Tony Abbott knows he is landing the blows

05 Jan 2012 Article

Ross Fitzgerald - The Daily Telegraph – January 05, 201212:00AM

OVER the past few months, Labor's standard attack on Tony Abbott has been that he's “too negative”. They've even published a pamphlet about the Opposition Leader: The Little Book of Dr No.

Apart from breaking the first rule of politics – don't advertise the other side – this just sets up Abbott to show another facet of his versatile political personality.

From the word go, Abbott has always said that he had two jobs: first, to discredit a bad government and, second, to establish the Coalition as a credible alternative. It's only because he's been so successful at the former that Labor are now daring him to be the latter and in 2012 Abbott will happily oblige. I don't expect any let-up in Abbott's ferociously effective attacks that have made Gillard almost an object of ridicule. Her own efforts, such as the “we are us” speech, have given him plenty of material to work with.

There is no denying the power of Abbott's exploitation of every Labor error. After the announcement that Indonesia was phasing out live cattle exports, Abbott lampooned Gillard's inability to sack the minister responsible Joe Ludwig because he was “not only a faceless man but a hereditary faceless man”.

Abbott's attacks work so well because they are true. The carbon tax is a bad tax based on a lie because the Prime Minister did say, five days before the last election, that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”.

Julia Gillard might be in office but in many ways Bob Brown is in power because on the carbon tax, gay marriage, and even on border protection (now that the Malaysia people swap is dead) the government is implementing the Greens policies.

What we can expect from Abbott in the New Year is a series of speeches which outline the Coalition's positive agenda for government.

This won't be nearly as hard as Labor's boosters claim. In fact, it's largely already there, in the policies that Abbott took to the last election, and in the announcements that he's made subsequently.

If it wasn't obvious before the Eurozone meltdown, it surely is now: The first rule of effective government is to live within your means. Abbott sounds like a cracked record talking about the need to keep government spending under control but the public understands that there are clear limits to how much governments can keep spending, borrowing and taxing.

Almost since the beginning of the global financial crisis, Abbott has been saying that you can't cure a problem brought on by too much spending and borrowing with more spending and more borrowing. It seems the Australian public agrees with him. While Labor remains addicted to spending and borrowing, the private savings rate is now higher than it has been for a generation.

Labor keeps talking about the Coalition's “$70 billion budget black hole”. This is rather rich coming from a government that has turned its predecessor's $20 billion surplus into the four biggest deficits in Australia's history and an inherited $70 billion in net assets into $136 billion in net debt.

Eliminating the carbon tax and the mining tax will actually save the budget money in the short term because the current government has managed to over-spend the proceeds of its new taxes.

At the last federal election, the Coalition's economic team of Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb managed to come up with $50 billion worth of savings. The subsequent questioning of $11 billion of these savings was less damaging than it might have been thanks to the Treasury's constant revisions of its own costings. With obvious waste, ranging from the $50 billion plus National Broadband Network to the spending of $102,500 to ascertain whether selling the parliamentary billiard tables for $5000 was good value, there is still plenty of scope for further saving.

The second rule of effective government is to do whatever it reasonably takes to grow the economy. Whether it's sabotaging the live cattle trade, phasing out the Tasmanian forestry industry, imposing vast new no-catch zones in so-called marine protected areas, or favouring the environment over irrigators in its Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the current Gillard government just doesn't get it when it comes to business. As Abbott has frequently pointed out, you can't have a strong society without a strong economy and you can't have a strong economy without prosperous businesses.

Abbott has outlined what he calls his “six-point productivity plan”: To use carrots and sticks to get more people into the workforce; to improve productivity in health and education via community-controlled schools and hospitals; to make public service bonuses dependent upon cutting red tape; to establish a genuinely level playing field for competition between small businesses and large ones; to get better value for infrastructure spending by insisting on published cost benefit analyses; and to introduce careful and cautious workplace reform to help workers to be more productive.

In the past 12 months, the Coalition has outlined new initiatives in water management and dams, mental health, small business, and protecting businesses from unfair overseas competition. The federal government paid the opposition the ultimate compliment of largely adopting its mental health policy. It attacked the Coalition's anti-dumping proposal but has largely adopted them too.

It ridiculed the suggestion that there should be more dams in northern Australia, but has just committed itself to more “water storages” instead.

If Abbott were just to implement in government all of the measures he's already flagged in opposition, he would have a very full and productive first term. The danger is not that an Abbott government won't have enough to do in its first term but that the gathering economic storm overseas might make new spending initiatives almost impossible even if financed by spending cuts elsewhere.

There's no doubt that the Productivity Commission's recommendation for a new national disability insurance scheme makes sense. Both the government and the opposition have provided in-principle support and the government has begun an implementation process.

This is a kind of Medicare for allied health professional services for people with serious disabilities and could, over time, justify the $6 billion a year price tag by making people more employable. In the short term, though, a world economic slowdown is likely to put popular reforms like this on hold but make more urgent unpopular reforms such as cutting the public service and creating flexible workplaces to save jobs.

Usually, new policy tends only to make the headlines when it's controversial. Abbott's support for disability reform, welfare reform and aged care reform has gone largely unnoticed compared to his high octane opposition to the carbon tax and the mining tax. His support-of-sorts for increased superannuation contributions was only noticed because a few of his MPs opposed it. So far in this parliament, the Abbott-led opposition has only voted against 13 per cent of the government's legislative proposals. “Dr No” has actually been “Dr Yes” 87 per cent of the time.

Understandably enough, the government has failed to accept that Abbott has an achievable and credible reform agenda and that he has done what oppositions invariably do: Namely vote for good policy and against what they see as bad policy. True to form, the Gillard government has “played the man” in an attempt to discredit him but ended up often looking more like an opposition itself than a credible government.

Every day, government ministers hold press conferences with the principal aim of attacking the Opposition Leader. Labor knows that negative campaigning works. They remember that “framing” the former NSW state opposition leader Peter Debnam as “Mr Vaucluse” helped to win an election for the former NSW Labor government that well and truly deserved to lose. For any government, negative campaigning only works if its own record is defensible. Labor's attacks on Abbott don't work, largely because it keeps making itself the issue through stuff-up after stuff-up.

The Australia Network tender is the latest example. The tender was cancelled for no good reason except, it seems, the Prime Minister didn't like the result. An Australian Financial Review editorial rightly argued that such a failure to observe due process should be more akin to the Mafia than the Australian government.

This has become the latest exemplar par excellence of a really bad government because it involves incompetence, untrustworthiness and undeniable leadership tensions between Gillard and Rudd.

No one knows whether the Gillard government will last full term but few think it deserves to.

Instead of accepting that the next federal election will be a referendum on a bad government, Labor's rusted-on supporters want it to be a referendum on the opposition's readiness-to-govern.

Posing questions is easier than analysing a record but, for nine years, Abbott was as good a minister as any in the Howard government.

In forcing the replacement of Rudd and giving the Gillard government the worst 12 months in the history of polling, Abbott has established himself as one of Australia's most effective politicians. He's passed all the tests that could reasonably be set for a would-be prime minister. Indeed he could very well prove to be a fine leader of our nation.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. Tomorrow: What Gillard must do to fight back.

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