“I’m no good at fighting Liberals, but I’m very good at fighting the Labor Party,” Tony Abbott said to his colleagues in February, after his near-death political experience. It was an excellent self-assessment, but what was less understood at the time was that it would also be Abbott’s strategy to recover his political fortunes. A beleaguered Abbott would return to his strength, to what worked so well for him in opposition: his relentless negativity, his attacks on Labor policy, his ruthless prosecution of the “no” case to destroy his opponents. He would lead the country not as prime minister, but as a kind of super opposition leader.
During his period as Liberal leader, Abbott’s formidable strength in making the negative case has always been coupled with a seeming inability to argue a positive case — a combination the augured poorly for his ability to achieve anything complex or politically difficult in government. While Abbott effortlessly campaigned against the Gillard government’s carbon price, his own effort to offer a replacement policy, “Direct Action”, was ridiculed by experts and mocked by climate denialists as a waste of money. The selling of the policy was left to to the unfortunate Greg Hunt, and it was dramatically downsized — what was originally a $10 billion program eventually became barely $2.5 billion.
A better example is Abbott’s “signature” paid parental leave policy. Abbott presented his PPL policy in 2010 as evidence of his fundamental conversion on childcare and women in the workplace, and he took it to two elections. But he was unable to convince anyone of its merits — not voters (who preferred Labor’s more modest scheme), not his own colleagues, not one of his party’s core constituencies, business. In fact, Abbott presented PPL so poorly that eventually he abandoned it to shore up his party room support, a demonstration of his inability to convince anyone of the merits of a policy requiring any kind of complexity or nuance.
That inability also carried into government on the economic front. Much of the chaos of 2014 was the result of an inability of Abbott or his ministers to effectively sell complex economic reform proposals. Recall the GP co-payment, a proposal so important to Abbott he complained to the G20 about it. But so bereft of ideas was the government about how to convince voters of its merits that it invented an absurd medical research fund as a justification for it, a profound confusion of messages (we need to make health spending more sustainable, so we’re going to spend tens of billions more on health) made all the worse by being presented by frontbench dullard Peter Dutton.
Similarly, the government could only explain the (simple and perfectly sensible) restoration of indexation to fuel excise by linking it to a giant bucket of spending. So delusional were Abbott and his Treasurer Joe Hockey about this, prior to the 2014 budget they made a point of spruiking the restoration of indexation, and the road-funding bucket that would be filled by it, as a potential political winner from the budget. That lasted about 24 hours after the budget was released.
As those examples demonstrate, Abbott’s inability to articulate a case for anything positive had infected his colleagues, who were visibly at a loss as to how to sell reforms that couldn’t be dressed up as stopping something, banning something or repealing something. On higher education reform, Christopher Pyne became ever more shrill repeating the same useless arguments. As a result, he actually went backwards in terms of the number of crossbenchers whose vote he secured, and then lost the support of the sector itself — a kind of anti-communication, in which every time Pyne opened his mouth, he convinced people of the merits of his opponents’ case.
“We’re stuck under a leader who can only stop things, not progress them …”
Abbott correctly realised all this in February, and resolved to address it. Henceforth, the government would do nothing that couldn’t be pitched in simple, negative terms. Higher ed reform, the GP co-payment, PPL, the pension indexation adjustment have all been abandoned as too hard. Scott Morrison’s replacement policy for the pension adjustment, while good as far as it goes, had to be coupled with yet another pot of money for low-income pensioners to get it through. And national security presented Abbott with the perfect negative policy with which to attack Labor, which despite enthusiastically backing him on every extension of counter-terrorism powers, has been painted by Abbott as “rolling out the red carpet on terrorism”.
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Abbott’s approach to national security isn’t actually intended to stop terrorism — as we explained last week, in fact he is making it worse — but is focused on applying the same successful slogan-based negative approach that worked in other areas in opposition. With the citizenship-stripping proposal (which, despite the fuss occasioned by it, will have minimal real-world deterrence for terrorists — how many suicide bombers fret about losing their citizenship?), Abbott is in effect saying “stop the terrorists”. They are to be left offshore, even if they were born and grew up in Australia, and never allowed to come back here, just as no asylum seeker arriving by boat will ever be settled here. Except, worse than our willingness to dump the problem of a global surge in asylum seekers onto other, usually poorer, countries to cope with, in fact we’ll be dumping our own problem, home-grown terrorists, onto other countries.
Abbott’s decision to be super opposition leader rather than prime minister naturally is a problem for anyone hoping for economic reform, which is why business sentiment is so poor. Any policy problem that can’t be reduced to a simple negative issue will go unaddressed. The budget deficit, already dramatically worse under Abbott than under Labor, will be trusted to luck and economic growth: Abbott and Hockey will let the amount of tax the Commonwealth is taking surge well above Labor’s level, while holding spending at about where it was under Labor. Sensible measures universally agreed to be required on the fiscal front, like reining in super tax concessions, have been abandoned — to the obvious dismay of Hockey and Josh Frydenberg — in favour of an attempt at a “stop the taxes” narrative against Labor. And reform of Australia’s horse-and-buggy media laws has been abandoned entirely.
This presents the problem of how to argue the case for the Liberal shibboleth of industrial relations reform. The trade union royal commission was supposed to help with that, but the dearth of actual hard evidence of rampant union corruption produced after 18 months’ effort has crueled those hopes. The Productivity Commission is beavering away on its IR review, but the government needs something that can be couched in negative terms. Penalty rates could be reframed negatively as “a great big tax on jobs” and their repeal thrown as meat to the business lobby, but even that will require some nuance, and Australians are already looking at falling real wages, so the argument that we’re paid too much is likely to prove an easy target even for an opposition as inept as the Bill Shorten’s.
What’s more worrying is that even in areas where there should be no pressure on Abbott in terms of a compelling narrative, he is struggling. Indigenous constitutional recognition should be an issue tailor-made for Abbott: more than any white politician in Parliament, as he has actually made an effort to spend time with indigenous communities and he is using his personal authority to back recognition. But there’s already a flare-up of opposition from the far right, both within his own party and from within the government’s media outlet, that he has so far failed to deal with.
Infrastructure is another important example. Infrastructure investment has fallen dramatically since the end of 2013 across the country and is currently at levels well below the Labor years. Indeed, Abbott is again prey to his negativity here: Malcolm Turnbull is well on the way to fulfilling the role to which Abbott appointed him, to destroy the NBN, with a 19th-century-style copper replacement, and Abbott actually boasts of undermining the Renewable Energy Target in order to cut investment in renewable power infrastructure. It doesn’t take much to offer a decent infrastructure narrative, but the “Infrastructure Prime Minister” appears incapable of it.
The most likely result is an Australia, in major policy terms, essentially put on hold while Abbott remains prime minister. We’re stuck under a leader who can only stop things, not progress them, whose legacy will consist entirely of things that he halted, repealed and pulled down.