Abbott and Hockey must win the short-term campaign first
THE democratic process in Australia is driven by two competing, often conflicting, imperatives. Governments are often faced with critical decisions for the long-term good that are potentially unpopular in the short term.
For politicians it would seem there is little point in making decisions for the long-term national good if it results in an election loss, with an incoming government reversing any gains. In recent history two federal governments have managed the competing demands of the short-term electoral cycle and the longer-term national interest.
The Hawke-Keating government floated the Australian dollar to ensure it became one of the automatic economic stabilisers. It restrained wage growth but introduced enterprise bargaining to link productivity improvements with remuneration more closely.
The Howard government introduced a new tax, the GST, to put state governments on a more sustainable footing and established the Future Fund to ensure the retirement benefits of the current generation of soldiers, police and public servants were not Ã‚Âhostage to future budgetary constraints.
In recent years one of the most contentious issues for governments to manage has been climate change.
The political cost of this single issue is virtually unprecedented.
Because of his immovable commitment to an emissions trading scheme, Malcolm Turnbull lost the opposition leadership to Tony Abbott by one vote. Kevin Rudd lost credibility as prime minister when he campaigned for action on climate change as “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time only to jettison it soon after the Copenhagen summit. Julia Gillard was the relatively brief beneficiary of Rudd’s downfall but she was ousted from the prime ministership, largely on the issue of climate change. Her declaration just before the 2010 election that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead, only to introduce a carbon tax after the election, gave Abbott the ammunition to define her as untrustworthy.
The response to climate change policy continues to dominate political discourse with much conjecture as to how the new Senate will vote when it begins work on Monday and whether it will agree to abolish the carbon tax.
In the meantime, there has been a storm of criticism directed at the federal budget, some of it coming from Liberal state governments. Labor has declared the budget unfair for inflicting pain on some of the most vulnerable sectors of society. Yet the Prime Minister, Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann appear to be convinced of the merits of individual measures and are showing few signs of weakening on any decision. Their argument is that under Labor the budget was on an unsustainable footing, with rapidly escalating debt and under severe pressure from our ageing population.
Despite the reality of these constraints, the Abbott government is struggling to sell the mesÃ‚Âsage that short-term pain will deliver long-term gain.
Unsurprisingly, Bill Shorten has taken the opportunistic stance of opposing virtually everything in the budget, even measures that Labor proposed in government. And Labor well recognises that climate change is a divisive issue for the Coalition. The longer it remains on the negotiating table, the greater the potential for conflict in government ranks.
Abbott should not expect any relief from a Labor opposition that refuses to accept that, under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, in government it was hopelessly incompetent, reckless and divided.
The Coalition must therefore pin its hopes on the crossbenches in the new Senate, including the brace of Palmer United Party senators and the unpredictable Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party.
With its first budget the Abbott government has taken a huge punt on long-term outcomes at the expense of short-term popularity. But this strategy is clearly not working. Hence the PM and Treasurer need to reconsider their sales pitch. This could include a greater focus on the misinformation Labor has conveyed about budget “cuts.
The fact is that in most Ã‚Âinstances the Abbott government has merely slowed the forecast growth in spending, which was unrealistic and unsustainable.
A template for a successful sales pitch could be how Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has managed to sell her reforms to the foreign aid program. Bishop has cleverly focused on comparing future funding under the Coalition with the funding delivered, not promised, by Labor. By stressing a “responsible, affordable and sustainable aid budget Bishop has outmanoeuvred her opponents, particularly the opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Tanya Ã‚ÂPlibersek.
The lesson here is that the citizenry will accept steep cuts if they are clearly explained and sold.
The danger for Labor is that the Coalition will use the many advantages of government to win the argument in the community about long-term benefits requiring short-term pain. If the Coalition is able to gain the upper hand in that debate the Opposition Leader will be stranded, having failed to defend the national interest and unable to produce any positive policies. If this eventuates, it could be fatal to Shorten’s leadership.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, July 5-6, 2014, Inquirer, p 24.