WHETHER or not the Liberal Party changes its leader next Tuesday or later, one situation will remain unchanged. The Coalition will not have a majority in the Senate before the next election, which is scheduled for late 2016.
It may surprise many of his critics in Australia, but Tony Abbott is well regarded among Australia’s allies and friends. On a recent visit to the US and Britain, it was evident that the Prime Minister was viewed favourably by President Barack Obama’s Democratic administration and by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrats government.
On the home front, Abbott has admitted to errors since his election in September 2013 and is hoping for a new start. Yet there have been several significant successes. Many commentators declared that an Abbott government would never be able to stop the boats. On current available evidence, unlawful boat arrivals have ceased, along with associated drownings, and the people-smuggling industry has been harmed.
Many commentators said that Abbott could not dismantle the carbon tax. Some even prophesied that, in government, he would drop his opposition and embrace the carbon tax, which was in transition to an emissions trading scheme. But the Coalition obtained sufficient support in the Senate and the carbon tax is a thing of the past, as is the mining tax. And then there have been trade agreements with South Korea, Japan and China. It’s an impressive domestic and international policy package for a mere 16 months.
The Coalition erred in making promises about not cutting expenditure before the election and in being too slow to speak up about the prospect of budget deficits leading to rapidly increasing debt after the election. Yet neither tactical error has caused Abbott’s major problem.
Certainly Abbott was a highly successful opposition leader pursuing a negative agenda. Even so, the Coalition’s negativity in opposition had little effect on the Labor’s legislative framework. As Julia Gillard recounts in her political memoir, My Story, during the term of her government “members of parliament sat for more than 1555 hours and 566 pieces of legislation were passed”.
The Gillard government enjoyed the support of the Greens in the Senate and experienced few problems in getting its legislation through the upper house.
The Abbott government’s problem is that it has no natural allies in the Senate. Labor and the Greens oppose the Coalition from the left while the Palmer United Party and some independents oppose it from the right. But not on the high-profile issues of reform to both the medical and tertiary education systems.
It is difficult to see how the Coalition, irrespective of whoever leads it, will be able to get the kind of reform through the Senate that was a hallmark of the governments led by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard.
The evidence suggests that Australian non-government politicians, influenced by electors, are no longer convinced about the need for economic reform and are unfazed by increased spending funded by looming debt. This despite the warning from Treasury and the Reserve Bank that, unless there are cuts to spending, a return to surplus may not be achieved in the foreseeable future.
In the Senate, the Greens believe that debt is not a problem. Labor’s position appears to be that debt is not a problem at the moment. And any six of the eight minor party and independent senators at any time do not seem to believe that any particular item of expenditure needs to be cut.
There appears to have been a significant change in the Australian mindset during the past decade. The Hawke, Keating and Howard governments essentially brought a majority of Australians with them when they argued the case for restraint and economic reform. All this seems to have changed with the global financial crisis in Australia but perhaps more accurately termed the northern hemisphere recession. There was no economic crisis within the Australian economy in general or Australian financial institutions in particular.
In Australia, the GFC was associated with free money. As Paul Kelly documents in his book Triumph and Demise, in February 2008 the then prime minister Kevin Rudd substantially increased Treasury’s recommendation of the amount of government stimulus required.
Rudd’s economic package in February 2008 amounted to $42 billion. The then Treasury secretary Ken Henry has declared that he was expecting an amount around the “$30bn mark”. Henry did not distance himself from the upgrade. But the largesse led to “free money” in cash handouts along with “free” home insulation and more besides.
Australia’s current love affair with “free” government handouts was apparent when actress Cate Blanchett lauded her “free” tertiary education at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service late last year. She praised the Whitlam government for making it possible for her to attend university, attend plays and so on. All for “free”, apparently.
Blanchett’s account overlooked the tertiary education scholarship scheme, which began in 1951, in the early years of the Robert Menzies government. But the key point was that Blanchett believes it proper that someone else paid, through taxes, for her time at university as a kind of entitlement. Malcolm Fraser continued the Whitlam largesse but so-called free tertiary education was dropped by Labor’s Hawke and Keating.
Now it appears that virtually every interest group in the nation is campaigning against the Abbott government because it wants more money. Before the election some commentators claimed that Abbott would be a “do-nothing” government like that of Fraser, or would implement what was said to be the economic protection and regulation advocated by BA Santamaria (1915-98).
After the election, the Abbott government was depicted as free market and heartless by its many critics. This despite the fact Australia’s marginal tax rate is high and, as Adam Creighton has demonstrated in The Australian more than once, in Australia high and relatively high-income earners pay the overwhelming amount of income tax.
In Australia, the demand that governments spend, irrespective of deficits, has not been so substantial for many years. That’s why it’s difficult to see any economic reform that requires a reduction in government expenditure getting through the Senate in the next couple of years, irrespective of who leads the Liberal Party.