Best Australian Political Cartoon 2014, from the introduction
Tony Abbott’s Coalition came to power promising no surprises, no excuses. They would stop the boats, axe the tax and restore trust in government. Relax everyone, the adults are back in charge. But opposition is a piece of cake, government is tough. And slogans — no matter how often repeated — don’t guarantee sound policy.
The Coalition’s honeymoon was short. Indonesian spying allegations, the loss of Arthur Sinodinos through ICAC, the MPs entitlements’ row, Christopher Pyne’s education funding turnarounds, and the government’s laissez faire attitude to Australian manufacturing all took their toll within months. The Coalition’s rapid plunge in the polls suggested that, for voters, it was more a desperate need to end the Labor chaos rather than a wholehearted embrace of Tony’s world view that put him so decisively into power.
And Labor. As the cliché goes, the furniture was saved (Dyson p17). Whether this was due to, or in spite of, Kevin Rudd’s resurrection and chaotic thought-bubble election campaign is a moot point. But the problem was, how could they elect a new leader without talking about the achievements and failings of their previous two prime ministers and reopen the wounds of a tragi-comic enmity in the process. In the end, and out of character, the ballot was more akin to a love-in than a civil war bloodletting (Golding p16). Labor’s most recognisable faceless man, Bill Shorten, became the new face of Labor over the heart-and-soul candidate Anthony Albanese. Shorten immediately promised a major reform of the structure and processes of the party free from factional strife and excessive union influence.
Just in case Bill doesn’t deliver on reform Abbott generously provided a stimulus in the form of a royal commission into union corruption, guaranteeing Shorten would stay on the defensive (Pryor p23).
Stopping the boats was at the centre of Abbott’s pre-election promises. Towbacks, mid-ocean transfers and detention on board naval vessels became the order of the day. The boats seem to have stopped. But how would we know? The government drew a veil of secrecy over ‘operational matters’ and has simply stopped talking about it. The Orwellian motto of Operation Sovereign Boarders, according to Moir, should be ignorance is strength (p40). For Tandberg (p45 ) the Manus Island riots and the death of Reza Barati demonstrated that brutality was an integral part of the strategy of deterrence and not simply an unwelcome side effect or the mismanagement of the facility.
While we were prepared to disregard Indonesia’s objections to our policy, Sri Lanka has become our new best friend, despite an appalling human rights record. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, someone suggests that Cambodia would be a good destination for the unwanted. As a partner in this experiment in cruelty, Labor has no intellectual or moral grounds from which to counter the policy (Pope p32).
Sovereignty, and the control of Australia’s borders, might be central to the argument about our treatment of asylum seekers. But our power is not quite as absolute when it comes to the operations of global corporations, whose comings and goings have such a massive effect on our national life and economy. Pope implies (p39) that our obsession with border security is little more than a small boys’ game — a theatrical distraction from the massive loss of sovereignty precipitated by the judgements of global capital.
Holden and Toyota, the last remnants of our car industry announced their withdrawal from Australia accelerating the decline of Australian manufacturing. As Spooner’s brilliant riff on the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner shows (p69), the albatross was killed without compunction on Abbott’s watch, but it is simply the endgame of free market reforms initiated by Paul Keating (p74).
If the age of entitlement is over for non-government approved ‘rent-seeking’ corporates like SPC or Holden, the lower orders are certainly in the cross hairs (Tandberg p108). Joe Hockey clearly believes that a new government has to be prepared to risk its political capital if it is to achieve significant reform. Claiming a bigger than expected budget black hole, Hockey talked up the debt emergency and initiated a radical budget that rapidly came to look more like a massive political gamble than a calculated investment in the future.
In Abbott’s clumsy metaphor, (a gift to Golding p143), the budgetary fire truck has to knock over fences to get to the fire. The problem is that those fences are things which many Australians hold dear – the ABC, Medicare, education, age pension, a welfare safety net etc. Aussies aren’t Americans and haven’t wholeheartedly swallowed the minimal government line. Indeed, the rhetoric of lifters, leaners and whingers, was anathema to many, and Hockey’s budget has managed to unite the country against the Coalition (Knight p147).
Whether you think the budget was an act of bad faith or the delivery of a more fundamental promise is a question of who you paid most attention to before the election: Abbott’s comforting ‘no surprises’ promises; or Hockey’s more consistent rhetoric on ending the age of entitlement. In fact, Hockey’s plan for a long term reorientation of the economy and society was there for all to see.
We enter Abbott’s second year with a new and unruly senate and the spectacle of the government trying to negotiate the unpredictability and ambitions of Clive Palmer and his PUPs – the very antithesis of the political professional we so often complain about. We wanted regular people – now we’ve got them.
The messy deals with independents and minor parties which Abbott promised would be a thing of the past are the new reality. Witness the chaotic repeal of the carbon tax. Some of Gillard’s much derided negotiating skills might have proved useful.
The new senate has produced the weirdest spectacle of the political year: Palmer, the mining magnate/climate sceptic with a dodgy environmental record now best pals with Al Gore, the world’s foremost climate evangelist. It’s a win win - pragmatic Clive gets to stick it to his Liberal nemesis, and Gore gets to save a bit of Labor’s climate change policy (Leak p183).
Never in recent history has a prime minister assumed office with so much invested in the sanctity of his word. But it didn’t take long for Abbott’s ‘there will be no surprises under a Government I lead’ to appear hollow. Gillard’s carbon tax backflip, for which Abbott made her pay so dearly, began to look like a minor act of bad faith by comparison.
It’s too early to talk about a one term government but it is unprecedented to hit the polling skids quite so early on. In Kudelka’s wonderful cartoon the Coalition is increasingly looking like a good opposition that has lost its way (p106). The Rudd Gillard chaos may be over, but welcome to the new chaos.