Abbott Takes The Dispatch Box At Last

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The 44th Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia sits for the first time today in Canberra.

All the usual pomp and ceremony is in evidence, with a Welcome to Country at the beginning of proceedings. Tony Abbott was surely right to applaud the new tradition, and to commend Kevin Rudd for “including this indigenous element in the rituals of our Parliament, which is so fittingly now a part of the opening of a new parliamentary term.”

Today is an auspicious day for Tony Abbott and the Coalition. Having won the September election, Abbott has waited more than six weeks before formally taking his place at the dispatch box as Prime Minister.

It's also six years since the Coalition has warmed the government benches. The time wore heavy on a party that enjoyed more than a decade of power under John Howard, and still thinks of itself as the natural party of government. Having vanquished both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Abbott will rightly savour his first question time as Prime Minister.

It was Paul Keating who famously remarked that if you change the government, you change the country. The aphorism will be ruefully recalled by progressives and Laborites still licking their wounds from a resounding defeat. It should also be kept in mind by Abbott and his senior ministers. Keating understood that winning elections is only the beginning. What really counts in the long run is the program of legislation and policy that a government pushes through.

Recent history shows that polls matter far less than legislative achievements. In 1996 and 1997, John Howard stumbled through a listless and accident-prone first term. It took a near-death experience at the 1998 election, won almost in spite of a bold gamble on the GST, to establish the credentials of a modern Liberal hero. In his second, third and fourth terms, Howard would harness the advantages of incumbency to reshape Australian public policy in a more conservative direction.

In 2008 and 2009, despite a ringing victory against Howard, Rudd squandered much of his political capital in unfocused freneticism. Carbon pricing legislation was twice defeated in the Senate, but Rudd refused to pull the trigger on a double dissolution when he had the chance.

By contrast, Gillard defied a disastrous 2010 election result and ongoing unpopularity to parlay a razor-thin parliamentary majority into the most ambitious progressive reform program since Whitlam. Gillard seemed barely to survive from week to week. But she passed carbon legislation, enacted disability insurance, and set in train a Royal Commission on institutional child sex abuse.

Working out how to implement a lasting agenda will thus be Tony Abbott's most important task in the new Parliament. This is doubly true, because his positive election platform was minimal, with most of his most vehement commitments framed around rolling back Labor's second-term achievements.

Repealing carbon pricing and getting rid of the mining tax will honour Abbott's election commitments and play well to the conservative base, but the truth is that the new government has little to offer in the way of a positive legislative agenda. Characteristically, the government's primary legislative priority is in fact a negative one: abolishing the previous government's Clean Energy Future legislation.

Whether the new government can pass any legislation at all will, as usual, depend on the will of the Senate, which remains in the hands of the ALP and the Greens until 1 July next year. Given the hostility of the current Senate, Abbott will be tempted to keep his powder dry until the new Senate takes office, potentially offering the tantalising – if terrifying – prospect of balance of power in the hands of Clive Palmer.

On the other hand, the hostile Senate gives Abbott the chance to play out the politics of carbon revanchism to their logical conclusion, ramming repeated carbon repeal bills through the House of Representatives to give the government a double dissolution trigger. The idea here is to put the blow-torch on Bill Shorten and Labor, in the hope that the opposition folds under pressure and waves through the carbon price repeal. It's a sound tactic as far as it goes, but it depends on the credibility of Abbott's threat of a fresh election. Few observers think that threat is credible.

Carbon is only the first of the battles to be fought in the new Parliament. In his address this morning, Abbott was at pains to spell out his priorities. “This Parliament always has great work to do,” he said, “to secure our borders, to balance our budget, to strengthen our economy, to the relief of families and for the protection of jobs.” A string of bills will be brought by the government on a range of public policy issues, from amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act to border protection, and of course the budget.

None of this will be easy, and some of it will undoubtedly be unpopular. The government begins its first term with poll figures showing it enjoys no great electoral honeymoon: sentiments are roughly where they were on 14 September. Abbott has not stormed to office with a huge mandate or with great personal appeal.

Some of the Coalition's more adventurous policies, particularly in border protection, are already foundering on the shoals of political reality, as Indonesia demonstrates is the one whose sovereign borders are in operation. Similarly, with fiscal policy, Joe Hockey's early decision to spend up on an $8 billion grant to the Reserve Bank has only made his eventual task of balancing the budget harder.

From Labor's perspective, today is a new start with a new Opposition Leader. The party has emerged from the near-death experience of the Rudd-Gillard years battered and bruised. Bill Shorten's performance in his first question time in the role will be watched closely. How the ALP responds to its new challenges in holding the government to account will be important in the development of the current parliament. Labor supporters will be hoping that Shorten is able to prevent an Abbott government honeymoon, and focus attention on the many uncertainties and shortcomings of the Coalition's policies.

Then, of course, there is new Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, who can be expected to face some difficult days keeping the Parliament in check. And attention will also be given to minor party members and parliamentary oddities, from Indi independent Cathy McGowan to Clive Palmer himself. McGowan and Palmer happen to be sitting next to each other, an odd couple indeed.

All of which means the 44th Parliament promises to be every bit as interesting and querulous as the 43rd. The government and opposition will be enjoying the relatively cordial proceedings this morning. They are unlikely to last.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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