The Canberra Times 29.5.14, On Line Opinion 4.6.14
Many political and economic analysts are trying to make sense of the Abbott/Hockey budget using the conventional tools of their trade. They should rather look at Abbott the man.
Ever since his days as a student politician Abbott has sought to create a state of political flux, by stirring and upsetting normative processes, in order to maximise his power through a state of uncertainty. It is instinctive, pugnacious and emotive politics, where only he knows the next move and where he can play one group or faction off against another.
Into this anarchic mix insert a visceral hatred, bordering on obsession, with anything to do with the Labor Party, which in Abbott’s mind contains elements of both communism and socialism. He is a product of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). As a young and impressionable man he supped at the table of Robert Santamaria, founder of the right wing DLP. It formed from a divisive split with the Labor Party and was instrumental in helping to push Australia into the Vietnam War.
Abbott is not a liberal; he is a conservative but not a values driven conservative. It is hard to pin down what he really believes in, other than his self-obsessed ambition.
Abbott seems driven to smash anything that might be tainted with the touch or smell of Labor, which includes social policy and state run institutions and intervention. He seems determined to punish those people who support Labor and their acolytes The Greens or people he judges to have voted for Labor or The Greens. In short his budget is a pogrom.
His spin or propaganda machine has attempted to convince voters that Australia is suffering an economic crisis. Many, maybe most, economists, commentators and punters don’t believe him, particularly when his cuts to the economy primarily target his class enemies.
Pensioners are a possible exception, but then perhaps he sees them as deserving of punishment or discipline in the Catholic sense of the word, for he claims his Catholic faith as a motivator, for being state supplicants and not making independent provision for their retirement.
It makes no sense to slash and burn and yet leave his paid maternity scheme in place, albeit with minor adjustment. It makes absolutely no sense to leave defence spending untouched in an economic environment he and Hockey describe as critical. The sort of economic cuts proposed match those undertaken by Australia in The Great Depression and defence spending at that time suffered equivalent cuts to other parts of the budget.
Abbott might seek to save $12.5 billion by cancelling the Flying Lemon otherwise known as the F35, beset with a myriad of design and development problems and poor management. Instead he should consider several squadrons of the proven and available Super Hornet.
He might consider foregoing the expensive contract on drones which have little to do with defence and a lot to do with asylum seekers arriving by boat. He might consider buying six new submarines off the hook rather developing and building twelve from scratch in South Australia.
Abbott has quarantined the AFP, ASIO and ASIS from budget cuts. Why? In what way have they curried his favour? He has also spared Immigration and Customs, their favoured status is easier to understand but not justified were there to be a crisis.
He might also consider processing asylum seekers on Indonesia for settlement in Australia, rather than throwing multi-millions at regional governments to house and settle refugees. Turning boats back to Indonesia is a deferred cost as sooner or later Indonesia and other regional governments are going to apply pressure for Australia to accept warehoused asylum seekers.
Abbotts divide and rule of state governments has, with the exception of ‘Sharkey’ Barnett, back fired. Barnett of course is being true to his West Australian heritage which is to seek succession whenever the opportunity arises. Those negations have not yet surfaced, but shedding WA would certainly seem to fit Abbott’s agenda.
My advice to the state premiers as they seek to find the means to push back against Abbott would be to raise the school starting age by one year, that would save billions and some of the money could be put into state health budgets. The beauty of this scheme is that children would spend an extra year in pre-school which is subsidised by the Commonwealth.
Such a proposal would bring howls of outrage from parents around Australia including many Coalition voters. The resulting storm would likely translate into some useful leverage for the state premiers. Let Abbott, Hockey and Pyne suck on that.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.