Abbott's strategy just a blast from the past

Bookmark and Share Governance & Service Provision | Chris Berg
The Drum 10th February, 2015

Here's the problem.

Yes, Tony Abbott survived the spill. But that majority vote of support in the Prime Minister was not in spite of his public unpopularity. It was in spite of his underdeveloped plan for the next year of government.

Everybody is wondering how Abbott might be able to turn the ship around.

And Abbott's plan, offered first at the National Press Club last week and repeated to ABC political reporter Chris Uhlmann the night before the spill, is worryingly insubstantial.

Far too much of the plan for the future harks back to the past. Not just avoiding the wasteful spending of the Labor years, but reversing or modifying Abbott's personal commitments. No more prime ministerial picks for knights and dames. No more paid parental leave.

Stripped of all the rhetoric, the future of the Abbott Government looks like this:

One: a crackdown on unlawful foreign investment. "Better scrutiny and reporting" of agricultural sales and "better enforcement of the rules" governing house sales. Two: a further crackdown on Islamist radicals in Australia. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, we're looking at you. Three: a families package, probably something to do with childcare. Four: small business tax cuts.

This is just not enough to pin the Government's future on.

One of the most revealing and probably most politically powerful stories to come out this week was of a quiet discussion between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott in the Prime Minister's office during the two-day cabinet meeting.

Turnbull asked Abbott what the plan was. Abbott repeated the major points from his press club address. Foreign investment. Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Turnbull, it was reported, was "underwhelmed".

The story is drenched in Turnbull camp spin. But it's very revealing nonetheless.

At the Guardian, Katharine Murphy has a good observation about how Abbott has struggled to define himself in government: "Abbott didn't know if he was freedom Tony, or security Tony, or austerity Tony, or double the deficit Tony."

But the confusion goes much deeper than Abbott's personal philosophy. The Coalition came into power with twin but contradictory stories about how it would operate.

The first story was that the Abbott Government would be the restoration of the Howard era, an era of certainty, and relative economic prosperity. Labor had bickered and bungled around for six years. Abbott would bring back not only John Howard's governing style, but much of Howard's governing team. They would be an adult, long-term government. Politics would fall off the front pages.

Ironically enough, this desire to be an "adult government" actually created some of the problems of the first few months, as I pointed out in The Drum at the time.

Yet against this story of stability and certainty was the policy challenge the Coalition believed it had been elected to fix. It is relatively easy to abolish the carbon tax and mining tax, and, as Scott Morrison has demonstrated, not impossible to stop the boats, if stopping boats is your sole concern.

By contrast, fixing the budget in an era of economic sluggishness is an incredible challenge. It requires big, aggressive calls in controversial public policy areas. It requires revolution rather than stability. It makes boldness a more necessary virtue than steady competence.

You could see them struggle to balance these two stories all the way through September 2013 to May 2014.

Eventually crunch time came. Joe Hockey decided to lump all the big calls together in their first budget. They were presented as deficit reduction measures rather than reform proposals in their own right. This was a mistake. Rather than arguing for the budget proposals on their own merits, they stuck with a macro-level Labor-debt-and-deficit line.

Anyway, it all played out very poorly from there.

After many traumatic months nobody imagines that the boldness of the 2014 budget will reappear in 2015. We're faced with the prospect of Bill Shorten's small-target Opposition facing off against a gun-shy Government trying to compress itself into an even smaller target.

The prime minister's office no doubt hopes the small target approach will stop Abbott from haemorrhaging in the polls, but at the same time it will do nothing to put the Government in a competitive position against Labor at the next election.

Governments, even stable, competent, Howard-esque ones, need a purpose; a goal, a vision. Clamping down on foreign investment - even if it was a good idea - isn't enough.

And in the meantime, the nation's finances are only going to get worse and worse.

Turnbull failed to put up his hand for the spill on Monday in more than one way. The Communications Minister may have been underwhelmed by Abbott's plans but has offered no plan of his own. He's presented no alternative strategy for righting the Government.

And that is almost certainly the conversation Coalition MPs are having right now.

 

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