Last night, the Opposition Leader played his role in the circus that is Budget Week, delivering his reply speech to Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan’s first budget in the House of Representatives last night.
Usually a budget reply proposes an alternative budget and sketches out some numbers. After last year’s debacle with costings, Abbott’s credibility with numbers has not been rehabilitated. It may have been a wise move for him to keep well away from figures this time too: "My task tonight," he declared "is not to detail an alternative budget but to set out an alternative vision".
Abbott drew attention to the Coalition’s "proven record of careful management of public finances" (thanks a bunch, Peter Costello), but didn’t provide any clear indications as to how he would carefully manage the books. In other words, how his alternative vision is to be paid for is yet to be defined.
Be patient, advised Abbott:
"As we did last year, Mr Speaker, the Coalition will announce a position on individual budget items when they come before the parliament, not before, and we will announce a consolidated list of spending and savings measures in good time before the next election."
Although there isn’t an election due until 2013, Abbott would like to see one take place much earlier. Straight away, actually. And that’s thanks to the carbon tax, one tax that wasn’t in the budget.
"Typically, while the carbon tax is not in the budget, the carbon tax ad campaign most certainly is. The mining tax is in the budget too even though its details have yet to be finalised or enacted into law and it’s supposed to start on the very same day as the carbon tax.
"The Prime Minister can leave the carbon tax out of the budget but she can’t hide the damage it will do to struggling families’ cost of living, the havoc it will wreak on jobs in manufacturing industry exposed to cut-throat competition, and the fact that it will make no real difference to the environment in the absence of comparable action overseas."
If Abbott viewed the Government’s budget as an advertising campaign for the carbon tax, it was hard not to see his speech as an election campaign launch. Just in case Gillard, the only person in parliament who can call an election, decided to do so, he returned to some old favourites: "We made the most of the China boom, we didn’t complain about it. We ended the waste, repaid the debt and stopped the boats. It wasn’t a slogan. It was a fact." Abbott’s trademark one-liners were in abundant supply: "a great big new tax on everything", "Building The Entertainment Revolution", "pick up the phone to the president of Nauru".
There was just an echo of Abbott’s honest woman rhetoric earlier in the year in the close of his speech:
"Only an election could make an honest politician of this Prime Minister. Only an election can give Australia a government with authority to make the tough decisions needed to build a stronger Australia and help Australians get ahead."
So what tough decisions would would be made under Abbott? None that would hurt the forgotten families of Australia, it seems. Families and the cost of living were a touchstone of the speech and Abbott declared himself in touch with the people of Australia:
"My three children are still in the education system and Margie, my wife, works in community-based childcare so my family knows something of the financial pressures on nearly every Australian household."
He sought to reassure the families who would be affected by the Government’s cuts to family tax benefits:
"I do not think you are rich. I know you are struggling under a rising cost of living. And I know you are sick of a government that doesn’t get value from your taxes.
"My commitment to the forgotten families of Australia is to ease your cost of living pressure. Stopping wasteful and unnecessary spending will keep your interest rates down. Stopping or removing unnecessary new taxes will make it easier for you to pay your bills."
Like Gillard, the kinds of families Abbott favours — and remembers — are working families. Gillard and Swan emphasised skills and training in their budget and to which Abbott responded with an emphasis on jobs: "Leaving young people on the dole and older people on welfare while so many businesses are short of staff is a terrible waste. I’m all in favour of training but first things first: the best training is on-the-job."
Getting people off welfare, off the dole, and into the labour market was a key theme for Abbott. Just as Gillard and Abbott have trying to outdo each other in terms of toughness on asylum seekers, they’re now head-to-head as they get tough on recipients of welfare payments. The Opposition questioned Gillard’s "tough love" rhetoric and went on to pitch a set of policies which rated high on toughness — and low on the love front: "stop dole payments for people under 30 in places where unskilled work is readily available"; "the Coalition will make work for the dole mandatory for long-term unemployed people under 50"; "we’ll extend the government’s mandatory family income management to all long-term unemployed people". On and on it went.
And finally, also a matter of odd dispute is the question of which side of the House best represents Labor values. "If the ghost of Ben Chifley now hovers over this side of the parliament it’s because the Coalition is much closer to workers’ real interests than a Labor party that’s sold its soul to Senator Bob Brown." It’s a sign of how much Labor is struggling to define just what Labor values are that Abbott can even make this call. And it’s a sign of Abbott’s remarkable cockiness that a man who helped usher in WorkChoices can claim to be representing workers’ real interests.
He’s bursting with confidence and the polls give him reason to be chipper but Abbott’s aggressive push for an election may become tiresome. Then again, it’s possible that he’s calling an election to appease his own MPs who are, if Andrew Robb is to be believed, unable to stroll the streets of their electorates unmolested. This is what he told Fran Kelly this morning:
"The thing that people say to me and all my colleagues, they’re all reporting it, you cannot go anywhere in Australia, you can’t walk down a street without people stopping you and saying, can’t you bring on an election? Well, we can’t. No, we can’t. "
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