If you believe the press gallery, the national political debate has undergone a tectonic shift from what the current Gillard government should be doing to what Tony Abbott will do when — not if — he claims his rightful role as Australia’s next PM.
On ABC radio in Adelaide last week, a rancorous debate ensued between fierce Abbott critic Susan Mitchell and former Joe Hockey staffer Chris Kenny on how Tony would lead the nation. Earlier this month Paul Kelly wrote a glowing profile of the incoming PM and talked of “Labor’s last hope” in appealing to doubts over his charge’s “character” before he inevitably ascends to high office. And last Wednesday, the mostly sensible Age was pronouncing the prospect of Abbott as PM as an “odds-on” bet, although importantly the paper didn’t put a time frame on it.
The “after the deluge” narrative is now one of the most popular themes in the corridors of Parliament House.
At a joint press conference to celebrate the passage of the government’s carbon tax legislation, Greg Combet and Wayne Swan were forced to mull a hypothetical scenario in which an Abbott-led government had repealed the tax and was confronted with a hostile Senate. The theme was taken up later on Sky News’ The Nation, during an intense roundtable discussion on whether Labor would do the graceful thing and acquiesce to a WorkChoices-style upper house capitulation — thereby nixing the need for a double dissolution.
Now, you’d think that a responsible PM-in-waiting would have a full suite of fully costed policies ready to go with the change of government possibly just months away. But in a rare moment of pragmatism during a speech to the Libs’ federal council in June Abbott admitted “oppositions lack the resources to model and cost detailed and systematic tax changes”. But as the press gallery is finally starting to point out, is that enough to excuse the fact that much of these platforms are less policy, more thought bubble?
- Free trade: As Katharine Murphy explained last week (she was embedded with Tone in the Top End) Abbott reckons he will cool talks on a China free trade agreement because of doubts over ”to what extent China is a market economy”. That might worry ASEAN, with whom we have a free trade agreement, which comprises such rolled-gold free enterprise systems as Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam, or oil sheikdoms of the Gulf States, with whom we’re negotiating an FTA. Instead, he’ll pursue one with Japan — a country forced to slash interest rates to zero to prop up flagging demand in a sick economy that has been in structural decline for decades.
- Climate change: To reach the bipartisan political goal of reducing carbon emissions by 5% by 2020, Abbott has signed a “blood oath” to confiscate carbon property rights and will junk the ETS as “the first instruction to the public service”, and the Coalition has threatened the renewables industry with yanking any government investment out of new energy projects. Instead, an Abbott government would plant an unspecified number of trees — perhaps “20 million” — and pay farmers $8-20 a tonne to bury carbon (a figure farmers themselves say is too little to justify doing it and which independent experts say is inadequate by a factor of four). Abbott will get the Department of Climate Change to produce a white paper on the issue before sacking all of its employees at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in redundancy payments. Labor says Abbott’s related “claw back” of carbon tax compensation would strip those earning below $80,000 a year of $300 in tax cuts, with 3.5 million pensioners missing out on a similar amount. Abbott responds by saying he’s committed to tax cuts, but hasn’t provided any detail.
- Asylum seekers: Abbott will apparently send boat people to Nauru or maybe get the Navy to tow illegal vessels to the edge of Indonesian waters. The “proposal” is a “win/win — offshore processing plus protections”. There’s been no costing of reopening Nauru, except by the government ($1 billion-plus); Immigration says Nauru won’t deter anyone and the Navy says towing boats doesn’t work.
- Defence: The Coalition would either adhere to the recommendations of the Defence White Paper to spend $16 billion on 100 F-35s (Abbott) or “re-do” the white paper to hunt for savings (Senator David Johnston), a marked departure from John Howard’s post-1996 ring-fencing of defence spending cuts.
- Coal seam gas: Farmers, according to Abbott, once had the “right to say no”. But last week on Alan Jones he pulled a 180: “Now my position is if there is the possibility of picking up billions of dollars we’d be silly not to take it … now an adult government does not lock the gate so to speak [to investment].”
- National Broadband Network: Malcolm Turnbull, charged by Abbott with “demolishing with the NBN” will have to untangle what he admits is “a very complex Gordian knot of [Telstra] contracts and legislation and regulation that will be very hard to unpick”. The issue of Telstra’s $11 billion in government compensation remains unresolved.
- Food security: To guard against floods and improve food security, Abbott says he’ll build an unknown number of dams at an unknown cost, to overcome the Greens’ and the government’s “dam phobia”. “I know that there are problems with many dam sites but I fail to see that there are no potential dam sites anywhere in Australia where the economic and social benefits outweigh any environmental costs,” he (sort of) explained.
- Foreign aid: Depending on who you talk to, on foreign aid there is either a bipartisan plan to increase funding to 0.5% of Gross National Income by 2015-16 (Julie Bishop) or to retain the status quo of 0.33% (Teresa Gambaro). The matter appears to be regularly argued, and leaked from, within shadow Cabinet.
- Costings: Then there’s Joe Hockey’s oft-derided $50 billion (or $60 billion or $70 billion) in total savings, which as Bernard Keane has previously pointed out, would actually only improve the fiscal balance by $11 billion over four years — a figure that is now 16 months out of date. A return to Howard-era tax cuts and some payment increases have been floated with only the fuzziest of plans to pay for them. Hockey used his budget reply speech this year to promise the Coalition would “grease the wheels” of structural change by using the mining boom to fund middle class welfare and tax cuts so voters don’t get upset so by the high inflation and interest rates generated by a booming resources sector.
If you adhere the media’s frenetic timetable on regime change, these policies are our new reality in the very near future. Might be time to fill in the blanks.