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Abbott's first days: Everything but the boats has been turned back

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Despite all the pre-election rhetoric and promises, Tony Abbott's first few weeks in power have been a chaotic schemozzle.

Dart Rort image courtesy Kiera Gorden

(Twitter meme circulating after Abbott's first few chaotic weeks via @KieraGorden)

Lest we forget

Remember how for the last three years, almost every utterance from the Coalition was laced with extreme negativity and righteous indignation, railing against the disaster of the Labor government? 

Remember how, as soon as the election date was announced by PM Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott’s negative style of abrasive, aggressive, politics evaporated overnight? Mr Negativity suddenly became Mr Positive; Action Man was ready to govern.

What Was Promised Before the Election

Prominent among Abbott’s criticisms of the then Government were asylum seeker boats, the economy and the carbon tax.

We were whipped into a frenzy of xenophobic fear over a relatively modest number of asylum seeker boats. Although lip service was paid to saving lives at sea, the real focus was on “border security.” The emergency was so pressing that it demanded a quasi-military response, ‘Operation Sovereign Borders,’ to solve it. Fear of “invasion”, not saving the lives of desperate people, was the clear subliminal message. How could anyone who values human rights possibly refer to seeking asylum as “illegal”? No mention of compassion, global refugee numbers or Indonesian sensitivities. 

Despite Australia carrying a AAA credit rating, awarded by all three major rating agencies, we were told our economy was on the verge of collapse because of wasteful government spending and catastrophic debt. No mention of the GFC or how Australia, almost alone among nations, had chalked up 22 consecutive years of economic growth. 

We were convinced that our electricity bills had blown out to crippling levels because of the carbon tax, threatening businesses and impoverishing families. No mention of climate change, the cost of upgrading the distribution network, or the compensation package.

For a while, the Coalition opposed even the most admired Labor initiatives – the NBN, the NDIS and the proposed Gonski Education Reforms – on the grounds of cost.

Abbott’s hyper-critical message was crystallised into simplistic slogans which were repeated like an audio loop. During the election campaign, the old negative messages were simply rebadged as positives. He never let us forget the central three: cut the debt, stop the boats and abolish the carbon tax.

It all seemed so simple then.

Backpedalling

Just weeks after the election, it’s crunch time and the Coalition’s performance is already looking decidedly shabby. Every week, we see reversals, retractions and retreats from the former positions of the Coalition. 

Even before the election, Abbott was backpedalling.

Labor’s National Disability Insurance Scheme and its education reforms had such widespread public support that to continue to oppose them was going to be counter-productive.

Overnight, the most popular Labor policies became Coalition policies. Well, that’s what we were told anyway. Now the election is over, don’t be surprised to see the backpedalling morph into double backwards somersaults.

Another retrograde measure was to water down visionary initiatives. The NBN would not proceed in its optimal form. Instead, a cheap stop-gap arrangement would be substituted. Think of the Sydney Opera House. Back in the 1960s, the Liberals were carping about the uncertainty of the cost (AU$102 million blown out from $7 million) and the waste in the construction of Utzon’s revolutionary design. If the present lot had been building it, we’d now have a large galvanised iron shed standing on Bennelong Point.

Leaving aside the huge cultural value of this architectural icon, the genuine article has just been valued as contributing AU$775 million to the national economy each year and holds a cultural and exponential value of AU$4.6 billion, according to Deloitte Access Economics. Truly visionary policies are usually worth the cost.

Post election, the new government has been going full speed in reverse, dismantling important Labor initiatives, returning the country to discredited by-gone practices, resiling from brash pre-election posturing.

Even before the ministry was sworn in, the disciplined “positive” messages faded away. It should have come as no surprise to see how quickly Mr Negativity reverted to type. The action words were: ‘SACK,’ ‘CUT,’ ‘AXE,’ ‘SCRAP,’ ‘OVERTURN,’ ‘ABOLISH,’ and ‘REPEAL.’ And that was just Day one.

In fact Abbott’s very first step as PM was backwards:

"As soon as I return to Parliament House from the swearing-in ceremony, I will instruct the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to prepare the carbon tax repeal legislation."

In 2007, Labor’s first action had been to acknowledge climate change by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Abbott’s other answer to the increasingly urgent need to respond to global warming was to abolish the Climate Commission and green energy initiatives.

Back to the Howard Era

Public Service Sackings

Australians could be forgiven for thinking their country has returned to the Howard era of the 1990s.

Until that time, incoming governments respected the professionalism of the public service. As Mungo MacCallum has recalled, the new governments of Menzies, Whitlam and Fraser abided by the conventions of a permanent, impartial bureaucracy. Although Hawke put an end to permanency, he didn’t challenge the impartiality of individuals or dismiss them.

In MacCallum’s words:

'It was John Howard who broke the mould, openly seeking to stack the service with his own supporters - not merely Liberals, but Howardists.'

It led to the appalling politicisation of the Commonwealth Public Service.

Abbott mimicked his mentor’s practices immediately.

He peremptorily sacked Dr Don Russell, head of the Department of Innovation, Industry Science and Research; Blair Comley, the head of the Resources, Energy and Tourism Department; and Andrew Metcalfe, head of the Agriculture Department.

Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson has been forced to depart next year. Michelle Grattan has interpreted these dismissals as

'... a dose of spite, "getting" people associated with "them".'

Sacking also serves as a form of intimidation for other public servants who know that 15,000 of their jobs are seen as a waste of public money. We know Abbott relishes intimidation. Just ask Julia Gillard or Barbara Ramjan.

Climate Change Denial 

Like Howard, Abbott will try to ignore climate change. But he too has been forced into a token response by the overwhelming scientific evidence for human induced global warming.

The circumstantial evidence that the Coalition’s Direct Action Policy is tokenism is compelling. Not a single scientist or economist of any significant standing has supported it.

Abbott is surrounded by climate change deniers, such as his business advisor Maurice Newman, his spiritual mentor Cardinal George Pell and major donors to the Liberal Party such as mining magnate Gina Rinehart. All are notorious opponents of action to deal with carbon pollution.

After Abbott displaced him as leader in 2009, Malcolm Turnbull confirmed the extent of the loopiness in his party over the issue: 

'...the fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion 'climate change is crap' or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, it's cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left wing conspiracy to de-industrialise the world.'

Now that the legislation to repeal the carbon tax has been drafted, Abbott has gone back in time even further, reverting to his days in the seminary.  He has sanctimoniously called on Labor to “repent.” Their penance will be to repeal the tax to atone for their mortal sin of pricing carbon. Mercifully, Shorten escaped having to say a few Hail Mary’s as well.

The Restoration of Privilege

Throughout the Howard Era, the wealthiest in our society were the principal beneficiaries of the turn of the century boom. While Labor governments have a proud record of giving the poor and powerless a hand up, the Howard government was unashamedly elitist. Now privilege is making a comeback. 

The first to benefit was big business, as attested by Abbott’s triumphal victory declaration:

“Australia is open for business.”

After mining companies donated $4.1 million to the Coalition, a heavily perspiring Joe Hockey announced that the abolition of the mining tax would rob $3.7 billion from federal coffers over four years. $3.7 billion.

Not bad for an ineffective tax. Yet the Coalition obviously felt the “budget emergency” could afford it. 

For the miners, it was a canny investment. For $4.1 million in expenditure, they got $3.7 billion in savings, which makes good business sense. 

Another $1.8 billion in government revenue will be foregone by restoring salary packaging for car purchases as a tax dodge for the well-heeled. 

Under Abbott’s extravagant Paid Parental Leave Scheme, a woman earning up to $150,000 will receive full pay for six months while she is on maternity leave. With the other hand, he’s taking allowances away from single parents, and franking credits from superannuants — hitting workers and retirees hard.

Already, since 1979, the share of income going to the top one per cent of Australians has doubled. That trend looks to accelerate in the next three years.

The Losers

Meanwhile, low income earners will carry the bulk of the burden of Coalition largesse to the rich and of cuts to the budget.

Parents of school age children will have their schoolkids’ bonus taken away. That’s $4.641 billion. Low income earners on less than $37,000 a year, principally women, will no longer have their superannuation contribution topped up for retirement — another $3.72 billion.

Even the paltry supplement of $210 a year for singles or $350 for couples on the Newstart allowance will be whipped away.

Workers will see the expected boost of $1.64 million to their superannuation contributions evaporate as a result of the postponement of increases in employer contributions. 

Most vulnerable of all, the victims of extreme poverty overseas will be hit by the cruel $4.5 billion cut to the foreign-aid budget of one of the world’s richest nations.

But the bad news doesn't stop there. Michael Pascoe has shown that these cuts trim only 0.375 percent from the budget. So, it’s reasonable to assume that Abbott’s Commission of Audit will follow Costello’s 1996 blueprint to provide an excuse for breaking election promises.

Undermining the Status of Women

Howard’s resistance to the advancement of women in the party endures in the Abbott government. Julie Bishop is the only woman in Cabinet. Chris Bowen summed it up as well as anybody:

"The cabinet of Afghanistan now has more women in it."

(Afghanistan has three women in its cabinet.)

Women in cabinet compared

The symbolic impact of ignoring talented women has been clearly demonstrated by the unleashing of a wave of sexism on social media. One has only to read the long list of misogynistic comments among the followers of Andrew Bolt on Twitter. For instance:

'A predominantly male cabinet will probably also function better as a team, which is what the country needs.'

Overturning Same Sex Marriage in the ACT

Abbott’s Attorney General George Brandis has already indicated that he will mount a high Court Challenge against the Same Sex Marriage Act in the ACT, despite this having clear majority support nationwide.

Backdowns, Backflips and Backpayments

Back Downs with Apologies

On the vexed issue of Abbott’s unilateral announcement of a list of extraordinary measures to stop asylum seeker boats, Julie Bishop was left to deal with the consequences. She announced on Sky News:

"We're not asking for Indonesia's permission, we're asking for their understanding.” 

After her meeting with Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Minister over the issue, she glossed the meeting over as "very cordial", "positive and very productive."

However, Dr Marty Natalegawa didn’t see it that way at all. He said he told Bishop that he strongly rejected the policy. The Jakarta Post reported that Dr Natalegawa criticised plans to pay millions of dollars in bounties to Indonesian villagers for information on people-smugglers.

Head of the Indonesian parliamentary foreign affairs commission, Mahfudz Siddiq, condemned the Coalition plan to buy unseaworthy fishing boats that could be used to ferry asylum-seekers as

"... degrading and offensive to the dignity of Indonesians."

Abbott was forced to eat humble pie when he met President Yudhoyono in Jakarta. We know little of the detail of what was discussed to defuse the tension but we can be pretty sure of a back down because the controversial measures were never mentioned again.

On his return, Abbott and the Murdoch press tarted the meeting up as a diplomatic triumph — an historic landmark in regional co-operation.

Jonathan Green was more realistic:

'And so Tony Abbott is applauded on his return for defusing bilateral tensions that he more than anybody had created.'

Then there was Morrison’s subsequent denial that the Coalition ever had a policy of towing back the boats, accusing the media of misrepresentation. It didn’t take long for the media to rebut this blatant piece of revisionism. 

In 2011, during an interview with MTR Radio, Abbott said of towing boats back:

“...it's been done in the past, successfully done in the past and what was done in the past can be done again in the future.”

Michael Keenan, now Justice Minister, made it categorical on Sky News in Oct 2011. He proudly posted the Coalition’s boast on youtube himself:

And so to Brunei where Abbott was forced to apologise to Malaysian PM, Najib Razak. During a hostile 2012 parliamentary debate, Abbott disparaged the Malaysian government, denigrating it for dictating Australia's immigration policy and then attacked its human rights record.

The PM’s first foray into foreign affairs descended into Abbott’s Asian Apology Tour.

Backflips

Long an opponent of “selling the farm,” Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce says he has changed his mind about Indonesian investment in Australian cattle properties after discussing the issue with Northern Territory producers.

Joyce has almost certainly been told by the PM’s office not to stand in the way of Indonesian land acquisition as a sop to the sensibilities of Jakarta after his “stop the boats” fiasco.

As Independent Australia revealed, Abbott intimated that he would spend his first week as PM in Arnhem Land. Just a month before the election, he told the Yolngu People:

“…. why shouldn’t I, if you will permit me; spend my first week as prime minister, should that happen, on this, on your, country?”

As he was speaking without notes, perhaps it was what John Howard called a “non-core” promise. Or perhaps, as he told Kerry O’Brien,

“ … in the heat of discussion you go a little bit further than you would if it was absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted."

Whatever the reason, that visit never eventuated. Again, he was mouthing off and not delivering.

Backpayments for rorting (with no apology)

An investigation by Fairfax Media has uncovered an orgy of rorting of politicians’ allowances. The major culprits have been the Coalition, including the Prime Minister. 

While admitting the dubious claims, Coalition frontbenchers have indignantly denied any rorting. It was all in the interpretation of the rules, you see. Most members of the public have little doubt of what the handbook covering MP’s travel entitlements means by [IA emphasis]:

'... parliamentarians may claim travel entitlements in most circumstances only for parliamentary, electorate or official business …'

George Brandis and Barnaby Joyce have denied any wrongdoing after reports that they used over $3,000 in travel expenses from taxpayer funds to attend the wedding of radio presenter Michael Smith in 2011.

Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce and Teresa Gambaro claimed more than $12,000 in travel expenses for a lavish wedding in India as guests of Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart.

After initially denying any inappropriate claims, Scott Morrison has repaid $354 in expenses claimed for a stay at Melbourne’s Crown hotel, when he attended a wedding in 2011.

Mr Abbott also confirmed he repaid $1,095 spent in travelling to the wedding of former colleague Sophie Mirabella seven years ago. He also paid back $609.10 worth of expenses he claimed to attend the 2006 nuptials of Peter Slipper, the former Liberal turned Independent.

He also repaid $9,400 wrongly claimed to go on tour to promote his Battlelines book. Then there were the sporting events – an unrepaid $1300 to compete in the 2011 Port Macquarie Ironman event; the claim to compete in the 2012 Coffs Coast cycle challenge.

In 2012, Western Australian Liberal MP, Don Randall and his wife travelled to Cairns with his wife for the sole purpose of purchasing a private investment property.  He claimed $5,259 of taxpayers’ money, maintaining the trip was “electorate business.” His electorate of Canning is on the other side of the country, 3,446 kilometres away. Abbott now asserts the Randall has since released a statement that it was to discuss “electorate business” with Government Whip Warren Entsch.  Entsch refused to give details of what was discussed and no-one has explained why a phone call wouldn’t have sufficed, nor why he felt it necessary to take his wife.

Two months before the Cairns trip, Randall claimed $371 for a trip listed as 'sittings of parliament'.  The trip was to Melbourne. 

It’s reassuring to know that Randall is a member of the parliamentary committee that oversees MPs’ travel allowances.

Unwinding Environmental Protection

The revoking of our newly established marine parks is already high on the Coalition agenda.

Their promise to “cut Green Tape” by handing environmental scrutiny back to the states threatens to turn back the clock to an age of environmental raping and pillaging. The NSW Coalition government is already permitting recreational shooting in National Parks. 

The Newman LNP government in Queensland has opened National Parks to other damaging recreational pursuits and the grazing of stock

We’ve been through all of this before, with the Franklin Dam fiasco and Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s plan to drill for oil on the Great Barrier Reef.

Such activities are totally incompatible with the conservation values of National Parks. Their purpose is to totally preserve ecologically sensitive areas for species survival and for scientific purposes. Grazing, tourism developments, hunting and trail bike riding are completely incompatible with those objectives.

If a conservation battle is won, it is only a temporary victory, but if it is lost, it is lost forever.     

Back to a Secret State

The increasing of government secrecy under Abbott is both a major issue and a major topic. Abbott has been incrementally whittling away our right to know. It is so important a matter that it warrants more space devoted to it than is possible here. For that reason, it will be dealt with in a separate article, coming soon.

A Reactionary Future

Australia is fast becoming a land where ignorance and propaganda are embraced while factual knowledge, science and political wisdom are ignored or ridiculed; where our natural heritage is destroyed or permanently compromised for short term material gain; where the kind of xenophobic paranoia that spawned the White Australia Policy elbows aside humanitarian concerns for the victims of poverty, war and tragedy; where admiration of wealth, greed and exploitation trumps our human values of compassion, equality and fairness. 

This is not merely conservatism.  It is verging on the reactionary.

WOUND UP: SCOTT CLARKE'S TAKE ON ABBOTT'S PERFORMANCE SO FAR:

(This video was produced with the input and co-operation of IA.)

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