Coalition lines up against Labor on the economy
WHEN Labor finally got its carbon tax through the lower house, the government rightly was quite relieved. But astute political watchers were taken aback, indeed amazed, at the level of self-congratulation and jubilation that followed.
It’s one thing to mark the passing of key legislation. Both political parties have done that: take as examples Mabo, Wik, the sale of Telstra and the GST. But the scenes witnessed when the carbon tax was narrowly passed through this federal parliament may prove quite damaging for Labor in time.
Seeing those images on the television or in the newspapers the next day simply reminded voters that 14 months after Labor promised there’d be no such tax, Julia Gillard’s unstable government had done the complete opposite.
The Coalition’s attack on the carbon tax, led by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, has framed the debate as an economic issue. The Opposition Leader and his Treasury spokesman have taken every opportunity to link the carbon tax to cost of living pressures. They’ve highlighted the effect of the tax on the hip pocket and at a time when households are already under more than enough financial pressure, successfully painted the carbon tax as an economic matter, not an environmental fix.
It’s no accident that at the same time the Coalition is extending its lead over Labor as the preferred economic manager. Abbott and Hockey are defying many of their critics. Hockey in particular has stepped up to the plate and is strongly delivering as Australia’s alternative treasurer. Since the budget in May, he has had the government on the run over its promise to deliver a surplus.
While economists may argue the merits or otherwise of returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13, politically it’s a big issue for the Gillard government and Hockey’s sharp political antenna has zeroed in on this. His repeated calls on the government to stand by its commitment has seen this promise transform into an objective, an expectation, a determination, a plan and a guiding principle. So successful has been the attack that Wayne Swan has retreated, saying he’ll give it “his best shot”.
Whether on the surplus, the carbon and mining taxes, cost of living pressures, unemployment, the lack of productivity reforms, government waste or banking, the Coalition is taking the fight to Labor. While tensions are emerging in Labor’s economic team, the Coalition is showing no sense of disunity. Hockey is leading the charge to find the necessary savings to pay for the Coalition’s election commitments. Opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb is co-ordinating the policy review process, and two West Australians – Abbott’s steel-eyed deputy Julie Bishop and up and coming senator Mathias Cormann, opposition assistant treasury spokesman – have been keeping the heat on the federal government over the mining tax. Add to that opposition spokesman on tax reform Tony Smith, a former Peter Costello adviser, and it shapes as an impressive fiscal and economic line-up.
Abbott will be buoyed by the latest polling numbers showing his team leads Labor as the preferred managers of almost all key issues. It’s quite remarkable the Coalition is now viewed by voters as better placed than the ALP to manage the traditional Labor strongholds of health and education. Above all, Abbott is increasingly confident his talented economic team well and truly has Labor’s measure.
Come the next election, Australia’s13.5 million voters will want to see competent policies on health, education, defence, border protection and the environment, but as in most elections, the economy will be centre stage.
This is not to suggest these other issues do not matter to voters, but without a strong balance sheet, no government can afford responsibly to fund them.
The Coalition knows this and is determined to show the electorate that it is ready to govern.
Abbott and Hockey have committed to returning the budget to surplus, repealing the carbon tax and scrapping the mining tax. They’ve promised to control government spending and slash what many of us have seen as profligate and wasteful Labor government spending.
Hockey is particularly focused on this task. After all, he’s got the job of making the sums add up and is determined to appeal to voters’ hip pockets come election day.
You can almost hear the slogan now: “Tax cuts, no carbon tax.”
As the election nears, this mantra will be repeated again and again.
As the Democrats constantly reminded voters in the 1992 US presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books.
The Weekend Australian October 22 -23, 2011