As Labor does poorly in recent polls, we’ve started to hear a new line that is a version of an old one – it doesn’t matter if Tony Abbott wins, because he won’t do anything different. This comes from the cynics – the ‘we’ve seen it all before’ brigade – and some Greens, who are trying hastily to find an electoral space that is different from Labor’s.
The line we’ve heard before, usually pushed by ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ journalists from the non-Murdoch mainstream media, is that each of the major parties is as bad as the other, and that they are therefore both the same. This argument is about political tactics. For example, if you promote Slipper to Speaker, you deserve Ashby. This new variant is about policy, and it is appearing in both the mainstream and the social media.
This new argument comes in two main forms. First, that while Abbott is good at opposing, he won’t follow through in office. This is the Malcolm Fraser effect; he threatened much in the ‘70s, but didn’t repeal Medicare. How seriously you take this depends to some extent on how well the LNP does in the Senate. If they win an outright majority, then they can do as they like. If they are dependent on Green support, you’d think they’d find doing things like repealing the Carbon price difficult – though apparently you never can tell with the Greens. There’s also an implied question about Abbott’s character; how far you can trust him to do what he says he will do? Maybe a blood oath fades in the wash? I agree that he’s likely to say one thing and do another, but this is hardly an argument for his ineffectiveness or even inaction; he may do far worse things than he says he will. Industrial relations springs to mind.
But putting aside these caveats, we need to consider the things he says he’ll do. It’s true that a lot of it is negative, but that hardly means there will be no change. The ‘no difference’ argument of some commentators is that Abbott won’t be able to do things like repeal the carbon price or stop the NBN. For the carbon price, there are, they say, contractual obligations in place which will be too costly to overcome, so that even if Abbott can pass the necessary legislation, he still won’t be able to unpick the knitting. And the story is similar on the NBN, which in addition, is increasingly popular with voters –see, for example, Peter Dutton’s petition to speed up delivery of it to his electorate. So anyway, it won’t matter who you vote for.
This sort of ‘what if’ and ‘maybe’ is all very well. But at very best, it slows down two processes that are crucial for the Australian economy, to say nothing in the case of the carbon price of our responsibility to do something about climate change. Abbott’s direct action plan is a sick joke which doesn’t stand up to questioning – not that the mainstream media ever bothers – and there is no way that it will enable Australia to achieve its emissions reduction target. So a bit of difference there …
What about same/different economic visions? There’s a limit to what governments can do to control employment, interest rates and inflation, and governments of any political persuasion will inevitably do a lot of the same things. What’s been said by Abbott about how the LNP would manage the economy is nevertheless confused and confusing. They’ll tax less and have smaller government, but still make major new spending commitments – magic pudding stuff. In terms of whether it would be different from Labor, I found Bernard Keane and Glen Dyer’s ‘no difference’ article interesting. They want it both ways. They argue that at least in a first term, the economy under an Abbott government wouldn’t look very different from how it does under Labor. But in conclusion, they say that this may change substantially ‘once we start seeing some real detail about what Joe Hockey would do as Treasurer’. Really? They correctly note that for all the rhetoric, Liberal governments in the past haven’t managed to reduce the size of government, suggesting that Abbott won’t either. But they then go on to list a whole lot of ways in which Abbott’s changes would result in some people being worse off – sacking public servants, some government functions downsized and services cut; making it easier to sack private sector workers; and more worker deaths through diminished occupational health and safety in the construction industry to name just some. They don’t mention Hockey’s interest in reducing the ‘sense of entitlement’ for welfare, and pass over the huge costs of Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme. (They characterise it as ‘more generous’, which to the already well off, it is.) They don’t look at the implications of handing responsibility for health back to the states. But even given the ambivalence of their argument, I think they’ve said enough already to show that we will be back on the private affluence public squalor track so effectively followed by Howard. And this is something Labor has been trying – however slowly – to reverse. Peter Martin’s article on Abbott’s budget position is also interesting in this context.
The Green argument, as summed up by one blogger, is that though an Abbott government is likely to be ‘nasty’, it will be ‘at least as weak and incoherent as Gillard’s’. Weakness and incoherence will probably be of little consolation to those for whom it is ‘nasty’, if it is even so – and see my caveats above. And is the Gillard government really ‘weak and incoherent’? I’d have thought it had rather impressive legislative achievements, particularly for a minority government. The carbon price, the mining tax, the NBN, disability funding, education funding, a rise in the minimum wage, equal pay for workers in the community sector, increases in childcare funding, lower taxes for the worst paid and a start to reducing middle class welfare – doesn’t sound weak and incoherent to me. Of course it could and should be better – thanks First Dog for your really constructive listing of what’s wrong. (Treatment of Assange? Compulsory data retention? Peter Slipper kerfuffle? Can’t you do better than that?) By all means dissociate yourselves from Labor achievements, Greens, and pursue a purer agenda. Just don’t hope to see it realized. And don’t pretend that Labor and Liberal are the same. It looks more like dodgy political tactics than the commitment you’re supposed to have to fact checking, truth in politics and a progressive agenda. After all, if the Greens play political games, under your reasoning, how are they different from anyone else?
There is no way that Tony Abbott is a risk worth taking. I’m not willing to hope that his promises disappear like stains in the wash. I couldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a bar of soap.
By Kay Rollison