The accidental prime minister

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Sunday, 13 July 2014 18:30 by 2353

Our current prime minister assumed office on 18 September 2013. He was elected as leader of the opposition on 1 December 2009, taking over from Malcolm Turnbull who lost the leadership spill by one vote. Joe Hockey, the current Australian treasurer, also stood for election as party leader and opposition leader in the internal Liberal Party election but was eliminated in the first round.

At the time of Abbott’s election, the ALP, with Kevin Rudd as prime minister, was planning the introduction of emissions’ trading legislation. Turnbull was intending to allow the legislation to pass, with amendments; a view that was not generally supported in the Liberal Party. The amendments had been negotiated with the ALP and were ready to be passed through the parliament.

As they say, the rest is history. Abbott became opposition leader and instituted a number of three word slogans such as ‘no new taxes’, which resonated with a significant proportion of the Australian public. Rudd subsequently was removed from office resulting in Julia Gillard becoming prime minister. She won the 2010 election with the assistance of some independent MPs but was subsequently replaced during the first half of 2013 by Rudd (whom she had deposed three years earlier) in a failed attempt by the ALP to retain power at the 2013 election.

This piece is not going to be another ‘where did the ALP go wrong’ monologue — rather it exists to ask the question: is Tony Abbott the accidental Prime Minister, due to not only the ALP’s ‘impressive’ ability to shoot itself in the foot, but a much better than expected reaction to Abbott’s slogan-based ‘promise the earth’ form of politics?

Abbott led the Liberal/National Party coalition to what could be called a thumping victory at the 2013 election. The LNP gained 18 seats with a swing of 3.61% of the vote and understandably, in the eyes of the LNP, Abbott could do no wrong. For a considerable period prior to the election, the polls suggested that the LNP would have received a higher vote than the reality on 18 September. The discussion on whether Rudd’s re-elevation reduced the margin can be had another day.

The Political Sword has commented before on the period of inaction immediately following the 2013 election. However, what we didn’t contemplate at the time was that, rather than attempting to reduce the heat and tension in Australian politics, there was actually a ‘we won — what do we do now?’ paralysis surrounding the newly minted Government, despite the probability suggested by pre-election polling that Abbott would walk into Kirribilli House — like Howard, Abbott prefers to live in Sydney.

Prior to the election, Abbott claimed repeatedly that he and his coalition was ‘ready to govern’. In this transcript of the ABC’s AM program, Abbott claims:

“Look, we are ready to govern. We've got a clear plan. On day one, there would be no mining tax, no carbon tax. In week one there'd be a debt and deficit reduction taskforce. In month one, we'd start the tax reform debate that Australia really needs and has substantially missed out on.

Within three months, we'd be looking at small business reforms. So look we've got a clear plan to get our country back on track.”

Without being too cynical, some ten months after the election the ‘mining tax’ and ‘carbon tax’ repeals still have to get through the parliament; the ‘debt and deficit reduction taskforce’ report is missing in action; and, there seems to be little if any headway on a ‘tax reform debate’ except for a bit of ‘kite flying’ about raising the level of the GST from 10% to 12.5%.

Soon after the election, the rhetoric started. Despite the public comments of Joe Hockey, Michael Pascoe wrote in a syndicated article across Fairfax media:

It's yet another case of politics overshadowing economics: while newbie Treasurer Joe Hockey insinuates otherwise, the final count for the 2012-13 federal budget is an outstanding achievement, a monument to a skilled Treasury performance in very difficult circumstances. No, seriously.

Pascoe went on to suggest:

After that exercise, the economy is not strong enough to handle further severe fiscal contraction just yet. And that's why Joe Hockey is letting the deficit run this year, never mind his political rants, announcing that he will trim the budget by all of 0.4 per cent. Big whoop.

Given the challenges facing us a little further down the track, the structural deficit does indeed have to be tamed with a mixture of genuine tax reform and entitlement restraint, but not just yet.

By the day of the federal budget, Hockey had again played the ‘budget emergency’ card — it’s a pity that he didn’t fool many, including Peter Martin, Fairfax’s Economics editor, who discussed the ‘entitlements’, from strategies such as clothing and vehicle expenses, work related expenses, donations, negative gearing and structuring income and taxation affairs after considerable advice from taxation and accounting professionals.

“Pain all round” will be the rallying cry of the night. Joe Hockey says his first budget ̶ tonight ̶ will hit everyone from high earners to politicians to Australians too poor to pay to see the doctor. All of us will have to “contribute budget repair”.

Except that we won’t.

Another one he didn’t convince was Greg Jericho, writing in his ‘Grogonomics’ series in The Guardian the day prior to the budget announcement that ‘Slamming on the fiscal brakes isn’t [a] smart way to keep the economy moving’. Jericho’s article (with the customary number of graphs) goes on to demonstrate the point, finishing with:

Last week in a photo-op with the secretary of the Treasury, Hockey suggested he did not think the budget would “detract from growth at all in the short-term”.

This would please the OECD which warned the government in its latest economic outlook, issued last week, that due to difficulties from the decline in the mining sector “heavy front loading of fiscal consolidation should be avoided”.

Pascoe, Martin and Jericho each state in their articles that various economists had advised the current Australian Government that severe budget cuts will weaken the Australian economy.

So, instead of altering existing arrangements, such as the apparent need to obtain a new general practitioner referral each year to see a medical specialist about a chronic condition, or looking at negative gearing, donation thresholds and so on, the government introduces a $7 co-payment on the ‘universal free heath care system’ known as Medicare. Hockey responded to criticism of the $7 co-payment for routine GP visits ‘by saying doctors could instead take a cut to their Medicare rebate without requiring patients to make up the shortfall.’

Despite the co-payment not being required until July 2015, the government’s lack of ability to actually sell a message without a three word slogan has ensured that general practitioners are already seeing significantly fewer patients.

Keperra Medical Centre practice manager Lisa Thorne said patient numbers had dropped by at least 100 per week — equivalent to the workload of one full-time doctor — since the Federal Government announced the introduction of the co-payment, despite it not due to take effect until July, 2015.

There is some other evidence of Hockey’s ‘budget emergency’ beginning to affect consumer spending with new car sales falling, house prices falling, and a significant drop in consumer confidence.

Hockey is not the only Minister that hasn’t changed approach from when he was in opposition. Let’s quickly look at Scott Morrison, responsible for ‘border protection’, amongst other things.

As early as October 2013, the ABC Fact Check unit was questioning Abbott and Morrison’s use of terminology in regard to refugee boats.

In January 2014, UNHCR was questioning the legality of the boat turn back policy.

Spokesman for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Babar Baloch says the organisation is seeking an explanation from the Australian government over reports a number of asylum-seeker boats have been returned to Indonesian waters.

Mr Baloch said the UNHCR found a policy of "pushing" back asylum-seeker boats "very concerning".

"Any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially could place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and international law," he told ABC radio on Saturday.

February saw headlines regarding claims that Australian Border Protection had forced refugees into lifeboats and ensured they returned to Indonesia. Morrison acknowledged the Australian government was behind the lifeboats turning up in Indonesia during March, around the time he stopped the regular press conferences regarding border protection issues.

UNHCR, through spokesman Thomas Vargas, told the Australian Government in April:

“There’s no reliable information that connects the drop in registration numbers at the UNHCR with the policy that Australia is implementing,” he told reporters in Jakarta on Tuesday.

The (people) smugglers are not going to go away, they may just find a different way of doing things.

That's why countries need to work together.

Unilateral solutions and even bilateral solutions are not going to solve the problem.”

The public relations disasters listed here by senior government ministers demonstrate that either they don’t follow the direction of the prime minister or the prime minister believes that his process of ‘promising the earth then delivering nothing like it’ is a valid process. Similar disasters have been made by other senior ministers and there are countless examples should an internet search be carried out in specific areas of federal government responsibility.

The rationale behind claiming that Abbott is the accidental prime minister is this. Clearly, he and his senior ministers still believe they are in opposition and are demonstrating they are great with the rhetoric but clearly don’t understand the ramifications of their statements — something best left for opposition parties that don’t have to implement their pronouncements.

Abbott left the country late in May for what was effectively a ‘round the world tour’, calling at Jakarta (to mend fences with the Indonesian President), attending the D-Day remembrance ceremonies in France (and generally reported as an afterthought in the Australian media as the conclusion to the reporting of a magnificent speech by Queen Elizabeth) and then to Washington DC where he cancelled meetings with economic leaders who will be in Brisbane during November for the G20 meeting. Abbott’s only ‘newsworthy’ input, apart from the obligatory shots showing him meeting foreign leaders and mangling the French language as expertly as he mangles his native English, was that he somehow linked D-Day to the rescinding of the ‘carbon tax’ rather than looking at the historical significance of the event.

Was it a coincidence that Turnbull (Abbott’s immediate predecessor as Opposition Leader who lost the 2009 leadership by one vote) was being accused of a leadership challenge while Abbott was out of the country? While the machinations of the removal of Gillard by Rudd occurred on live television immediately following an overseas trip, the conservative side of politics also has form in this area. NT Chief Minister Terry Mills was on a ‘trade mission’ in Asia during March 2013 when he was ‘sacked’ by his party room and told of the fact by telephone, and there was the resignation of Ted Ballieu as Victorian premier in the same month.

The LNP won the 2013 election with a two party preferred vote of 53.49%, but, if an election was held today, the polls are telling us (at the time this was being prepared) that the ALP would receive a similar level of support as the LNP did in 2013. Turnbull was more popular than Abbott in September 2012 and apparently still is.

No one apart from the LNP leadership can state with any certainty that Abbott was or was not ‘meant’ to lead them to power, but there seems to be a concerted effort to make his remaining time as Prime Minister as difficult as possible, with constant leadership speculation as well as a number of senior government ministers, including Abbott himself, ‘opening their mouth to change feet’. Both sides of politics have demonstrated they will sack a leader should they see a political advantage — and while Turnbull’s ‘popularity polling’ numbers are significantly higher than Abbott’s, it is reasonable to assume the speculation will continue.

Was Abbott meant to be the LNP’s choice and do they now realise they picked a lemon? Would Turnbull or anyone else be any better?

What do you think?