The opposition has been trying to switch its focus to the budget, but events have conspired against it. Cory Bernardi’s homophobia put the spotlight back on Tony Abbott’s social views.
What do you think of the opposition’s new strategy?
“What new strategy?” I hear many of you reply. That’s the new strategy that if you’re not here in Parliament House or watching very closely from afar, you’re likely to have missed. It’s about how the government has lost control of the nation’s finances because of falling tax revenues and a series of spending commitments, from Gonski to new submarines.
It’s been building through this session of Parliament, with a series of variations in question time on Joe Hockey rising to demand Wayne Swan explain how he will fund his “$120 billion black hole”, to which Swan rises to attack Hockey’s “$70 billion black hole”. Or, commonly, “crater”. The days of Kim Beazley’s “$10 billion black hole” look positively benign.
Whatever the financial size of the abyss, it’s also sucking in common sense. Yesterday Swan insisted the opposition could “huff and puff but they are not going to blow their crater away”. Yes, the nation’s Treasurer, Wayne “I so was not reading from that document” Swan actually said that. As a wag pointed out on Twitter, blowing a crater away would just leave a bigger crater.
Oh wait, maybe that was Swan’s point.
Away from the Parliamentary battle of the black holes — let us pray they don’t combine into a vast super fiscal black hole that swallows the entire budget — Joe Hockey outlined the issue to the Coalition joint party room on Tuesday, predicting a fall in revenue of $20-25 billion and claiming the government would try to cook the books by changing public service accounting treatments.
The fiscal focus has a couple of advantages. It’s less personal than the opposition’s incessant attacks on the Prime Minster’s honesty, which as a rich vein of voter sentiment might be looking a little played out. It’s less at war with basic facts, like the predictions of a carbon price-borne apocalypse. It will also serve as a spine-stiffener for the insufficiently fiscally rigorous in the Coalition, whose numbers include, but aren’t limited to, the Nationals. There are real questions about softening corporate tax revenue, although nothing a government with a steady hand and a willingness to pursue savings should be too troubled by (though the same can’t be said for the state governments).
Alas, despite some enthusiastic assistance from The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, the strategy has barely registered. Partly for reasons over which the opposition has no control — the whole tone of politics has been muted with Julia Gillard’s bereavement and the succession of funerals for our soldiers from Afghanistan, which the PM and Abbott have attended, keeping them out of Parliament.
And then, yesterday, because of Cory Bernardi, a loathsome individual convinced of his own political genius, who has peddled some particularly offensive views on any number of issues. Now he’s been banished to the backbench, most likely for a long, long spell, although he remains chair of the Standing Committee of Senator’s Interests, in which position he has bottled up any action on the code of conduct for parliamentarians proposed by Rob Oakeshott.
Bernardi’s real sin, from Tony Abbott’s perspective, was to turn attention back on exactly the issue that Abbott wants to get away from: his social views, which Labor has exploited to seeming good effect. Almost 60% of voters think Abbott is “narrow-minded”, according to this week’s Essential Report. That includes 32% of Liberal voters. Some 53% think he’s intolerant. And there was Bernardi uttering homophobic drivel. Anything less than dismissing him was going to reinforce exactly the case that Labor has been working to make about him.
So, today, we return to something more like politics as usual. Abbott did the decent thing and made sure the first question yesterday was not to the PM, who’d sat down in tears moments before. It’ll be back on today. But Parliament is rising this evening for two weeks. The opposition’s fiscal attack will have to wait.