be resistance from one or more of the political parties to any attempt to give voters sound evidence on which to base their voting decisions. I suspect that for both major parties the crucial tasks are as follows:

Avoid any error that diminishes the party’s prestige or the leader’s status.
Avoid saying anything that will be fodder for the gaffe-hungry Fourth Estate.
Avoid committing to anything that is contrary to party policy.
Avoid committing to anything that might come back to haunt the party.
Avoid promises or suggestions that might turn out to be inappropriate, unattainable, or politically unwise.
Avoid giving figures or costings unless they are unquestionably correct.
Never miss an opportunity to criticize the opponent.
Never miss an opportunity to make a hypercritical comment, or utter a well-tried slogan.
Put down and embarrass the opponent at every opportunity.
Impugn the opponent’s character, motives and intent.
Repeat criticisms no matter how well worn, no matter how out-of-date.
Use sarcasm liberally. Demean at every opportunity.
Use distortions of the truth ‘when it is safe to do so’.
Insist that no matter how poorly the debate has gone for you, you won.
Be ready to remind the media of any gaffes, misstatements, inaccuracies, or lies your opponent perpetrated during the debate.

Given this formidable list of negative tasks that both sides always have in mind, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that a rational and productive debate between leaders is simply not possible to arrange. Anyway let’s try.

What I want to know before voting can be summarized as follows:

What vision do the leaders have for this nation for the next three years, and the next decade?
Put another way, what sort of nation would they wish to see in three and ten years?
Given that Australia exists in a global economy where what is happening elsewhere impinges comprehensively on our economy, especially what is happening in China, India, Japan, United States, Europe, the developing economies in our region, and in South America, what are the economic challenges facing the nation now, and likely to be in the next decade?
How do the leaders plan to address these challenges, one by one?
Do the leaders seek to bring the Budget back into balance?
If so, when do they expect they might be able to do this?
How do they plan to do this?
What moves do they plan to improve revenue and reduce expenditure to achieve this?
How do they plan to correct the longstanding structural defects in the Budget that so adversely affect it now?
How do they plan to reduce debt, over what period, and in what circumstances?
What are the attributes for the economy for which each leader is striving?
In particular, what are the desirable levels of growth, unemployment, participation, productivity, debt to GDP ratio, terms of trade, rating agency ratings, consumer and business confidence, inflation, RBA cash rates, interest rates, investment, business activity (retail, manufacturing, mining, agricultural), housing starts, housing affordability, business starts and defaults, and infrastructure development?
What are their specific policies to develop and to grow the economy?
What are their specific policies to create jobs?
Specifically, what are their policies to support car manufacturing?
Specifically, what are their policies to support small business?
What policies do they have in other portfolio areas that are designed to support the economy?
What is their tax policy?
What changes to tax policy are they advocating? Is a change to the GST an option?
How might these be brought about?
What are their priorities for expenditure?
Specifically, what emphasis do they propose to give to major areas of expenditure: on health, aged care and disability; education; welfare and transfer payments; immigration; defence; diplomatic activity and overseas aid; and the public service?
Will all policies and their cost be made available well before Election Day?

The questions above are related to the economy. But how many of these have been addressed in the campaign and in the Great Debate?

As Ben Eltham pointed out: “All in all, we’re not hearing a lot of detail from our politicians about their economic policies. Instead, the ongoing fascination with the deficit as a proxy for economic management continues to distract from the bigger picture. In a tougher and more substantial media environment, this lack of detail would be called out, as Colebatch does today on Opposition costings. But on the whole, the media continues to obsess over trivia, like Kevin Rudd’s notes in Sunday night’s leaders’ debate, or Tony Abbott’s unfortunate turn of phrase about suppositories.”

Ross Gittins says: “The two leaders' aim in the debate was the same as their aim in this campaign: to make it to election day while giving as few commitments as possible about what they'll do in the next three years.” Later he opines: “In modern campaigning, tough issues aren't debated, they're closed off.”

We are likely to reach Election Day with very few answers to these economic questions. At least Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, and later Kevin Rudd, Chris Bowen and Penny Wong addressed, and clearly spelt out the economic challenges facing this nation in the decade ahead. Everyone ought to know them by now.

In contrast, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann have never done so. Indeed, to a man they have denied the dire global economic situation, as if it never existed, as if it did not exist now. Instead, they have tried to sheet home to the Government responsibility for the budgetary problems it faces as a result of falling revenue. It’s all the Government’s fault according to them, and has nothing to do with the slowdown in the economy of China and its diminishing need for resources, nothing to do with the fall in the world prices for commodities, nothing to do with the recession in Europe or the sluggish economy in the US, nothing to do with the high Australian dollar. It’s all Labor’s mismanagement that has caused the problem. And with a compliant, unquestioning Fourth Estate, there is almost no one to challenge the Coalition’s disingenuousness, deception and outright lies. They are spread far and wide by the Murdoch press, particularly through its tabloid headlines, with Fairfax, and even the ABC echoing them. The voices of the few sensible and balanced commentators, such a Ross Gittins, Peter Martin, Stephen Koukoulas, and Laura Tingle, are drowned out by the cacophony of adverse comment streaming daily from the anti-Labor media.

Labor has attempted via several formal addresses by Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Chris Bowen to spell out how it plans to counter the adverse global economic environment in which Australia is immersed, and manage the transition of our economy from a resource-based one to a more diversified one that focuses on manufacturing, service provision and agriculture. In contrast, all we have heard from the Coalition is a bunch of motherhood statements, a plethora of oft-repeated slogans, and precious little substance.

If you think that is unfair comment, take a look through the Coalition’s formal statements in its booklet: Our Plan Real Solutions for All Australians, the one that Abbott and his team clutch to their chest during pressers, always cover side out. It’s quite nicely laid out, and easy to follow. Download the PDF file and scroll through the content. At first there is some statements about Delivering a strong, prosperous economy and a safe, secure Australia. Then scroll to page 28 and read the section headed: Building a Five pillar economy and unleashing Australia’s potential.

Some of you may nod in approval because there are few motherhood aspirations there that could reasonably be challenged, but look for the detail about HOW these aspirations are to be accomplished. Don’t expect too much. Most of it you will have heard before. It is fine sounding, but superficial. This is what Ben Eltham had to say in New Matilda: “The Coalition has a plan to build a “five-pillar economy”, but details on this pentagonal wonder are hard to find. How will the Coalition drive growth in one of those five pillars, education and research? Apparently, according to the Coalition’s “Our Plan” brochure, “by removing the shackles and burdens holding the industry back and by making the industry more productive and globally competitive.” Clearly, he is left underwhelmed by detail in the Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’.

This is what a debate between leaders ought to be about – teasing out the aspirations for the economy and wrapping them in the detail of how the aspirations will be achieved. The leaders ought not to be able to get away with platitudinous targets; it is the how that transforms laudable goals into actual achievements. That’s what we need to know. A good moderator ought to be able to extract that information, if indeed the leader is in possession of it. Perhaps the Chris Bowen/Joe Hockey encounter on Q&A on Monday night will give us what we want and need. It will be a forum that we can contrast with the forum of last Sunday’s debate.

So far, I have dealt with but one of the many areas of government that need appraisal – the economy, clearly the most important of all to the electorate. There are many others though – too many to deal with here. Health, education, industrial relations, immigration, and global warming spring to mind. These too need to be addressed.

It is not just the content of the debates that need attention, it is the format.

The Sunday night format was awful. It was inappropriate on almost every count. First, I believe that if there is to be a journalist involved at all, moderator is the only role that might be appropriate. Journalists should not formulate the questions, or ask them. They should not presume to know the questions voters want answered.

For my part, I would prefer questions to be formulated by a panel familiar with the subject matter, and based on questions submitted by the voters. Well before the debate, the public should be invited to post questions on a website dedicated to the debate. These would then be aggregated into groups, and questions refined from them. This would not be difficult or time consuming.

The debate is not for the purpose of tripping up the leaders, or even testing their capacity to remember the details of their policies. It is not an exam. So why not send them the questions a few days in advance to give them the chance to prepare full, yet concise answers. We want to know what the policies really are, not how well the leaders remember them or even how well they articulate them in an off-the-cuff answer, certainly not how well they spin an answer off the top of their head.

A competent moderator should present the questions, which should also be displayed boldly on a screen behind the leaders, so they are visible to viewers throughout the answers. Each leader is given the same time to respond, and should be permitted to use visual aids such as graphs and graphics. The eye combined with the ear is better than the ear alone. The moderator should have the right to interrupt if the speaker is wandering off topic or avoiding the question, if he makes a contentious or contestable statement, if he reverts to motherhood statements or slogans, and if he spends too long criticising his opponent.

There should be opportunities for each leader to challenge the other’s assertions and ask for evidence.

Each debate should be confined to just one major topic, or a small group of related topics, such as, for example, health, aged care and disability. Too many topics in the one debate foster superficiality, as we saw during the first debate.

I do not believe community forums are suitable for such a debate between leaders. Those I have witnessed have been characterized by partisan questioning by audience ‘plants’, and stereotypical answers. Nor do I think the Q&A format, where the audience pose the questions, is suitable. While some Q&A sessions have been laudable (and entertaining), for a debate where in-depth probing of the leaders is crucial, this format is unlikely to achieve what voters need. And we certainly don’t want to be entertained. We want to be informed. The format for the Bowen/Hockey encounter on Q&A will be worthy of note. In particular, I will be looking to see how Tony Jones garners the questions, how he keeps the speakers on topic, the extent to which he interrupts, how appropriate those interruptions are, and how well the speakers inform the viewers about their policies and their costings.

In summary, I believe the best arrangement for these debates would be to divide the major issues into four or five main topics, invite the public to post online the questions they want addressed, have a panel of professionals in the subject refine the questions, send them to the speakers beforehand, have an accomplished moderator pose them and then monitor the leaders’ contributions, allowing interaction between them. There ought to be an hour-long debate on each major topic, or group of topics. I would favour having ministers and shadow ministers involved as well as the leaders. That would somewhat tone down the presidential tenor that now overwhelms this election campaign.

We need more debates, better information, more transparency, deeper insight, more honesty.

There it is folks. It may be pie in the sky.

What do you think?

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Partisan economics

If the election is to be decided on who are the best managers of the economy, which the polls tell us is at the top of the electorate's concerns, how on earth are voters supposed to make that decision? As Edgar R Fielder said: Ask five economists and you'll get five different answers - six if one went to Harvard.

This is just what we are seeing day after day from economists as they comment on the pronouncements of politicians and announcements on economic policy.

It is unsurprising that politicians put their own spin on the same situation. Take the RBA’s lowering of the cash rate to 2.5% this week. Chris Bowen and Kevin Rudd pointed out that this would mean a saving of $45 on the monthly repayment of the average $300,000 home loan – good news for homebuyers – and it would be good too for small businesses seeking loans. On the other hand, Joe Hockey was out there preemptively knocking the rise before it was announced, and after the announcement, adamant that the lowering of interest rates was a sign that the economy was weak and weakening, and of course that was because the Government was mismanaging the economy.

How then do economists, all grappling with the same factual evidence, rate this change to the cash rate? If you thought the evidence would speak for itself, and that it would lead to the same assessment, you would have been disappointed.

Around four years ago, at the time the Government was applying its stimulus package, I wrote this in What value are economists to our society?One of my longstanding gripes has been about the influence on economics writers of their preferred economic model. Henry Ergas’ reference in the Current Account Blog to his beloved Friedman in response to the upbeat GDP that just about everyone else attributed to the stimulus packages, is a case in point. I wrote about this on TPS in The problem with economists back in February 2009. Referring to the contemporary debate about when and how the stimulus should be withdrawn now that the economy seemed to be recovering, Crikey’s Bernard Keane said: “There are no - no - economists or business groups who think it is time for the stimulus to be wound back, except for those on the far right or Liberal shills such as Henry Ergas, who opposed the stimulus package in the first place.”

“Another grumble is the way journalists allow their political leanings to influence what ought to be an objective analysis of the undeniable facts. Michael Stutchbury of The Australian [now of The Australian Financial Review] is an example. Bernard Keane said in Crikey: “After the March quarter figures, anti-Labor commentators like Michael Stutchbury tried to argue that the modest growth was a consequence of exports only, ignoring the fact that the stimulus packages had prevented domestic demand from collapsing the same way it had in the US, the UK and other developed economies. Today’s figures blow the Stutchbury argument clean out of the water, with exports a trivial contributor to the overall growth figure – although like the Coalition, Stutchbury has now switched to urging that the stimulus has been too successful and needs to be wound back.”

“With commentators of the likes of Ergas and Stutchbury, what can readers who lack a profound knowledge of economics, really believe? As Keane put it in a piece on Crikey, ‘Nothing more stimulating than press gallery groupthink’: “The ‘debate’ over whether the Government should pull back on the stimulus package is a classic case of a press gallery trying to frame a real-world issue into a narrow, political framework that suits its own reporting purposes. It is a collective illusion being foisted on the mainstream media’s ever-smaller audiences by journalists and commentators unable or unwilling to see outside the gallery prism of winners and losers and political personalities.”

This past week we saw the same phenomenon – economists using their preferred model of economics to argue their case, and worse still, allowing their political bias to colour their assessments.

On the ABC’s The World Today on August 7, Eleanor Hall interviewed economists Stephen Koukoulas and Henry Ergas. Stephen Koukoulas is the Managing Director of Market Economics. He has been chief economist for two global banks and was the senior economic advisor to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for a year after the last election, having moved there from a senior role in the Commonwealth Treasury. Henry Ergas is a professor of Infrastructure Economics and senior economic adviser at Deloitte Access Economics. He was an economist at the OECD in Paris and on returning to Australia in the mid-1990s, he chaired several Howard government inquiries on regulatory and competition issues and more recently advised the Coalition on tax reform.

Hall introduced the discussion with: “So just how responsible is the Coalition's $2.5 billion a year promise to cut company taxes at a time when the Reserve Bank of Australia has now cut interest rates to their lowest level in half a century?

“While Labor is describing yesterday's RBA board decision as a gift to struggling households – and to the Government in the middle of an election campaign – the Coalition says it's more evidence of Labor's mismanagement of the economy.

“So is the Australian economy in dire straits, is the budget in crisis and is Australia's triple-A credit rating under threat?”

The background of these economists gives an inkling of what their responses might be to Hall’s first question: “The Reserve Bank Board has now cut the cash rate to its lowest level in half a century, below what Kevin Rudd described, when he was last Prime Minister, as an emergency level.

“First to you Stephen Koukoulas? Is Australia's economy now in a state of emergency?

Note Koukoulas’ adamant response:

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: "It's nowhere near it. It's absurd to think that it is the case. We're growing at about 2.5 per cent. The unemployment rate is 5.7 per cent. Inflation's nice and low. And we're looking at the forward indicators, things like housing, it's clearly on something of an upswing. And of course with the lower dollar we're getting an export boost.

“So look, the low interest rates are there because inflation is very low because we're part of a global economy where inflation is low and decelerating so that's given the Reserve Bank scope to move interest rates lower.

“The difference between now and back in 2009 when we did have an emergency, is that fiscal policy is now being tightened quite aggressively whereas at the time we had a very, very aggressive stimulus measure, which moved fiscal policy to a very accommodative phase.”

ELEANOR HALL: “So was yesterday's rate cut necessary?

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Oh yes it was necessary because we had the inflation numbers just a couple of weeks ago that confirmed inflation was in the bottom part of the RBA target range.

“We do know that the unemployment rate is drifting a little bit higher and I think we just need that final little bit of an impetus to make sure that the recovery that seems to be underway gets some traction and that when we get to 2014 the economy's back at trend.”

So Koukoulas, Ex-Treasury, who has advised Labor, has a positive view about the rate cut. Now let’s see what Henry Ergas says. He regularly writes anti-Labor articles in The Australian.

ELEANOR HALL: “So Henry Ergas, what's your sense of the state of the economy? Would you describe these as emergency-level interest rates?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well they're certainly very low interest rates. I think the important fact is that despite recovery in the US, the international outlook is highly uncertain with uncertainty about China and where the best that one can say for Europe is that perhaps it's bottoming out. And that, together with increases in global supply, means that we've had a reduction in commodity prices and a fall in the terms of trade and that in turn is reflected in what seems to be the end of the investment phase of the resource boom.

“And as that plays itself out domestic growth has flowed below the levels that it's capable of achieving and looks likely to remain below those levels for a little while with unemployment rising. And so in that situation it was obviously sensible for the Reserve Bank to try to stimulate the economy a bit through this interest rate cut.”

Note how he rates the economy as slowing and in need of the stimulatory effect of an interest rate cut. Hall gently tries to pin him down:

ELEANOR HALL: “Henry Ergas, to try and understand the politics of this a little bit, are low interest rates a sign of good economic management, as the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said in 2004, or of government mismanagement as he's saying now?”

Note how Ergas digs himself out of this more pointed question.

HENRY ERGAS: “Well they can be, in a way they can be both right. You can have low interest rates because you've gotten everything working properly, you have low inflation, growth is strong, but the economy has scope to continue to grow at those levels, or grow even a bit more rapidly without inflation picking up.

“In that context, there's clearly scope for low interest rates. Equally, low interest rates can be a response to a situation where the economy is growing by significantly less than potential. And perhaps where growth rates are looking uncertain and in that context a move to lower growth rates, to try to stimulate the economy through monetary policy can be an appropriate response to weaker economic performance.”

These are cleverly spoken words that align him with the Hockey view. Hall tries again to pin him down.

ELEANOR HALL: “So is the Coalition right when it says this low interest rate is because Labor has mismanaged the economy?”

HENRY ERGAS: “I think the current low interest rates reflect a growth outlook that is not as strong as it should be. And an important factor in that growth outlook is obviously the uncertainty about both fiscal policy and important areas of structural policy which may be having the effect of both reducing the economy's potential growth rate and preventing it from achieving even that potential in the immediate term.”

Ergas is edging even closer to the Hockey view. Note how he points the finger at “…uncertainty about both fiscal policy and important areas of structural policy…," clearly impugning Labor. Note too how he completely fails to mention the slowing global economy, which is impinging on our economy.

So Hall turns to Koukoulas with a different question that explores this reality:

ELEANOR HALL: “Stephen Koukoulas, to what extent does the Government need to take responsibility for the weakening economy?”

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Not a lot. I think the issues, when we look at why the economy has cooled off over the past six to nine months, we've got an unexpected cooling in China where growth has slowed from above 8.5 per cent to around about 7 per cent on the latest forecasts. And that's dragged the terms of trade down as we saw in the Government's update on Friday. So we've got this negative shock that's coming from our biggest trading partner and a fall in commodity prices.

“We've also got this scenario that I mentioned before that global inflation is very low and that translates into a more broadly based fall in commodity prices. So there are areas that are outside the control of the Government. And in fact one of the issues that we saw from the Government is that it's allowing the automatic stabiliser in the budget to work, which has caused the budget deficit to be a little bit bigger in the current financial year 13-14.

“And that's actually going to be providing a little bit of extra stimulus to the economy as well. So we've got fiscal policy moving to a more neutral to a slightly stimulatory stance. We certainly have monetary policy at very stimulatory levels which will be definitely the groundwork for the economy to pick up over the course of the next 12 months.”

Clearly, Koukoulas points his finger at: “…areas that are outside the control of the Government…" to explain our current situation, and sees a favourable future when he points to: “…monetary policy [being] at very stimulatory levels which will be definitely the groundwork for the economy to pick up over the course of the next 12 months”, a positive outlook.

These excerpts illustrate partisan economics. The political leanings of the two economists influence their ‘opinions’. The ‘facts’ are interpreted in quite different ways: Stephen Koukoulas presents all the facts and draws a conclusion positive for the Government; Henry Ergas cherry-picks the facts that suit his partisan views and draws negative conclusions that align with Coalition viewpoints. Whom do we believe?

George Bernard Shaw said: “If all the economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a conclusion.” This piece of dialogue illustrates that well.

Hall then addressed the other burning question of the day – Tony Abbott’s promise of a 1.5% reduction in Company Tax to 28.5%.

ELEANOR HALL: “Well let's look at the Coalition's big spending promise today. To you Henry Ergas - three days ago Mr Abbott said he would deliver company tax cuts "when affordable". Today he promised to deliver them in 2015. Is this $2.5 billion a year tax cut affordable and responsible?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well I believe it's ultimately affordable. What it really depends on is getting the fiscal policy settings right and the problem is that over recent years what we've seen and had is a government that has a deficit when times are good, has a deficit when times are extraordinarily good, and now has a deficit when it says times are not bad, but not as good as one would like.

“So it seems that under all circumstances, we are running a deficit. And clearly were that to continue, then tax cuts would not be feasible. But if we can get the overall settings of fiscal policy right and return to a situation where we take fiscal rules seriously and try to achieve structural budget surpluses over successive cycles, then cutting the corporate tax rate makes very good sense because as the Henry Review emphasised, the company tax rates are relatively highly distorting and they both reduce our growth potential and reduce Australian living standards in the long term.”

ELEANOR HALL: “You mentioned the former treasury secretary Ken Henry there. Yesterday he said that whoever wins on September the 7th will have to cut spending or raise taxes or both to deal with the deficit problem, and yet here we've got the Coalition with a big spending tax cut. Do you think that is a problem? Do you agree with Ken Henry?”

HENRY ERGAS: “Well clearly the situation is that if we are to return to a sustainable fiscal position, then that will require some tough choices. And those tough choices have to be in the first instance, choices about spending.

“The reality is that if you look at the period from 2007-8 to the present, revenues have risen very sharply. I mean, revenues have increased over that period by almost $80 billion. And this is the source of the deficit. The problem is that payments have increased by close to $130 billion...and so what you need to do is look at that and say how much of that spending really does pass a sensible cost benefit test? If you don't do that you will never bring a fiscal situation under control.”

Ergas sheets home the blame to Labor’s spending. He points out, as do Hockey and Abbott, that revenue is rising, but fails to acknowledge that it is not rising as rapidly as projected because of the global economic situation, leaving a large shortfall.

Hall then tackles the elephant in the room – the GST.

ELEANOR HALL: “And we've just heard both sides emphatically rule out an increase to the GST. Of course that's expected during an election campaign, but Stephen Koukoulas from an economic point of view, should they be looking at increasing their Goods and Services Tax rate?

STEPHEN KOUKOULAS: “Well they need to do something on the revenue and I think Henry [Ergas] just got an error there – the tax receipts have actually fallen by around about 2 to 2.5 per cent of GDP. We've got a very, very low tax take at the moment from the Government which is causing the fiscal concerns, that the spending to GDP ratios did increase obviously during the depths of the financial crisis but have now sort of scaled back to roughly the average of the last 30 or 40 years where the tax to GDP ratios are only in around about 21, 22 per cent. Where as recently as 2003,4,5 they were about 24 per cent of GDP.

“So…if there is a problem, and I don't think there is one,…to the extent that we need to balance the budget over the cycle it's got to be the revenue side that does it. And with an income tax cut sort of throwing away a couple of billion dollars a year, while of course we'd all love to have lower income and company tax rates, it is a desirable medium term objective? But at the moment when we've got perhaps a higher priority of balancing the budget it seems to be perhaps the wrong time to be talking about it or implementing it." 

ELEANOR HALL: “Well there's a lot more to talk about on the economy. But we'll have to wrap it there.”

So there it is. We have two economists looking at the same data set, yet seeing causes and effects quite differently. Economists have a strong tendency to see the facts through the prism of their preferred model of economics. Some, such as Henry Ergas in this instance, see the facts through the optics of their partisan biases, and choose those that suit their argument. This is ‘Partisan economics’ writ large.

How can the average voter decide who is telling the truth most accurately? Economists would argue that what we are seeing is simply different points of view. But it’s not just that. What we are seeing is economists trying to persuade readers to their own viewpoint, instead of doing what they ought to do: present the facts and then argue the case for this interpretation or that, and only then draw a rational conclusion. In the dialogue above, one came close, the other didn’t.

Are such debates, despite their potential, worth the effort? If all we get is another dose of political spin, and from those who are supposed to be balanced, the answer sadly is NO.

Ross Gittins sums up the problem for economists: “Business economists long ago learnt to keep their heads down and their lips buttoned during [election] campaigns, for fear something they say is taken up by one side, prompting the other side to blacken their name. Too many people's careers have become collateral damage in the political fighting.”

They could avoid that outcome if they simply gave a balanced exposition, but that seems beyond most.

What do you think?

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’: it will be emailed to the following: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, David Bradbury, George Brandis, Doug Cameron, Kim Carr, Mathias Cormann, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Ed Husic, Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Leigh, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Arthur Sinodinos, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

The quickening disintegration of Tony Abbott

It shows in his face. Taut, tense, worried, he looks like a man under great pressure when he fronts for impromptu pressers. His sycophants, seldom smiling, occasionally furtively smirking, nod behind him in unspoken approval. He often has Margie at hand to prop him up. He speaks haltingly, his gravelly voice grinding out his ‘message for the day’ dutifully learned at the morning briefing from his minders.

He was not looking good when I wrote The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition in November 2012. Nine long months later, his disintegration is noticeably worse.

Reasons abound for his decline. In the latter months of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership with poll after poll running persistently and decisively against her, his confidence of an electoral triumph on September 14 was running sky high. Then, on June 20, what he had been plumping for since 2010 occurred abruptly – the political demise of his bête noir Julia Gillard. He must have thought about this possibility, but when it arrived at the eleventh parliamentary hour, out of what he thought was a clear run to the election, he seemed surprised, looked flat-footed, and reacted lamely. It had all looked so easy, but suddenly he was facing a resurgent Kevin Rudd, who obviously had been planning his prime ministerial resurrection for many months, planning how to counter this slogan-driven man.

All Tony Abbott’s plans for countering Julia Gillard had to be discarded and new ones to counter Kevin Rudd rapidly developed. Predictably, he flicked the switch to extreme negative, talked about Rudd being a dud, brought out from storage the nasty comments Rudd’s colleagues had made about him eighteen months before, and ran some ‘lemon’ ads along these lines. But their frequency soon dropped as Rudd’s reappearance evoked an enthusiastic reaction from the electorate. Many out there felt he had been very badly treated when he was rejected and replaced in 2010, and derived satisfaction at his dramatic renaissance. For many voters ‘revenge was sweet’; they revelled in Rudd’s rebirth. Abbott was caught open-mouthed.

Clearly, Rudd had been developing his strategy for ages. He saw that neutralizing key planks in Abbott’s election platform was crucial.

His first move was to defuse the ‘carbon tax’ charade. Although Abbott and the sycophantic Greg Hunt mindlessly continued with their ‘carbon tax is ruining the economy’ mantra, all the evidence of the last twelve months made that catchphrase unsustainable. Whyalla continued to prosper, the small increases in electricity costs resulting from the tax were exactly as predicted, and the cost of lamb roasts failed to soar to $100. Well-compensated consumers ceased complaining. Talk of ‘the ever rising cost of living’ by Abbott, Joe Hockey and the Fourth Estate was soon seen by objective observers as empty hype.

A problem that never was had lost its illusory magic for the Coalition, but its minders persisted in pumping out the same tired old carbon tax rhetoric. When Rudd declared that Labor would bring forward by one year the transition from a price on carbon to an emissions trading scheme linked to the market in Europe and elsewhere, the Coalition’s carbon tax scaremongering was effectively buried. Rudd pointed out that he had thereby effectively ‘terminated’ the carbon tax, leaving Abbott’s longstanding threat to ‘axe the tax’ an empty gesture. Abbott could not terminate it any quicker.

Abbott’s reaction was to insist that an ETS was still a tax and that Rudd was using sleight of hand. He lamely told a Launceston audience that "He's changed its name, but he hasn't abolished the tax. He's not the terminator, he's the exaggerator. He’s not the terminator, he’s the fabricator”. He continued with his line that business would still be heavily burdened, although with the price of CO2 on the European market being less than the existing fixed price, the burden would actually lessen. Abbott’s carbon tax weapon buckled - a flimsy plastic sword attempting to pierce tough armour.

Although people stopped listening to his weary predictions of carbon tax doom, it took many days before his minders advised him to ease up on what was now a spent campaign of fear mongering. He still occasionally utters carbon tax hyperbole, but without conviction. His intention that the next election be a ‘referendum on the carbon tax’ quietly evaporated, leaving him dismayed, stammering and deflated. The Abbott disintegration gathered pace. He was like a boy whose most treasured marble had been smashed by his opponent’s prize tombola.

Anticipating an adverse ICAC finding about ex-Labor ministers Eddie Obeib and Ian Macdonald, Rudd announced a reorganization of the NSW Labor Party and a new mechanism for replacing a Labor PM. Knowing that he would have to wear the ignominy of that corruption inquiry, Rudd attempted to blunt it. Abbott was soon out trying to implicate Rudd and Federal Labor. ”Labor is rotten to the core” he insisted. How much that affair will be in the mind of NSW voters at election time is unknowable; Nathan Rees estimates it will reduce Labor’s primary vote there by 2 to 3%. How much can Abbott damage Labor over and above the damage already done? Rudd was proactive, leaving Abbott to react, but to what effect?

Next Rudd sought to deactivate the asylum seeker issue, one that has bedeviled Labor ever since he removed elements of Howard’s Pacific Solution in 2008. The issue was causing such angst among some voters, most noticeably in Western Sydney, that it needed to be defused. Curiously though, a recent Essential Report revealed that it was well down the list of voters’ most important issues in deciding how to vote. But as it was going to be a source of adverse publicity every time another boat arrived, it needed to be neutralized, and Abbott’s ‘turn the boats around’ strategy nullified.

Rudd met with Indonesian President Yudhoyono, who in a joint communiqué with Rudd made it clear that Indonesia did not approve of any unilateral action by Australia, which turning boats around would have been. Rudd pointedly drew that to the Coalition's attention. Abbott, Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop tried to counter by suggesting that they had some sort of understanding with Indonesia about the turn back policy, only to have that rebutted by Indonesian officials. Desultory talk of the boats being ‘Indonesian boats, Indonesian flagged, boarded in Indonesian ports, and crewed by Indonesians’, which was code for ‘these are your boats, you can have them back’, was not well received. All this exposed Coalition disrespect towards Indonesia, an aggressive, hairy-chested, Howardesque ‘we will decide who comes here’ approach, and a neo-colonial attitude. It reflected Abbott’s lack of diplomatic skills, his aggression, and the disarray of his plans to counter boat arrivals.

Next, after a meeting in Brisbane with the PM of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, Kevin Rudd announced jointly with him an arrangement for PNG to permanently resettle those arriving by boat without a visa. The message to asylum seekers and people traffickers was strident: "Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee".

At first Abbott seemed impressed enough to not instantly oppose the PNG plan, no doubt thinking it could serve him well. Predictably though, he could not resist the temptation to knock the idea, and Rudd, the originator. Soon he was telling anyone who would listen that Rudd was all talk and no action, that while he was great at making announcements he was hopeless at implementation, that the PNG plan would likely fail, and that the boats would continue. Abbott and Bishop unwisely said that Rudd was handing O’Neill a blank aid cheque, (which of course the Coalition would never do), and that O’Neill had boasted to them that he now had full control of Australia’s aid budget to PNG. A stern rebuttal by O’Neill left Abbott and Bishop floundering and wary of exacerbating their diplomatic blunder. Losing his nerve in an aspect of national leadership in which he has had no experience, Abbott looked flummoxed; Bishop bravely tried to parry it away.

So far two planeloads of single men are already on Manus Island, and the boat arrivals have slowed. If the boat arrivals are halted, if the people smugglers accept that their ‘product’ – residence in Australia – is no longer saleable, Rudd will be able to say: ‘Labor’s PNG plan has stopped the boats’, which would leave Admiral Abbott slopping about in his own boat, well and truly up the creek without a paddle. Time will tell how well Rudd’s PNG plan neutralizes Abbott’s ‘We’ll stop the boats’ mantra. If it does, that would leave another Abbott weapon blunted and crumpled, and Abbott’s disintegration gathering speed.

The Coalition’s next reaction was to boost the Nauru facility with a big increase in capacity with lots more tents. Abbott extolled Nauru as a pleasant island, implying that refugees ought to be satisfied being housed and even settled there. Scott Morrison travelled there on a private jet at the invitation of Toll Holdings, major suppliers of tents, along with a News Limited reporter and photographer to give publicity to the Coalition announcement that it would put up more tents to accommodate another 2000 asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Tony Burke quickly pointed out that putting a public figure on total capacity was a mistake, “as it gave people smugglers intelligence about how to ‘game’ and ‘overwhelm’ the policy”.

Yesterday, in a move that emulates Abbott’s Nauru Plan, Kevin Rudd and Nauru's President Baron Waqa signed an agreement similar to the PNG one. Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat can now be processed in Nauru and, if found to be genuine refugees, can be resettled there. Once more, the Government is calling the shots on refugees; when the Coalition makes a move, Rudd matches it. Abbott and Morrison play their top card; Rudd trumps it. They can't take a trick!

The level of disarray in Coalition circles was then exposed even more starkly, this time over education funding and the Gonski recommendations. Initially, Abbott and his verbose education spokesman Christopher Pyne ridiculed Gonski, with a ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. Pyne could see nothing wrong with the current system of funding despite the report of the Gonski committee after many months of exhaustive work that demonstrated conclusively that the system was unfair, inequitable to the disadvantaged and the public sector, and indeed ‘broken’.

The Abbott/Pyne reaction was first to say that Gonski was a ‘con’, a ‘Conski’, and that since this National Plan for School Improvement was indeed a national one, unless all States collaborated the Coalition would not proceed with it in government. Then it insisted that the ‘vast majority’ of States should be ‘on board’. Then it stepped back a little and said it would honour any deals done with the States for its first year in Government. Last week Abbott wrote to all school principals indicating that the Coalition had ‘deep reservations’ about the Gonski arrangements. Yet the next day he announced it would match all the Gonski funding arrangements that Labor has made with the States, boasting that ‘Kevin Rudd and I are on a unity ticket’. Obviously, he needed to neutralize this issue. Did State premiers put a flea in his ear, or did private Liberal polling tell him that opposition to Gonski was a big negative among voters?

In a blustering interview, Pyne confirmed that the Coalition would honour the Gonski ‘funding envelope’, but would dismantle what he termed ‘Labor’s central command and control features’. He insisted the Coalition would give more control to schools and principals. Abbott, Pyne, and the Coalition, have collectively turned turtle on virtually every aspect of Gonski, except on the issue of ‘school autonomy’, which incidentally runs counter to the concept of a national curriculum and consequent Gillard reforms. After all the huff and puff on Gonski, what we have now is an almost total Coalition retreat, or to use journalistic parlance, ‘a massive back flip’. Some commentators though are labeling the back flip a ‘con’. Time will tell.

In the lead up to the Government’s Economic Statement, Joe Hockey was out there preempting its content by insisting that the Government’s estimates were always wrong, never right, never to be trusted, that the Government had lost control of its budget, and in fact it was hopeless! He went close to demeaning Treasury. No doubt this outburst was also to preempt the inevitable criticism that will be heaped upon his head when the Gonski funding of $5 billion a year is added to the $70 billion Hockey has already conceded he has to find in expenditure cuts, and he struggles to do so. He seems unwilling to accept Treasury figures, is not committed to the Charter of Budget Honesty that Peter Costello established, and is talking about using State government resources and private accounting firms to verify Coalition costings – shades of the ‘audit’ of its costings that Perth accountants HK Howarth carried out last time, for which it copped a professional reprimand and a fine for its shonky work.

Have you noticed how testy, angry, and belligerent Hockey has become of late? His bellowing has become more strident; his mouth opens even wider, his assertions are more raucous, his fists clenched tighter. It is a sign of tension, anxiety and anger that the election that was to be a shoo-in is now a tight race to an uncertain finishing line.

Last Friday came the Government’s Economic Statement where Treasurer Chris Bowen and Finance Minister Penny Wong detailed the Government’s revised projections for revenue and expenditure, rather unsettling reading, the result of a volatile global economy that has resulted in large write-downs in revenue, and consequent severe cuts to expenditure. Among them was the already-announced modification to the Fringe Benefits Tax arrangements for motor vehicle use, which is designed to eliminate the rorting that results from the flat 20% salary package allowance for travel, one that is applicable no matter whether the vehicle is or is not used for business. The move has angered many businesses and charities, and the salary-packaging industry, and the Coalition has vowed to reverse it.

Then there was the increase in tobacco excise, clearly to boost its revenue, but importantly a health measure that in the past has always resulted in fewer smokers. Reflexly, Abbott was out commiserating with poor old pensioners used to enjoying their smokes and booze now having to pay more, but failing to acknowledge that many young people might now never start smoking. Implicitly, he was offering support for important Liberal Party donors – the tobacco industry.

Next was the establishment of a Financial Stability Fund to help in the case of future bank bailouts, to be funded by a 0.05% levy on deposits of up to $250,000. The banks and tax associations screamed blue murder. They soon had a sympathetic Abbott and Hockey smoothing their ruffled feathers, presumably thereby willing to forego that boost to their budget bottom line.

There were other measures to reduce spending, and funding was announced for some new items such as the PNG plan.

Within hours, Joe Hockey was on the airwaves literally spitting out his ‘crisis’ message: “The Budget is in freefall, the Government has lost control of the Budget, and it is losing control of the economy”. He stopped short of saying that the Government had bullied Treasury in making its estimates, but barely. Shadow Finance Minister Robb was soon insisting the Government did not know which levers to pull, and Mathias Cormann was on the TV berating the Government from every quarter. But none of them suggested what they would do differently. It was all destructive criticism; with not a skerrick of constructive advice.

Yet, it is the Coalition that is losing control. Losing control of its election agenda, losing control of its most telling strategies, losing control of its key points of difference from Labor. With its ‘carbon tax’ mantra deactivated, its asylum seeker policy neutralized, and its Gonski funding backflips now aligning it with Labor’s policy, what has it left? Abbott is a worried man. Some of his supporters too are worried.

Niki Savva, one of Abbott’s most sycophantic supporters, is clearly panicky. She writes: “Ultimately not all the credit for Rudd Reflux belongs to the media or to his selfie. The opposition deserves some for fluffing its initial responses to the PNG Solution and meandering hopelessly on Gonski. If it mucks up its handling of Bowen's statement and its own economic policy, it's pretty much over. Three strikes will count the opposition out and Kevin in.” When the likes of Savva write like this, the panic will soon permeate Coalition ranks and corrode the Abbott mind. His disintegration will move apace.

What do other Coalition backers say? Writing in The Australian this weekend, Peter van Onselen says: “In the ordinary course of events the Coalition would not be returned to power…because it hasn't developed an alternative vision for the nation. Even if Abbott found a sudden interest in, and stomach for, these policy scripts, his frontbench would struggle to implement the changes." Chris Kenny says: “Abbott's greatest weakness could well be that he is too timid.” There’s not much enthusiasm for Abbott there!

Abbott has already chickened out of a debate on the economy, leaving Rudd to make a comprehensive statement on the state of the economy at the Canberra Press Club alone. He has also backed away from a debate about asylum seekers. The man is scared and it shows. The best he can do is to habitually clutch to his chest his favourite Noddy book: "Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians" that he hopes will convince voters that he actually has a plan!

Abbott has an established reputation as a vicious attack-dog, a vacuous bully-boy, and a bad-tempered head kicker who hates losing. His arms outstretched, he sees the keys to The Lodge receding. He sees a dead cert turning into a tight contest. He sees his tactical weapons deactivated one after the other. He sees his options diminishing. He sees the popularity of his new adversary rising, the polls reversing, his chances evaporating.

He is angry, dismayed, uncertain, unable to struggle out of the slogan-driven rut that has been his home for three years, unable to reinvent himself. He looks tense and desperate. Rudd is playing with his mind, until today leaving him uncertain about the election date, uncertain about what Rudd will do next, uncertain about what he should do next. Uncertainty breeds anxiety and self-doubt. Both corrode. Disintegration follows: steady, then quickening, finally inexorable. It is now clear for all to see.

What do you think?

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