In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Economics Editor Ross Gittins portrays Tony Abbott as a political “chameleon” who went from being a soft “populist” before the election — backing Labor’s spending commitments, promising minimal cuts despite saying that the Budget deficit needed to be reversed, etc. — to “an inflexible ‘conviction politician’ who doesn’t seem much worried about whom he offends”.
What surprises me is how Abbott could change from being such a supremely pragmatic, vote-obsessed pollie in opposition to being so willing to alienate so many interest groups while in government.
Abbott seems to now be playing the harsh neoliberal ideologue by attacking certain disadvantaged groups (Gittins identifies pensioners, the young unemployed and university students), and predicts this will both cause him electoral pain and end up with his nastiest policies being voted down by the Senate.
In my view Gittins misunderstands what is going on.
The government’s lack of authority since being elected means Abbott sees little choice but to go “tough” in order to try to regain position. It’s kind of an exaggerated version of Howard’s deployment of the GST in 1997-8 (itself a massive volte-face) after it lost a whole section of its right flank to Hanson, and then found that Labor was starting to unexpectedly recover despite having been punished so resoundingly in 1996. There is some debate as to how well the GST served that aim, but Howard maintained that at least tax reform gave a floundering government something to advocate for.
The task is more urgent for Abbott because he had no honeymoon, and has since rapidly slid into negative territory on a 2PP basis (Abbott’s personal approval has always been low, and any boost he got from the election has long since evaporated). He also has to contend with a much more hostile Senate than Howard did, and which is hardening against any idea he has a “mandate” to push through his “broken promises”. This means that if the Senate won’t implement most of his program, it’s much more likely that Abbott will seriously consider a double dissolution. The alternative is the Senate further exposing his weakness by forcing him to back down. That would destroy his remaining authority and open up the possibility of electoral oblivion.
To be frank, given the predictable oppositional tactics from the ALP and Greens (and related groups outside parliament) so far, Abbott might just sneak things through with such an approach. Even a narrow victory, sacrificing seats but getting his Budget through a joint sitting on the basis of a clear agenda, would dramatically shift the political balance. Such a result is far from guaranteed, and less likely thanks to the way Abbott has frittered away authority by playing to a narrow right-wing rump with a series of silly culture war salvos, the “knights and dames” flop, and the hamfisted lead-up to the Budget where the “Budget emergency” was all but forgotten until the Commission of Audit report was belatedly released. Then there is the selling of a Budget that appears so grossly weighted against disadvantaged groups, so economically incoherent (it blows out the deficit well beyond when Labor said it would be fixed) and so ideologically divorced from the concerns of the wider public. Because Abbott has had to spend so much time keeping the internal dynamics of the Coalition satisfied, the public messaging has often come across as confused and contradictory — a mixing up of which audience a minister is speaking to at any one time.
The Abbott-Turnbull-Palmer-Bolt-Jones fiasco becomes more comprehensible in light of the preceding. Abbott is keen to deny Palmer the image of appearing to control the government’s agenda, and so has largely cut the former LNP maverick out of the loop. Turnbull’s dinner with Palmer was seen by the ideological Right as inflating Palmer’s standing relative to the government, and thereby downgrading their influence. The Right wants Palmer to vote with the government because he has to, not because some cosy deal has been made. Hence Bolt’s repeated sprays and then Jones’ remarkable interview with Turnbull. Both were intended to strengthen Abbott relative to an alternative “friendly with Clive” approach personified by loose cannon Turnbull. Yet by coming to his defence in the way they did, Bolt and Jones actually made Abbott look weaker, and more in need of saving by them. Yet Abbott also couldn’t then attack them, because so much of his government’s internal dynamics have been about playing to its “closest friends” on the Right.
But, I hear you ask, what about the revival of the Left that seems to be happening on the streets? Surely this promises to be the basis for defeating the Budget, and Abbott with it.
The key thing to recall is that Abbott won almost entirely on the basis that voters rejected the previous government, which suffered an excruciating crisis of authority mainly caused by the decline of Labor’s social base and its subsequent attempt to rebuild through its hollowed-out union-factional structures with Gillard. It may have gotten a lot of legislation through, but beyond that technocratic appeal it failed miserably on the politics. Perhaps most saliently, it was a defeat for Australia’s political Left, even that which exists outside Canberra. There was a decline in anti-government protest under Rudd and Gillard compared with the Howard years, and even the emergence of something quite disturbing: pro-government rallies organised by progressive campaigning organisations, most obviously around the carbon price, but also around the Gonski and NDIS reforms. Sure there were small minority counter-currents, and of course on refugees there were some more significant protests after Rudd announced his brutal PNG solution, but in fact the bulk of the Left had so closely aligned itself with the government that being “anti-Abbott” was all it had to play with.
The small wave of “anti-Abbott” and “Bust the Budget” protests in the last three months may be a step up from the Rudd-Gillard years but they pale in comparison to what happened under Howard (and even those had limited impact on political outcomes until Howard pulled out an anachronistic industrial relations agenda in his final term). While I have no problem with protests against the Budget, the political repetition-compulsion at work is striking. The primary focus remains on getting a nicer result in the political system, not on developing the capacity of ordinary people to mount their own social resistance to the political system. It’s Gillardism without Gillard, where an imaginary competent Left government is just waiting in the wings once Abbott is knocked over. It’s an illusion that can only be sustained if we avoid looking closely at the really existing ALP and Greens (something made harder by Palmer’s expertise in articulating the Left’s agendas better than the Left can).
Perhaps most ominously, the ALP accepts Abbott and Hockey’s main “national interest” argument: that balancing the Budget is essential and that ordinary people must sacrifice for that end. The Greens reject the “Budget emergency” talk, yet they have no alternative economics to put in its place, having long accepted fiscal responsibility. Ironically, it is billionaire Palmer with his high-growth, big spending government talk who presents a (partial) break from that logic.
Put simply, the Left has no credible political alternative on offer right now apart from more of what failed in 2010-13, and there have not been anything like the kind of social struggles we’ve seen in Europe, especially the Indignados movement in Spain. Those struggles have shifted the political possibilities away from simply more of the fracturing of previously stable political arrangements. As five-month-old Podemos has streaked to 15 percent in a national opinion poll following its breakthrough in the European elections, the potential for something new on the Left is much clearer than here. But in both Europe and here the dissolution of the old politics proceeds apace, with the prevailing anti-political mood now impossible to ignore.
Amidst all this, Abbott is preparing for a political confrontation where, for him, there has to be a clear outcome. Whether the result is clear or simply a descent into greater chaos, it is unlikely to stop the continuing degeneration of the political system. However, it is far from certain that in the short term he will necessarily fail by raising the stakes.