We are very concerned about the risk that savings are falling too heavily on some families and young people trying to find work.
—Jennifer Westacott, Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia
I don’t think even the colleagues realise the extent to which Tony has locked in a strategy from which he cannot turn back. … We have nowhere to go back to if it doesn’t get up. The budget strategy would be buggered.
—Unnamed senior federal Liberal
Spare a thought for Tony Abbott.
Because unless you understand — nay, really feel — his predicament with this year’s Budget then you will not be able to get whether he’s pursuing a full-blooded, hard Right, neoliberal, one-sided class war style assault on the mass of ordinary people or a desperate, crazy-brave, crash-or-crash-through strategy to restore lost authority and ward off the threat to the Coalition’s fragile 2013 patchwork of voter support posed by Clive Palmer’s dramatic ascent.
Now, what I’m asking from you here is not sympathy. It would be hard to find many people capable of that in relation to Abbott, as opinion polls before and after the election have made clear. But unless you have some empathy, some ability to imagine what it’s like to walk in his shoes and that of his government, then you will fail to grasp the government’s problems and instead of hurrying along its dissolution you might accidentally help it to a new lease of life, however improbable that may seem now.
Well, how did we get here?
Let’s recap briefly what’s been happening in Australian politics in recent years. There has been dramatic hollowing out of the social bases of the established political system (most especially in the decay of Laborism’s trade union roots), resulting in growing detachment of the political class from society, narrowing of programmatic differences between the major parties, and the rise of a powerful anti-political popular mood. This has led to growing electoral volatility and a decline in the proportion of votes commanded by the established parties. Abbott’s brief time at the top has accelerated recognition of anti-politics. As Possum recently noted on Twitter, “The rest of Australia has become like Qld in they way they relate to politics” — utter contempt for politicians as a group, massive swings, and voting against rather than for parties and governments, etc.
On the Left, Labor’s problems allowed space for the rise of The Greens. On the Right the Liberals and Nationals experienced organizational decay and internal brawling after their raison d’être as anti-Laborist bastions was rendered irrelevant by Laborism’s embrace of the neoliberal project in the 1980s. Labor’s agonies were briefly interrupted by Kevin Rudd’s leadership, which stood against Laborism and connected with the mood against the “old politics”. But with his climate surrender of 2010, the union-factional forces in the party reasserted themselves only to prove definitively that their project was moribund. Labor watched its support plunge to depths not seen since the Depression.
The wider Left tended to buy into part or all of Labor’s self-justifications that its problems were the result of Abbott’s evil genius, the machinations of all-powerful mining billionaires, the propaganda power of the Murdoch empire, and (most problematically) a vast pool of reaction within the suburban working class, expressing itself in racist hatred of asylum seekers and misogynistic rejection of our first female prime minister. This led to an almost uncritical view of the politics of the ALP-Greens alliance, as well as a gross overestimation of the Right’s strengths.
In reality, Abbott won mostly because he was not Labor (or the Greens). He was able to tie Labor’s lack of authority and loss of control of the political agenda to his and Hockey’s argument on “debt and deficits” — portrayed as a chaotic loss of control over the national finances. The real source of Labor’s problems was not debt but declining authority based in the breakdown of Laborism. The same goes for Abbott’s “border sovereignty”, “leadership chaos” and “broken promises” mantras. That is, Labor’s real structural problems lent credence tovarious stories told to explain the mess, but especially the economic tale in a post-GFC period of growing anxiety about the end of the mining construction boom.
Abbott also had to keep his own side under tight control because the hard Right agendas of the Coalition’s core supporters (whether free market IPAers or socially conservative culture warriors) were even more unpopular than the Opposition Leader himself. In the end, by keeping their heads down, the Coalition parties were able to beat back the threat posed by Rudd’s return, even if the detailed results and sudden rise of the Palmer United Party suggested that the headline 2PP figure hid the weakness of Abbott’s position.
Coalition drift and malaise
Now we can understand why Abbott’s is the poorest performing new government in the polls in 40 years. Its various bizarre culture war forays may have kept some of the hard Right happy temporarily but they also underlined the irrelevance of much of that agenda to modern Australian society, and in the end allowed the government to drift — perhaps most seriously with Abbott’s “knights and dames”. The latter was the point at which even the right-wing commentariat started to get nerves. Abbott’s tin ear on MP expenses, interventions into domestic politics by the Indonesians, and the Grand Guignol of ICAC didn’t help either. Unhappiness with his Paid Parental Leave scheme led someone in the inner circle to leak the “deficit levy” to pressure their leader, and the lead-up to Budget day was characterized by an unprecedented sense of chaos. All this while polling headed further south and community anxiety was heightened by the Commission of Audit’s wishlist.
But, as I wrote of the government’s problems in December:
None of this means that Abbott can’t still do nasty things, especially to vulnerable groups like asylum seekers, and especially to try to address his lack of authority. His supporters may even demand a big bang reform package to stem the malaise, one that he will feel unable to refuse.
This is what is coming to pass in the shape of Hockey’s Budget, which is much more contradictory than the cries of class warfare from the Left suggest, but which is characterized by the imposition of especially destructive attacks on a series of highly disadvantaged social groups, including retired workers, the young unemployed and poor people with health problems — attacks which Hockey in particular has brazenly and callously defended.
Rather than being a coherent government in a confident position to attack multiple groups in civil society, Abbott and co have decided to pick some ugly fights to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with. In this sense they are betting on getting assistance from their few remaining political advantages — Labor’s continuing disarray and navel gazing, the willingness by most left-wing civil society organisations (e.g. unions, peak welfare groups, NGOs) to accept their constituencies must play a part in “budget repair”, and the still manageable threat posed by Clive Palmer.
One major misapprehension on the Left is that the especially vicious parts of the Budget are about some kind of consistent neoliberal-austerity program. In fact there is little consistent about the Budget, which is a mix of mild stimulus, infrastructure spending, temporary retention of Gonski and NDIS as promised, a pared down PPL, further liberalization of higher education that builds on past Coalition and Labor shifts, 16,500 job cuts in the APS (a relatively small increase on what Labor’s “efficiency dividend” had been expected to deliver), and a push to “recycle” (privatise and buy) assets. The most important budgetary move is a staggering cut of $80 billion to the states for hospitals and schools, intended to rearrange federal-state responsibilities.
The actual economics of the Budget have little to do with its newly “hardline” politics, with projections that a return to surplus will be much later than the dates Abbott and Hockey repeatedly castigated Labor for, and a careful eye on not strangling weak post-GFC growth. This is not über-Thatcherism designed to reshape society, but a pragmatic attempt to keep the economy sputtering along while renovating government balance sheets (in particular by palming off responsibilities to the states) enough for “future-proofing” operations ahead; i.e. for throwing money at another financial crisis.
So what exactly is the newfound “toughness” about? To show that the government has a clear agenda it is willing to take a risk to drive through, in the “national interest”. In this way the malaise, the aimlessness, and the loss of authority of the last eight months are to be corrected. A big political confrontation where Abbott beats his opponents by a slender margin — perhaps even losing a swag of MPs in a double dissolution — has become more attractive to the government than attempting to rebuild its political position piecemeal. Given how badly Gillard’s patient approach fared politically, this is not an insane assessment. Abbott’s favoured political options are shaped and constrained by what has come before. As Laura Tingle argues, Rudd and Gillard’s inability to crush the Greens threat is informing Abbott’s approach to PUP, keen to deny the ex-LNP maverick any appearance of controlling the government’s plans. And they have set up a stoush with the states in order to lay the ground for major changes to the federation, perhaps including a big increase to the GST.
The problem for Abbott is, of course, that such a high-risk move may end up being “not so much about control as it is about losing it”.
Labor’s campaign against Abbott’s sinister deceit tax (debt levy) that it, er, won’t be voting against
A weak, disoriented Left
This explains why Shorten’s response — despite appearing more spirited and less acquiescent than previous efforts by Labor oppositions — is so misdirected and inadequate. Shorten puffs up the horrors of the Budget (“a Budget that goes out of its way to create an underclass”) rather than exposing its contradictions, and focuses on Abbott’s “lies” and “broken promises” rather than the government’s brittleness. While he rejects the idea there is a Budget emergency he then negates himself with a commitment to the “task” of balancing the Budget, thereby conceding the core of Hockey’s argument. Voters may not like the harshness of Hockey’s measures, or that they involve broken promises, but they are more likely to accept such policies if they think they’re necessary.
Christine Milne at least does fully reject the “Budget emergency” myth but also falls into the trap of seeing the cuts as driven by some kind of radical social program (“a vicious attack on the fabric of our society…driven from the Institute of Public Affairs, from Rupert Murdoch”), and is keen to spruik her preferred taxes to address the (non-existent) problem. Rather than calling for Abbott’s targets to resist she portrays them as passive victims needing the Greens to rescue them: “[T]he full weight is carried by those who have no power to fight back — the young, the sick, pensioners, students and those least able to shoulder it”. Her claim that voters were “conned” by Abbott’s spin neither fits with his pre-election unpopularity nor the general distrust of all politicians that dominates among the public.
Both Milne and Shorten base their threats to vote against parts of the Budget on exactly the kind of moral outrage and warnings of doom that utterly failed to save the Left from heavy defeat against such an unimpressive opponent last September. And while both challenge Abbott to “bring it on”, only Clive Palmer calmly deals with Abbott’s bluffs as if he understands the latter’s weakness, as he did in this remarkable performance on ABC’s Lateline last week.
I never imagined that the Prime Minister would do such things that he’s done in this budget to Australians and I think if he’s capable of doing that, his judgment may be right off and he might go to an election politically, but that’s a matter for him. Certainly it would be much better for the Australian people to decide.
Palmer has an acute ability to mobilise anti-political sentiment and to put a more compelling case for some of the Left’s historic preoccupations than the ALP and Greens seem capable of making. Palmer doesn’t just brush aside the debt crisis as a “fairy tale”; he also argues for an economic approach of large-scale stimulus, something not even the Greens have dared to float. Perhaps most importantly, he paints the Coalition’s nastiness as driven not by grand plans to reshape social relations but self-serving ideological fixations out of touch with the public interest. And if initial polling suggesting that more people think the Budget will be bad for the economy than good, this kind of argument may be pushing at an open door.
This is not to say that Palmer’s project is socially progressive or radical. Far from it. It is much more a vehicle for delivering on his business interests and getting revenge on his former political allies. Rather, he presents a sharp political contrast to business as usual. More significantly, if the WA special election is any guide, he seems to pull support from both Liberal and Labor voters. It is no wonder that he figures so much in Abbott’s calculations right now.
This, in the end, is the central point: Abbott’s problems are not just the product of his personal unpopularity (publicly and internally) and many missteps since September, but of how the structural crisis of politics has played out for the Right. Just because he is in trouble doesn’t mean the Left’s structural problems will be resolved by default. The fact Palmer is able to both unsettle Abbott and outflank a Left that has to date made only minor gains from the government’s problems is a sign of things to come, one that progressives ignore at their peril.
Having set the scene, over the coming weeks I plan to write some briefer posts developing an analysis of the changing balance of political forces.