Following the political high of his handling of the MH17 disaster, Abbott has had a bad few weeks – so bad that his seeming statesmanship surrounding the disaster has emerged as hubris. Even the most generous and optimistic person has to give up on Abbott now. He appears to have well and truly cooked his political goose and with it, the fortunes of his party. Taking stock of the Abbott government’s mistakes should prompt us to ask some depressing questions: what will the rest of Abbott’s term look like? Where does the nation go from here?
The highest profile disaster came from a favour to a supporter, Andrew Bolt. The amendment of section 18C of the racial discrimination act was sold as a positive gain for freedom of speech, which fooled no one. Nonetheless, Tim Wilson was still appointed to the Human Rights Commission by George Brandis, the attorney general, to champion the cause of the “mates amendment”. The Brandis defence of the change – that freedom of speech grants a right to bigotry – prompted a community backlash so intense that Abbott and Brandis were forced to drop the amendments the day before Wilson’s conference on free speech.
Abbott further incensed the Muslim community with plans to strengthen anti-terrorism laws by requiring members of that community to state their destinations, length of stay and reason for travel some weeks before departure overseas. It is not a vote winner and is seen as motivated by race and religion.
The prime minister and attorney general both failed in media appearances last week to explain proposed legislative changesto the retention of personal communications data (the so-called metadata). It took Malcolm Turnbull to provide some clarity, and he learned about the policy by reading the papers. By the end of the week, a sceptical public ensured that the government had lost the high ground on an issue that they appeared to regard as important, but prepared for poorly.
More mistakes: Abbott is facing a backbench revolt over his ill-conceived, unfair and expensive paid parental leave scheme, a dead dog from the outset, given Australia is said to be in the grip of a budget crisis. The crisis itself has been confected; it didn’t affect a decision to give a further $600m to security agencies in light of a suddenly discovered new terrorist crisis. Australia has also found the funds to give aid assistance (and possibly military assistance) to populations in Isis-held territory, and for the search for MH370.
Then there is the scandal surrounding a scholarship granted to Abbott’s daughter, which refuses to go away, and will end up in court. And Scott Morrison engineered a refugee crisis, putting 157 men, women and children into lifeboats five hours off the coast of India in a hair-brained scheme to prevent their claims for asylum being processed in Australia. In the end they were sent to Nauru, with rumours that Morrison proposes to traffic them and another 1,000 asylum seekers to Cambodia.
There were also some simpler gaffes: Eric Abetz raised a storm after he linked breast cancer to a 1950s study on abortion, Kevin Andrews eschewed all relationships except marriage between consenting heterosexuals, apparently also drawing heavily on attitudes and social mores from the 1950s, and Christopher Pyne was poised to eat his words on education following a backlash from parents, students and university staff. Hockey launched a biography of himself that charted his lazy planning for the 2009 Liberal leadership contest, and his desire to push further with his bastard of a budget.
As the blunders grow in number, respected people are growing uneasy. Peter Young, formerly the chief psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers, accused Morrison and the department of immigration of deliberately mistreating asylum seekers as a means of enforcing their policy of deterrence. And now business groups, industry experts and other public figures the like are expressing concern about proposed work for the dole plans, the federal government’s approach torenewables, and the downgrading of disability payments and advocacy.
If it were not so important, it would be hilarious. All of this is set against the backdrop of allegations of corruption in local and state government, perhaps with links to federal government, furious lobbying by business and mining interests, and sexual abuse in church institutions and the defence force.
Over the next couple of years, the composition of the Senate will see some of Abbott’s sillier legislation defeated. But that will not change the character and style of his team. The prime minister has indicated he is incapable of learning. He governs like a student politician.
He appears to have no capacity for introspection or even to listen to the words he utters. For instance, he says Australia is assisting with humanitarian assistance in Iraq because we are a caring nation, at the same time as he lets distressed men, women and children – many of them Iraqis – lose their minds in detention.
His predilection for playing fast and loose with the truth, occasionally contradicting his own statements within days or even hours, indicates a degree of immaturity not seen in an Australian prime minister since Billy McMahon. Does any prime minister have a “mandate” to be so careless while implementing an agenda this ideological, wrecking what had been long-term, middle of the road policies, perfectly workable and fair, which enjoyed broad community support?
Where do Coalition voters stand in relation to the erratic Team Abbott? Much of the Coalition’s natural constituency: pensioners, parents, small business people, and white collar professionals like doctors, scientists, legal professionals and other skilled workers seem to be giving up on him. Abbott’s approval rating languishes at 37%, according to the latest Essential poll. Who are his remaining supporters? The Australian newspaper and a few rightwing think tanks?
All Australians should be concerned at the political acumen of this government, and the poor quality of their decision-making. But is anyone in a position to seriously challenge Abbott?
Opposition leader Bill Shorten appears unable to capitalise on this sorry state of affairs. He has a veritable cornucopia of issues on which to bring the fight up to the government, but doesn’t seem strong enough to match Abbott’s bullying style, even as he imitates it. Does he have a substantial belief in social or environmental justice? It’s not clear. Neither is his commitment to substantive policies to claw back the overreach of banks and mining companies.
For their part, The Greens need to find party discipline and determined tough mindedness if they are to remain a serious political force – all the more so as the only possible future government might be a Labor/Greens coalition. Otherwise Palmer, the Cheshire cat of Australian politics, may prove to be the most durable addition to the political landscape, taking seats from the Nationals.
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