Saturday 19th of April 2014

open for business …..

open for business …..

Tony Abbott's first 100 days in power have been marked by confusion and missteps that reveal a government on training wheels, writes Tony Wright.

Tony Abbott, on the most basic measure, was Australia's most successful opposition leader. He oversaw the destruction of Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd again. ''The time for campaigning has passed, the time for governing has arrived,'' he told his legions of supporters on the night of his election victory, September 7, 2013.

''I now look forward to forming a government that is competent, that is trustworthy, and which purposefully and steadfastly and methodically sets about delivering on our commitments to you, the Australian people.

''In three years' time, the carbon tax will be gone, the boats will be stopped, the budget will be on track for a believable surplus and the roads of the 21st century will finally be well under way. And from today, I declare that Australia is under new management and that Australia is once more open for business.''

Three months later - the first 100 days since the election ticks over on Monday - it is clear that governing has proved significantly more challenging than opposing. Voters had booted a dysfunctional Labor government, but the Coalition remains far from embraced by a grateful public.

The last two significant polls - Fairfax/Nielsen and Newspoll - both have the the Coalition in a much worse position than at the September 7 election. Indeed, those polls, the worst for a new government in Australian polling history, placed the Coalition so far behind Labor that if an election had been held in the past month, they suggested a Labor prime minister would be at the dispatch box rather than Abbott.

The attempt to remove the carbon tax is stalled, the business of stopping the boats has been rolled into a secretive military operation that now has no co-operation from Indonesia, the budget's ''believable surplus'' may or may not be on track - economic forecasts regularly prove unreliable - and it won't be long before no Australian-made cars will be on those roads of the 21st century.

Abbott, away in South Africa attending Nelson Mandela's memorial service, was unable to attend his own Christmas drinks for the press gallery this week. His absence was something of a mercy. There seemed little enough for the new Prime Minister to celebrate.

His government's competency is a matter of debate within his own ranks, its trustworthiness is being questioned by disparate interests both domestic and international, and the promised steadfast purpose has been methodically undermined by ham-fistedness or events that were either inevitable (Holden), inherited from the previous government (the national broadband network) or - in the case of revelations that Australia had been listening in to the phones of prominent Indonesians - so unexpected they were beyond Abbott's control.

His government's handling of Holden in the lead-up to its decision on Wednesday to quit manufacturing in Australia has left observers divided about whether it displayed political ineptitude, or was a smart play designed to flush out Holden before it became a drawn-out disaster later in the political cycle.

Australia was under new management, but with Christmas approaching, the government was exposed to the gibe that it appeared to be closing for business, particularly after Treasurer Joe Hockey, keen to please the Nationals, had refused to allow foreign interests to purchase the nation's grain handler, GrainCorp.

It is not unknown for new governments to plunge into controversy early. Abbott's political mentor, John Howard, experienced a disastrous first few months. He lost a series of ministers and his own trusted chief of staff to rolling travel rorts scandals, saw relations with China plunge to icy levels when he stridently backed the tough US reaction to China firing missiles into Taiwan's waters, and found his government the subject of suspicion in Indonesia.

All of these difficulties find echoes in Abbott's early administration. Howard, of course, went on to enjoy almost 12 years as prime minister.

The Abbott government appears ready to emulate Howard's history wars too. Attorney-General George Brandis, having made sure the ABC TV journalist Barrie Cassidy (once a staffer to Labor PM Bob Hawke) would resign from the Council of the Museum of Australian Democracy before he had taken up the role, quietly made three new appointments to the council on Thursday. Heather Henderson, 85, the daughter of the late Liberal PM Sir Robert Menzies; Sir David Smith, 80, who read the proclamation announcing his boss, Governor-General John Kerr had dismissed the Whitlam government in 1975; and former Liberal minister David Kemp, 75, closely associated with the right-wing H.R. Nicholls Society, got the appointments. Sometimes, small things tell a story about ideological triumphalism.

The real fly in Abbott's ointment, however, is that the election isn't over. The government's hope of pulling together the numbers in the Senate to pass his signature legislation - starting with the abolition of the carbon tax - is not settled.

West Australian voters are most likely to get a second chance to pass judgment on the Abbott Coalition in the new year.

The Australian Electoral Commission, fresh from a mauling at the hands of former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty for managing to lose 1370 ballot papers during a recount of the WA Senate vote, has petitioned the High Court - sitting as the Court of Disputed returns - to hold a new election.

Assuming that $13 million fix for a fiasco goes ahead, West Australian voters are likely to be in a sullen mood.

They will also be wiser than at the September 7 election about where their votes, and preferences that flow from them, will go. If they decide to avoid micro parties like the Sports Party, which on the botched second count won a Senate seat, and find themselves less than impressed with the Palmer United Party - which was judged worthy of a senator on the first disputed count - Abbott's Liberals will have a fight on their hands to gain numbers in the Senate.

Abbott needs WA to deliver him three Liberal senators and a relatively friendly Palmer United Party senator. That would grant him a manageable Senate, with Labor and the Greens bringing up the rear.

But if the state turned sour on him, he could in a worst case find himself with only two Liberal senators facing three Labor senators and a Green.

It would leave him in no better position than now.

The government's inability to push the carbon tax repeal through the currently hostile Senate galls Abbott and his colleagues, who argue that voters gave them a mandate in September.

So frustrated has Abbott become that he allowed himself to be reduced to the emptiest of threats, common to prime ministers fearing time is robbing their hopes: last week he declared he would force Parliament to sit through Christmas if the Senate wouldn't come to heel.

But Parliament has adjourned for the year now and the Senate won't repeal the carbon tax for the simple reason Abbott does not have the numbers to force it to do anything.

In fact, Abbott himself hunkered down in the weeks after the election, and Parliament did not resume sitting until well into November - almost eight weeks after he was sworn in as Prime Minister.

He had the benefit of the Labor Party conducting its own search for a leader as Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese shuttled around the country appealing for votes among the ALP membership and their own caucus. Shorten was eventually chosen more than five weeks after the government had changed hands.

The interregnum created a vacuum within the political cycle, and it sucked in trouble.

Abbott's wish to display a steady-as-she-goes attitude by keeping his old frontbench essentially intact found him attacked for overlooking women: his cabinet, sworn in on September 18, included only one woman, party deputy Julie Bishop.

By September 23, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had introduced the most peculiar and secretive approach to border protection in Australia's history: standing beside a military general, he would provide a single media briefing each week on boat arrivals, but there would be no information at all on one of the key election promises - whether or not any boats had been turned around. Anything deemed an ''operational matter'' would remain a secret. It invited the scorn of critics and concern within the defence force that the military was being traduced by politics, but the government argued it was denying people smugglers a ''shipping news service'', and was indeed slowing the boats.

The gloss began to be peeled from the Coalition within a month of the election when Fairfax Media began investigating and reporting that Abbott and a series of ministers and MPs had quietly begun paying back money they'd claimed as ''entitlements'' to attend weddings and other social events.

The resulting stink reached its height with the revelation that West Australian MP Don Randall and his wife had flown together to Cairns on ''electoral business''. Coincidentally, they owned an investment property in Cairns. Randall eventually decided to repay $5259 to ''ensure the right thing is done by the taxpayer and alleviate any ambiguity''.

Astonishingly, only last week Randall was reappointed to the privileges committee that oversees the code of conduct for parliamentarians and their interests. He stood aside within hours, but the government under Abbott's new management looked incompetent and shifty - dangerous territory.

By then, Abbott's government had managed to confuse parents, the education community, the states and those with an interest in schools with a risible approach to dismantling Labor's Gonski review of the education system. Arguing that the Coalition was doing nothing beyond what had been promised before the election, Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced at the end of November that he was scrapping Labor's funding model and would renegotiate agreements with the states and territories within a year.

The resulting brawl led Pyne to accuse critics of failing to understand his policy, but state premiers maintained their fury and the federal opposition began gaining significant political traction.

A week was lost to the outcry before Abbott and Pyne bought their way out of trouble, reversing their position (again) and finding $1.2 billion for two states and a territory that hadn't signed up to Labor's plan.

Amid the outcry, the first Fairfax/Nielsen poll found the government's fortunes had plunged - Labor was way ahead, 52-48 on a two-party preferred status. Last week, Newspoll, published in The Australian, reached precisely the same result: 52-48. In less than 100 days, the voters - who had been so enthusiastic about removing the Gillard-Rudd administrations - had reversed their position about the Coalition and Labor.

It seemed particularly pointed: the new Opposition Leader, Shorten, remains widely considered to be still finding his feet. The Abbott government was being judged on its own performance.

Since then, Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley, declaring the government would deny low-paid childcare workers $300 in pay rises, has urged childcare operators to ''do the right thing'' and hand back $62.5 million received under legal contracts.

And Holden, goaded by the government, has decided to pack up its manufacturing business, with the likelihood that Toyota and component suppliers will follow.

Abbott and his colleagues now have summer to regather and face the remaining 950-odd days of their first term.

PM Tony Abbott's First 100 Days: A Government On Training Wheels


boofhead ....

If Abbott says he’s not playing politics, it’s a sure sign he can’t win.

If Tony Abbott said it once on the last day of Parliament for 2013, he said it a dozen times: “I am not seeking to play politics on this…”

As they say in cyberspace: LOL.

It is a general rule of the game that when a politician says he or she is not trying to play politics on an issue, it is because the politics of the issue are against them. It is, in essence, a plea for mercy.

And if this rule is true in general, it is more true for Australia’s new Prime Minister.

For this is a bloke who has always, always, played politics on everything. Negative politics.

The simple strategy which brought him to power was “oppose everything”.

And now, at the end of the political year, and the end of the first parliamentary session of the new government, it seems clear he, and the startlingly clumsy coterie of people he has assembled around him, know no other way.

The issue which has most clearly demonstrated this is the bumbling way they handled the Holden issue. But before we get to that, let’s consider the record of the Abbott government so far.

Almost its whole agenda to date has not been about doing. It’s been about un-doing. Undoing the Gonski education reforms. Undoing pay rises for low-paid child and disability carers. Undoing the schoolkids bonus. Undoing tax breaks for low income superannuation contributions. Undoing tax imposts on rich superannuants. Undoing taxes on mining companies.

You will notice a common thread here. All this undoing serves to increase inequity within society. As we noted a few months back, Abbott is kind of a Robin Hood in reverse, who takes from the poor and gives to the rich.

That was predictable – if extreme – for it goes to ideology. The conservatives have always been the party of privilege.

But Abbott has also been kind of a King Midas in reverse. Instead of turning to gold, everything he touches turns to muck. And that goes not to ideology but to management.

Two issues underline this point. First, the entitlements scandal which caught a bunch of his people, as well as a couple of Labor people, not long after the election. How did he handle it? By toughing it out.

Like, “nothing to see here folks, let’s move along.”

But there was something to see: rorting by very well remunerated people of their very generous benefits. The folks did not move along.

And so, reluctantly, the government introduced measures to (very slightly) penalise future rorters. It was way too late. That’s poor judgment.

Then there was the spying row with Indonesia.

Every fair-minded person knows the basic issue was not the fault of the government. All governments spy on other governments and the particular example which caused the breach with Indonesia happened long before Abbott came to power.

His handling of the matter, however, managed to make a bad situation far worse, because instead of playing diplomacy, he played politics, in essence saying to the aggrieved Indonesian President: “No apology, stuff happens, get over it.”

Mind you, his response was only mildly offensive compared with that of the Liberal Party’s chief pollster and strategist, Mark Textor, who fired off a series of incendiary tweets, one of which suggested the Indonesian foreign minister looked a Filipino porn star, with ethics to match.

The most revealing aspect of it, though, was Textor’s stated view that the punters would not give a “rat’s arse” if the Indonesians were offended.

Further evidence that Abbott and his advisors had not yet made the adjustment to government, but still thought it productive to tailor their messages for populist, not to say redneck, consumption, and that the only response to any situation was to play politics.

We could cite more examples, like the deceptive approach to Gonski. Gee, didn’t that play out well for them?

And so to Holden.

As I wrote yesterday, the fundamental problem for Holden’s operations in Australia was mostly the exchange rate. It was the mining industry which did the big damage to Holden, just as it’s damaging so many of Australia’s export- and import-competing industries, because it has pushed up the value of the dollar.

Once again, though, the neophyte government made things far harder for itself by playing dumb, negative politics.

This time, though, it was not Abbott who did most of the damage. It was Treasurer Joe Hockey (who, I thought until recently, was one of the few good performers in the government).

In Question Time on December 10, Hockey played the governments hairy-chested brand of politics, calling for Holden to “come clean” on its intentions, to be “fair dinkum” with the Australian people.

“Either you’re in or you’re out,” he thundered.

Well, as we now know, the people at Holden were watching.

Up until then, they had assured us that no decision had been made; they were open to negotiation. After that, though, they were out.

Now, in all likelihood, they would have been out anyway. But thanks to Joe’s snarling performance, it looks to many people like the government drove them out.

Why, when the government had ordered a Productivity Commission report on the auto industry’s future, which had not yet reported?

Why were members of the government briefing media against the carmaker? Why did Abbott himself not meet with GM? Why did Hockey go out of his way to bait them?

There were apparent divisions within the upper echelons of the government over the approach to take, with Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane prepared to deal in good faith, and other hardliners like Hockey clearly prepared to do no such thing.

All this and more was pointed out in the Parliament on Thursday, by Opposition leader Bill Shorten in Question Time and later in a censure motion against Abbott.

And I have to say, until that censure motion, I wondered if Labor had made the right choice of leader in Shorten. Not any more; he was devastating.

So devastating that Abbott looked for mercy. “I am not seeking to play politics…” he said, over and over. Pleading for Labor not to play politics either.

Well, no doubt they were playing politics. The thing is, they were playing it well, unlike Abbott and his acolytes.

They are still playing the nasty negative game that worked for them in opposition. But it isn’t working in government. They have no positive message to sell and no apparent capacity to sell one.

The public is waking up to this, too. The polls show that clearly.

Remember when Abbott was threatening a double dissolution election if he did not get his pro-mining tax cuts through? He’s not threatening that any more, because the way things are, his government would suffer a thumping defeat.

The Abbott team have made the worst start in power of any federal government in living memory.

Sure, they’ve had a measure of bad luck, but mostly its down to bad politics.

Abbott and Hockey play the game like the former rugby front rowers they are. Boofhead politics: crash up the middle, no subtlety, no style, all brute force, hit ‘em high if you can get away with it.

And at the end of this 2013 political football season, bruised and covered in muck, having been outplayed all over the field, they look like a losing team. They’d better rethink their approach in the off season.

Boofhead Politics