27 May 2014

Abbott's Lost Some Skin, But It's Far From Terminal

By Ben Eltham

A week is a long time in politics. For Tony Abbott, last week was an eternity. Ben Eltham looks at the longer-term fortunes of one of Australia's most unpopular PMs.

How much political damage has the Abbott government sustained from its 2014 budget?

The short answer is: quite a lot.

The longer answer is more complex and more uncertain. What is certain is that the politics of austerity will now dominate much of 2014.

There is no doubt the government has been blindsided by the scale and ferocity of the budget backlash. The misjudgments seem to be a product of a combination of ideology and tactics. 

Ideologically, this is a government that has drunk deeply the neoliberalism Kool-Aid. From “price signals” to the “end of the Age of Entitlement”, this is a government that believes, in its bones, in the primacy of the market as a system for allocating resources. Smaller government is better government. If that means dismantling the last vestiges of Australia’s welfare state, well, so much the better.

The ideological obsession with smaller government and personal responsibility may explain the many tactical missteps that the Coalition has made in preparing and explaining the budget. When you’re committed to ending the age of entitlement, kicking under 30s off Newstart for six months can be thought of as a necessary measure to end a “culture” of dole bludging. Similarly, the $7 GP co-payment is simply elementary economics, imposing a behavioural nudge on a health service that the government thinks is being rorted.

This kind of thing worked in 1996, and many in the government clearly thought it would work again in 2014.

Unfortunately, the government has comprehensively failed to convince middle Australia of its budget narrative. The problem is not so much with the government’s premise – that there is a budget emergency – as with its proposed solution: wholesale attacks against the welfare state.

The rhetoric about Labor’s debts and deficits undoubtedly contributed to the Coalition’s victory in September, and it’s also true that it’s a message that plays particularly well to the Coalition base. And this is still the case: a post-budget Essential poll found that the majority of Australians (56 per cent) agree with the government that there is a “budget emergency”.

The problem for the Coalition is that the specific measures it’s proposing to fix the budget problem are far less popular. Health and education, in particular, are running sores.

The GP co-payment is a huge issue for the government, one it is manifestly struggling to contain. Doctors are unhappy, while patients are terrified. So effective has the government’s austerity rhetoric been, some clinics are reporting 20 per cent drop offs in consultations, even though the fee has yet to be introduced.

University fee deregulation is also a growing problem, and one that Education Minister Christopher Pyne shows no sign of getting on top of.

Pyne had probably counted on support from the big sandstone universities for the measure allowing him to play divide and rule with the higher education sector. But the government’s decision to couple fee deregulation to a 20 per cent cut in funding per student has scared the living daylights out of university vice-chancellors, who can suddenly see yawning deficits blown in their tuition fee income with no certainty of recouping the difference from cash-strapped, debt-shy students.

As for the students themselves, the inevitable hikes in HECS and HELP fees have kicked off a new era of student radicalism that promises to dog the public appearances of Coalition ministers for years to come.

The horrid reception of the budget has an ironic symmetry with Labor’s contortions over carbon pricing between 2010 and 2012. After winning the 2007 election with a clear mandate for action on climate change, Labor struggled to translate that sentiment into support for a price on carbon pollution. A majority of Australians continue to believe in global warming. Julia Gillard’s carbon tax nonetheless proved wildly unpopular.

And then there are the unforced errors. The Abbott government’s fortunes are not being assisted by the slow drip of scandal. The Coalition has already lost a highly regarded minister, Arthur Sinodinos, into the maw of the New South Wales Independent Corruption Commission.

The New South Wales branch of the party has lost a premier, two ministers and a number of backbenchers. Revelations of dubious fundraising activities have dogged Treasurer Joe Hockey, and now the nominally independent Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

To top it all off, Abbott’s family has been drawn into controversy, with the revelation that his daughter Frances had secured a lucrative secret scholarship to a private design school. Unfortunately for Abbott, it’s the sort of thing that voters remember, because of what it says about the privileges enjoyed by the rich and well-connected, even while ordinary Australians are forced to pay more than ever for a basic education.

How different the political environment looks now, compared to the heady days of September! While we should be wary of placing too much faith in opinion polls, they tell a remarkable story of a government that has squandered nearly all of its early political capital in just nine months.

Tony Abbott is personally polling at disapproval levels rivaled only by Julia Gillard and Paul Keating at their nadirs. To put it in perspective, Kevin Rudd was never as unpopular as Tony Abbott is now.

And all of this has happened without any noticeable improvement in the organisation or policy platform of Labor. Bill Shorten is hardly setting the world on fire as Opposition Leader, and the much-needed internal reforms that Labor must push through if the party is to survive into the 21st century are still in their infancy. For the Coalition to trail a Labor Party it so soundly thrashed less than a year ago is a startling development indeed.

It all adds up to a government that has sustained serious injuries. But lefties and progressives would be wise not to pop the champagne corks just yet. The Coalition has stumbled repeatedly since taking office; new governments often do. But it would be foolish to assume that the government will continue to make errors, or that voters are permanently alienated from it.

In particular, it would be unwise to predict the demise of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. While his unpopularity is certainly weighing the Coalition down, there seems little chance that the Coalition party room will panic in the same way that Labor’s did.

As long as Abbott enjoys the support of key factions in the party – which he manifestly does – then he is safe in the medium term. Left-leaning voters who love the idea of a Malcolm Turnbull prime ministership ignore the brutal fact that few in the party support him. As long as key powerbrokers like Christopher Pyne continue to support Abbott, he will remain in the Lodge.

It’s quite easy to construct a scenario in which the government recovers from this disastrous budget to comfortably win re-election in 2016. Sitting governments enjoy tremendous powers of incumbency, and vast resources to help them advance their cause.

We’re already seeing a little of this with the decision by Mathias Cormann to pull the trigger on government advertising in support of the budget measures.

The Coalition has the unswerving, although increasingly anaemic, support of certain sections of the media, particularly News Corporation. Voters have also shown they will reward governments they see as taking tough decisions, at least under certain circumstances.

Put simply, there is no reason to believe the Abbott government’s current unpopularity is terminal. Tony Abbott is not necessarily doomed to a single term. Politics is far too unpredictable for that. At the very least, we should never underestimate the ability of the Australian Labor Party to shoot itself in the foot.

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Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 15:11

For a responsible media and ethical journalists the following statement should ring alarm bells.

The question that should be asked: WHY are obvious political lies repeated and widely circulated?

> A post-budget Essential poll found that the majority of Australians (56 per cent) agree with the government that there is a “budget emergency”. <

The public has been, and still is being bombarded with false and/or misleading information by our tame mainstream media led by NewsCorp.

> Put simply, there is no reason to believe the Abbott government’s current unpopularity is terminal. <

Sorry, if journalists would do their job properly it should be terminal!

On the other hand if they had done their job in the first place we wouldn't have been lumbered with arguably the worst government in Australia's history. 

The current mob in Canberra has to go, before any more damage is done!


This user is a New Matilda supporter. Jane E
Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 15:57

Ben, the LNP Coalition aren't neoliberals, they are neoconservatives.  (I don't know what the Labor party is, or what it is for, and neither do they, it seems.)

The LNPC's objective is to transfer government in its entirety to the private sector in the form of assorted multinationals, and a few foreign governments who still retain commercial enterprises.

If you don't believe me, cast your mind back to the very first weeks of the new government. What did they do? dispatched the Foreign Minister, one Ms. Bishop, off to see a number of our nearish neighbours. Why? To sign FTAs with as many of them as possible. Obviously these had been in preparation for some time, but it is very interesting that this was the new government's highest priority.

Back in about 1994, there was a thing called the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) being kicked around, mainly sponsored by the poster boy neocons, the Project for the New American Century. Despite their best efforts, it didn't take off. Since then it has been being introduced piecemeal, one FTA after another. Essentially, the MAI and its nasty little offspring are designed to reduce to nil any form of regulation of any market by any means: financial, immigration, environmental (including quarantine and seed patenting), and taxation: most especially taxes aimed at reducing fossil fuel use.

Along the way since then they managed to foster a string of wars, a vast transfer of wealth from below to above, especially in the English speaking countries, and its transfer to assorted tax havens. This all contributed greatly to the GFC which went public in about 2006/7, or 2008 if you don't read any dissident financial press.

Make no mistake, all these people want is the money, and the power that goes with it. They are brothers in arms with the terrorists and pirates and kidnappers and juntas and drug cartels. They have the support of mass media outlets and they have no affection for honesty. They think they own the planet and they need to be told in no uncertain terms that they don't. All major political parties are now so beholden to these folk that the parties are unreliable in everything they say and do.  These folk are busily undermining the minor parties by all possible means, including but not limited to proliferations of candidates to dissuade voters in Australia from voting below the line.

And the GFC ain't over. Have a nice day.


cardinal fang
Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 16:06

It is sad when the mainstream media, read Murdoch , blatantly take a side. No subtle whatsoever . Do the journos there have any integrity at all? The columnist at the tele are raving mad. Their opinion pieces are beyond inane. Do they actually believe what they write? I have always enjoyed Fox News . It is very entertaining, hilarious in fact. Sometimes funnier than the daily news show. The likes of Ackerman, Ray Hadley miranda Devine and of course Janet are too inept even for fox.

its great to see that the parrot can still conjure up a line for the Tories. I mean of course the fire brigade analogy. Sheer poetry. It captures the essence of the dilemma . The economic, fiscal and social dimensions come together in the symbolic fire. The crucible, the Bon fire of vanities, so many metaphors so much indicative of the human narrative. Only Alan  could envisage such a metaphor. Maybe Alan just likes firemen.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. bruce.prior
Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 16:40

I go along with jane E. I would also point out that here, by all current measures we have a piece of "balanced journalism".....but note the way the right agenda is put ever forward:

Unfortunately, the government has comprehensively failed to convince middle Australia of its budget narrative.

I would call it that the government is comprehensively out of step with the electorate's ethic or morality.

The problem is not so much with the government’s premise – that there is a budget emergency..... Essential poll found that the majority of Australians (56 per cent) agree with the government that there is a “budget emergency”..... And this is still the case: a post-budget Essential poll found that the majority of Australians (56 per cent) agree with the government that there is a “budget emergency”.

Not one word about the sustained media and neocon shills' nasty propaganda campaign to ensure that 59%/56% were (neo)conned into believing there was a (much to be feared) budget emergency.  It has been shown that it was a lie about us plebs "going 11 times a year to the GP" (actually just shy of 6) yet we still hear Big Joe saying 11 as though it is well researched audit fact.

We are about to be blasted with Cormann's propaganda, why don't we call it for what it is?

We are blessed with being told (rammed down our throats) that (woe and infamy) we spend a billion a month on interest (huff, Puff, unsustainable blah blah...). Yet Not one "balanced" journalist piece (that I am aware) has put that into some sort of context that explains that it is NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. Why not? By the silence on things like that, we are playing the right wing game.

The tenor of the article befits a "comfortable" atmosphere of political analysis, not what is happening at all. They are trying for a quantum shift of our society to the "american dream" of poverty, food stamps and credit card health care. Where is the passion?

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Dipso Facto
Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 17:40

Not one of Ben's best efforts.

The problem is not so much with the government’s premise – that there is a budget emergency – as with its proposed solution: wholesale attacks against the welfare state.

The only fact adduced to support this assertion about the budgetary position is the poll showing

the majority of Australians (56 per cent) agree with the government that there is a “budget emergency”.

It could be 90% and there would indeed still be a 'problem'; that is, the way a majority have come to accept this mediated propaganda line which is nothing more than another LNP catchphrase in the same field as 'stop the boats'. There has simply been no serious questioning in the MSM of the view that the budget is an end in itself, which must be treated like a kind of national credit card. The slogan 'debt and deficit' has become the frame through which the nation is expected to view Labor.

Actually, it's surprising the 'majority' is as narrow as it is, given the brainwashing of the last two years. The real problem is the collapse in revenue since the apparently balmy days of the profligate Howard-Costello tax cuts. A sensible approach to the present situation would be a measured and graduated removal of Australia's world-record holding tax expenditures (rebates, concessions, tax credits). But one cannot expect this from the indolent, incompetent and mendacious scoundrels now in power.

Abbot's tax review will be a complete fizzer when it comes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and superannuation concessions for the rich. In that case, since the coalition has already so markedly discriminated against the poor, the young, the sick, the dependent - spent all its so called 'political capital' -  without making any real inroads in its own terms on the 'budget emergency', and since it will have to be saved politically from itself by Senate rejection, it will have nowhere to go next time except the unthinkable - hitting the hands which feed it. For this reason the government is cactus. It can't solve the 'budget emergency' by continuing to pillage the poor. Even if it is returned it is cactus, just as Abbott is today. Didn't the writing supposedly appear on the proverbial wall for Gillard once the punditariat declared that no one was still 'listening' to her?

By the way, I do agree with Ben that this government tends more to the neoliberal position than the neocon; it is not neoconservative or any other kind of conservative, except perhaps socially. The neocons were supposed to have come from a formerly soft left or genuinely 'liberal' position.

Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 17:59

The usual thoughtful and excellent article Ben. For me you said it "all" at the end of it, "At the very least, we should never underestimate the ability of the Australian Labor Party to shoot itself in the foot." Although the Greens are doing their level best, serious opposition is the territory of the Labor Party. That's the problem. In the event of a serious attempt to 'oppose', one of their galahs will undermine it.

Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 18:00

Agreed Ben. Labor Party is unfortunately more than able to stuff up this great opportunity. It won't hurt them to cling to their unconcientable PNG asylum seeker policy but hopefully they could fashion a moral and electorally appealing policy???

I still think that Abbott is unelectable and that despite lessons of recent past, the Liberals will dump him and conscript Malcolm who will rise above personal misgivings for "the good of the party".

Too much unnecessary unfairness and no coherent vision in this budget and I hope the electorate will not forgive Tony. It will be a blessing not to see his smug face on TV so much after 2016.

Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 18:04

Malcolm should push Abbott! Boot him now! The Australian public would rather a sane man babysit PM chair till next election! We will forgive the hypocricy  IF YOU LDSHP CHANGE once Malcolm. Promise. we will not mention it AGAIN!!! Just push him already. Please!

Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 18:09

33% of the voting public said NEITHER OF THE ABOVE,  in both houses of parliament.  Which meant that the drovers dogs got 33% of the vote.


In the SA senate NEITHER OF THE ABOVE, saw the vote for the two majors drop to 49.6% and in the recent new WA half senate the NEITHER OF THE ABOVE grew from 33% at the last election to 46%.


That is a huge number of people who refuse to vote either lab or lib because they are just the same.

Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 18:37

A week IS a long time in politics.


Abbott and his team are playing their game based on this truism - that by the time 2016 rolls around much has been forgotten, the MSM is unlikely to have developed any more truth in journalism than they have exhibited for the past 6+ years as well as 'sweeteners' provided while warning that a return to Labor is a return to a great big mess.


The above is the likely scenario provided nothing much else happens, such as a climate event that removes any doubt about AGW, a particularly nasty piece of corruption reveals the true agenda of the neo-con Abbottoir or similar event casting indisputable evidence that the Abbott government is not governing for Australia.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. hannahs dad
Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 21:20

Actually I think Abbott's condition is terminal.

And not just his individual condition but that of his host organism the COALition parties, Liberals more so.

The condition may not be acutely critical but be more in the nature of a slow wasting disease which may temporarily appear to go into remission but the symptoms and problems will then flare up again as the disease spreads inexorably penetrating into non-prefered ministers and then, already visible, the backbenchers whose vital signs are already showing contamination, a state once entered difficult to reverse.

The initial signs of the disease were apparent many months ago, polls showed a decline in the health of the COALition within a couple of months of their transformation from opposition to government. By early this year the stumbles, fumbles and bumbles had led the public to diagnose the COALition as sick and had opted for the others, Greens and PUP and increasingly the ALP as a far healthier alternative.

Take a look at BludgerTrack over at Poll Bludger, by early this year the ALP 2PP was above their sickening rivals and the slope for the ALP has been upwards ever since. The prognosis is not positive for the COALition

Pseudo medicines and quack treatments are already being tried and patently failing viz the weakening facade of the budget crisis meme as the public, enough of them, know that such is a false diagnosis and that the patient needs medicine that, like anti-vaxxers, they are refusing to contemplate.

Later this year we will probably [about 70% chance] have a El Nino drought which will further expose the worsening condition of the government, it doesn't perform well in the heat and it will be unable to cope with new conditions.

Of course the MSM will be applying all sorts of ointments and lotions, pancake makeup and the like, to cover up the weeping sore, the palsy, the memory fades but despite short term seeming improvements the patients' inner ideological dis-ease and non competence will continue to be evident.

Nup, the future is brighter cos the patients' prognosis isn't.

Jonathan Maddox
Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 21:58

> From “price signals” to the “end of the Age of Entitlement”, this is a government that believes, in its bones, in the primacy of the market as a system for allocating resources.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Market-based public policy mechanisms (not least the carbon price) are being dismantled in favour of far more directly interventionist policies.

Posted Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 08:26

Tony Abbott is bringing reality to Australia and destroying apathy about the Liberal Party - long may he reign. The conservative agenda has been the same for about 150 years, and now it is up in lights.  No more sneaking around, either the voters accept their luddite crap or they don't.

Posted Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 08:49

I think I can improve your article with a similar clause inserted in two places:

"Julia Gillard’s carbon tax nonetheless proved wildly unpopular." After a sustained and intense media campaign supported by almost all mainstream journalists and media outlets.

"Unfortunately, the government has comprehensively failed to convince middle Australia of its budget narrative." Despite a sustained and intense media campaign supported by almost all mainstream journalists and media outlets.

Posted Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 11:00

I month after Tony Abbot was elected  I published a detailed analysis entitled “120 Reasons Why Australians Must Vote 1 Green & Put The Coalition Last (see Countercurrents, 8 November 2013: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya081113.htm  ) that commenced: “Australia  has a new extreme right wing, pro-war, pro-Zionist, anti-environment, anti-science, US lackey, war criminal, climate criminal  Liberal Party-National Party Coalition Federal  Government headed by PM Tony Abbott. This extreme right wing Coalition Government is currently held in check by a Labor plus Greens majority in the Senate  but after mid-2014 a new Senate will have an extreme right wing  conservative majority and the Coalition will have free  reign to implement its extreme right wing, regressive agenda.”

However, since then and several times each week  the Coalition Government has trotted out new policies deeply offensive to decent humanitarians, from fast-tracking entry to Australia for Australia-violating Apartheid Israeli war criminals to approving further violation of the acutely threatened Great Barrier Reef and SE Australian forests.  

In the horror budget the Coalition  has exceeded itself so appallingly and offended such a wide swathe of  Australians as to surely mean a "One Term Tony" - the only thing that will save them will be continued brainwashing of the public by the American-dominated Mainstream media, especially the bottom-of-the-barrel Murdoch media (see "Boycott Murdoch Media": https://sites.google.com/site/boycottmurdochmedia/ ).

Australia is a world leader in per capita GHG pollution – having 0.3% of world population, its domestic and exported GHG pollution is 3% of world total. Yet optimistic interpretation of official Labor policy indicates that Australia’s domestic and exported GHG pollution will be 119% of the 2000 value by 2020 and 173% by 2050.

The science-ignoring, climate criminal  Coalition is  betraying our children, the Great Barrier Reef, our forests, Australia, Humanity and the Biosphere of the Planet. Young people should demand that their elders behave responsibly before it is too late and First World-imposed climate genocide destroys 10 billion non-Europeans this century, mostly children (see "Stop climate crime":https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/stop-climate-crime ).

This horror budget has recruited massive, long-term opposition from young and old to callous, heartless, discriminatory Coalition neoliberalism.



This user is a New Matilda supporter. hannahs dad
Posted Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 13:13

I despair when it becomes necessary for calyptorhyncus to insert into the body of the text a clause that is so elementary and essential to this issue that its previous omission stands out like the provervial dog's...

Si,ilarly we have an  assertion that is merely made and passed on as a given, entirely without the analysis that would render it invalid and incredible.

I refer to "the problem is not so much with the government's premise - that there is a budget emergency -..."

Well yes , to the contrary, that is a major problem, its a false initial mis-step that renders all that follows as a path to nowhere.

Quite simply there is no so-called budget emergency and the reason this gets trotted out as an unexamined fallacy is ... see calyptorhyncus' clause.


Yet in the context,grand scheme of things, Ben's essay is not bad, in fact, says I condescendingly, pretty darn good.

In the context of the usual offerings available from the mainstream media that is.

But by the standard that should, and could [?] be written it is, in the words of Maxwell Smart - "a miss by that much".

How much?