Budget 2014: Dishonest and cruel

In the lead-up to Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s inaugural budget speech last night, Twitter offered up a typically anarchic deluge of three-word phrases (#ThreeWordBudget) summarising the budget for 2014-15.

Some were witty.

Some were cutting.

Some were in earnest.

The Treasurer and the Prime Minister would have you believe that “contribute and build” is a fair and reasonable three-word synopsis of their first budget. If you believe that, you’d probably believe anything. Given the volume of election promises the Coalition is seeking to renege on, the extent to which it has squibbed its own illusory “debt crisis” and its plans to extract much of its “contributions” from some of the least fortunate people in Australian society, a fairer three-word description of the budget would be”dishonest and cruel”.

Dishonesty

Let’s first consider the Coalition’s fundamental dishonesty in delivering this budget, starting with the pre-election promises it has broken. Just days before the September 2013 poll, Tony Abbott made an explicit pledge to the Australian people on national television regarding funding cuts:

“No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.”

Quite astonishingly, the Coalition’s first budget either explicitly breaks or creates conditions encouraging governments to break every single component of that pledge:

  • Planned needs-based Gonski school funding is to be reduced by tying federal government contributions to CPI.

  • Planned hospital funding provided by the federal government is being cut by $1.8 billion over four years.

  • Pension rates are to be reduced from 2017, with calculations to be based on the CPI rather than by the average male wage.The pension age is also to be increased to 70.

  • No announcements were made regarding an increase to the GST, but the proposed cuts to federal education and health funding have led Queensland Premier Campbell Newman to speculate that this is a debate the states may now be blackmailed into kickstarting.

  • Base funding of both the ABC and SBS is to be cut by 1% over four years.


  • Tony Abbott also made consistent promises in a series of interviews and press conferences prior to the September 2013 election on tax, well documented by ABC FactCheck. The phraseology used by the then Opposition Leader varies, and is certainly open to semantic interpretation, but fundamentally the Australian people had every right to believe that a Coalition government would not introduce any new compulsory contributions to public revenue, regardless of what they were called or how they were framed. In the budget, two such measures have been announced:

    • A 2% “deficit levy” on Australians with incomes over $180,000/year, imposed from July 1st until 2017.

    • A $7 Medicare “co-payment” for each visit an Australian makes to a GP.

    The Coalition has not just been dishonest in relation to its pre-election promises. The primary reason offered up by the Abbott government for the cuts, new taxes, tax increases and welfare claw-backs in the budget is the “budget emergency” the government alleges was left behind by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. That Federal Labor left behind a federal budget in deficit is not in dispute; nor is the more general observation that Treasury has a mid-term structural revenue problem on its hands. However, numerous spending and revenue decisions outlined in the Budget seem to suggest that the Coalition that does not really believe that the “budget emergency” is much of an emergency at all. For example:

    • The pre-stated Coalition decision to abolish the MRRT (<$500 million) and carbon taxes ($7 billion), significantly reducing government revenue

    • An additional $245 million to extend the school chaplains scheme for another five years

    • An additional $20 billion to establish a new national medical research fund, funded by the new Medicare GP visit “co-payment”/tax

    • A presumed increase of over $1 billion to fund the Coalition’s proposed Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme. Detailed costings for the slightly cut-down (maximum benefit payable reduced from $150K to $100K) scheme, expected to start in July 2015, were not confirmed in the budget.

    • $5 billion in new roads funding

    The words “crisis” and “emergency” imply there is a burning need to get the budget back into surplus as soon as possible: these new spending measures and abolitions of revenue streams suggest that the Abbott government does not think that is necessary. More generally, as economist Stephen Koukoulas has outlined – thanks to its proposed new spending and tax measures, the Abbott government arguably looks set to preside over a “bigger government” in real terms than Labor did under Rudd and Gillard during 2007 – 2013.

    Cruelty

    The Abbott government’s “contribute and build” budget theme is coupled with a narrative arguing that Australians from all walks of life need to contribute to address the “budget emergency”. As the Treasurer helpfully instructed in his budget speech: “we are a nation of lifters, not leaners”. Everyone must lift. Leaners are to be left by the wayside, even if they are fundamentally unable to “lift”. The already mentioned $7 Medicare co-payment is a regressive consumption tax which proportionately impacts people on low incomes and those who need to visit their doctor frequently more than others. For people struggling to make ends meet, it also acts as a disincentive to visit the doctor. Throaty cough? Worried about that strange chest pain? You’d better write it off as indigestion and think twice about visiting your GP, because if you are sweating on your next payday arriving to cover food, rent, or petrol costs, you simply might not be able to afford the visit.

    Perhaps the single most controversial and draconian initiative announced in the budget is the government’s plans to prevent people under 30 from accessing unemployment benefits for the first six months of their unemployment. Under the proposed cyclical regime, recipients will effectively only be allowed to receive six months worth of unemployment benefit support per year. The mind can only boggle at the potential repercussions of this policy. What do you do as a young person if you can’t get a job for that six month period? Sponge off family and friends, destroying your relationships and steering them into financial stress as well? A lot of young people due to circumstances beyond their control don’t have that option or would not consider that option seriously. Do they have to beg for money during that time? Live on the streets? Slash their wrists and be done with it? Unemployment may currently remain at relatively low levels (5.8%), but is expected to rise in the next year, and anybody who thinks it is easy to get a job without experience or skills in today’s brutish economy is clearly out of touch with the real world for people living in suburban and rural areas. A young person can easily apply for 100 jobs within a short timeframe with the best intentions and not get a single positive response. If the Abbott government has its way, they may not even be able to afford to attend the interview if they are lucky enough to – at long last – receive that elusive phone call.

    Other budget measures target – either intentionally or unintentionally – other marginalised groups within Australian society. Sole parents and parents with disabled or high needs children will be hit hard by proposed changes to Family Tax Benefit B (FTB-B), which will now cut out once the youngest child in a family reaches 6 years of age. Farmers and people living in rural and regional areas who rely heavily on the use of their cars to live and work will be hardest hit hard by the re-introduction of excise indexation. Furthermore, the ACT economy and other regional areas hosting federal government offices look set to suffer in the coming years, as cuts in the budget directly result in the loss of over 2000 additional federal government jobs.

    The only saving grace for struggling Australians is that this budget still has a long way to go before becoming legislated reality, and is certain to face some stiff (if mixed) opposition in the Senate from Labor, the Greens and indeed the Palmer United Party. This is a budget and a government in desperate need of civilising.

Royals, semantics and republican Labor pains

We did but see them passing by; regrettably for some, they took around ten days to pass completely.

Yes, of course, it was nice for the country to host the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their son. Yes, the royal convoy delighted well-wishers and monarchists at heart across the nation, sprinkling stardust on the everyday lives of those they met. But what of the rest of us? Having yawned and gagged our way through an extended royal edition of “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!”, we need no longer imagine a dystopia where news and current affairs are abolished and reality television shows are the only entertainment put to air. There is something whimsical about watching the future foreign kings and queen of your country, decades removed, being awkwardly compelled to meet and greet sporadic mobs of awe-struck locals. The results appeared – at least to me – like an outbreak of religious fervor writ small, with subjects reaching excitedly over barricades and worming their way through crowds seeking to speak to or even touch the sacred flesh of the blessed ones. What small talk did they make with well-wishers, journalists pondered live on air, as much to themselves as anybody watching? What is the Duchess wearing today? Let us speculate in the public domain at great length on these critical matters!

In the aftermath of this curious episode, what we are all left with is a Coalition Government apparently striving to outrage every conceivable demographic in society with its impending Budget, and an Opposition Leader publicly musing that his party needs new policies. Yes Bill, yes. Bill Shorten does have a tricky game to play over the next year or so, needing on the one hand to outline enough plans for the future to keep the public interested, whilst not allowing himself to be gazumped by the Coalition in the run-in to the next federal election. That does not mean he can not present any concrete plans now. Moreover – joining some fairly obvious dots – reviving the campaign for an Australian republic in conjunction with the Australian Republican Movement seems like a pretty sturdy mast to nail Labor’s colours to.

Tactically, this is not an issue which a government lead by Tony Abbott can outflank Labor on. Any push towards re-opening the republic debate is guaranteed to be opposed by the Prime Minister, and equally guaranteed to divide support amongst some of his most senior Ministers (for starters: Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and Chris Pyne – all republicans). The Prime Minister would undoubtedly argue that talk of a republic is a flippant move in the shadows of Australia’s Phantasmal Sovereign Debt Crisis (TM), but assuming that Labor also provides a robust riposte to the Federal Budget, the republic debate offers both the possibility of answering a question the majority of Australians want dealt with and providing yet another rich contrast between Labor’s vision and the backwards-looking myopia of the current Prime Minister.

Recent polling on support for a republic is admittedly quite negative – but the veracity of any polling conducted in conjunction with a royal visit is highly questionable. In the current context I find it difficult to believe that the average disconnected Australian would leap to mouth off about dear old Wills and Kate and Georgey or their mob generally when phoned up by a pollster. Weasel words are also muddying the waters. A majority of Australians understand that retaining the British Queen as our titular Head of State instead of an Australian chosen by Australians is illogical and simply not right for a country purporting to stand on its two feet: there is no question of this. It is, however, perfectly understandable for someone to hold this view, but still profess support for the monarchy (or the “royals” personally), and a dislike for the idea of becoming “a republic”. The cult of celebrity, as ARM member Raff Piccolo has observed, deeply intertwines with these conflicting beliefs. There is a semantic morass here that needs to be waded through, but it is a morass that we must wade through as a country, sooner or later. They are lovely people, the monarchy is a historically delicious British institution, but they are not Australians and the “Queen of Australia” is an anachronistic concept that fails to pass the laugh test. And yet, we are stuck with it.

Nevertheless, there is the very real prospect that the 2016 election could coincide with a cosmic political alignment in support of the republican cause. At the current rate of knots, only a brave or foolhardy pundit would tip a comfortable victory for a government led by Tony Abbott at the next election. The Prime Minister’s recent twists and turns have boosted support for Labor federally and even revived the fortunes of the Australian Republican Movement, which saw its membership base skyrocket after Abbott’s unilateral decision to restore the British honours system here. If Labor wins the next election, it is highly likely that both the Prime Minister and the newly anointed Opposition Leader (whomever they are) will support the republican cause. The continuing reign of Queen Elizabeth II should not and would not prove an obstacle; privately Her Majesty must surely be baffled by our prolonged bout of constitutional laziness. Presiding over the final gentle release of Australia from its colonial bonds would be a fitting and worthy act for a legendary monarch whose reign may be approaching its twilight years.

There is a wave coming, and it is Bill Shorten’s to ride if he is bold enough.

One hundred days

Monday marked one hundred days since the Abbott Government was elected by the Australian people. To commemorate this profoundly moving and meaningful anniversary, the Prime Minister’s Office has issued The First 100 Days of Government [PDF] and an accompanying press release summarising the Coalition’s progress on the actions it promised to undertake within this timeframe if elected.

This is, well, an unsurprising development. The Rudd Government undertook a similar exercise [PDF] after winning office in 2007, no doubt designed in Opposition primarily to help convey the urgency and energy the incoming government would bring to the table if elected. 100 is a nice round, memorable number: a century, a ton, just a touch over fourteen weeks, around a week over three months. Sure, it doesn’t mean a damn thing chronologically to any of us, and it typically means little in legislative terms, because the Senate and House of Representatives terms do not align, but it’s a nice shiny round number that newspapers can splash in a large font across their front pages and television news presenters can read off their autocues with effortless gravitas. Today marks one hundred days of the Abbott Government, viewers! One hundred days. Wow.

Leaving aside for a moment the sophistry of the number, it is hard not to contrast the upbeat, sanitised fluff of the Abbott Government’s report with reality. Yes, pre-election promises were made, but nobody actually cares all that much about most of the actions listed in the document or whether they were undertaken with the first hundred days. Few will sleep better than they have for six years knowing that Tony Abbott’s first overseas trip as Prime Minister was to Indonesia. The life expectancy of people living in Kellyville will not have climbed during the last few weeks as the Coalition dramatically and unprecedentedly ensured that Bruce Billson was sworn in as a Minister for Small Business in Cabinet.

What people do care about is that so far, the Coalition has governed amateurishly; they have had a stinker. Tony Abbott and Alastair Cook are basically interchangeable at this point. As the Poll Bludger notes, opinion polls incredibly have Labor ahead of the Coalition by 4 to 5 percentage points, just *cough* one-hundred days after the Coalition’s comfortable election victory. Gaffe has followed gaffe. There has been an embarrassing backflip (followed by a front flip) on the promise to honour the Gillard Government’s Gonski schools funding agreements with the states. After campaigning rabidly against Labor on the dangers of debt, Treasurer Joe Hockey has moved quickly to scrap the debt ceiling completely, leaving the door open for profligate public spending in the next couple of years. The ham-fistedness of the government’s communications with the Indonesian government and more recently with Holden Australia have left a lot to be desired, threatening to make difficult situations even worse for the country. The traditional, dozy Australian holiday period can just not come quick enough for this government.

Any gaggle of muppets can argue that they are performing admirably according to their own arbitrary timeline and carefully curated handful of meaningless metrics. Tony Abbott might not have much to learn from the English cricket captain at the moment, but Alastair Cook should probably have considered taking a leaf from the Prime Minister’s book: instead of promising to retain the urn, he could have instead just promised to keep a first slip in position when in the field during the first four days of the First Test.

I am sure then that the English public would have been satisfied that their cricket team’s performance targets had then been met.

“Moving forward” to the final countdown

Mercifully for everyone, the dog-eat-dogging and gratuitous slander of Federal Election 2010 is drawing to a close. In a few short hours we will probably have a fairly good grasp of just who is going to be running the country for the next three years. It has been a strange federal campaign; one in which both major parties have proven to be shackled to the budgetary circumstances that they find themselves in. One gets the impression that the driving motivation behind the decision of both major parties to not announce many significant new spending measures is a desire to curry favour with an electorate feeling wary about Australia’s budget deficit and the general economic situation, rather than any deep throbbing vein of fiscal conservatism. As much as this election has reminded us all that Australia is a fairly socially conservative nation, as Tom Switzer points out, it has also reminded us all that the differences between the major parties on economic issues are in realistic terms, quite slight. Whether for reasons of conviction or reasons of political expediency, big government is alive and well in Australia; where the Labor and Liberal parties differ is how they spend the money.

There has been quite a bit of talk in the media regarding whether this has been a “boring” campaign. Like Tim Dunlop, I’m a bit sceptical about this point. This has been a disappointing campaign on a number of levels, but election campaigns are not, strangely enough, meant to entertain us. This is not a reality TV show we are talking about. Democracy is not necessarily meant to be an exciting thrill ride from start to finish; in fact, quite the opposite. Election campaigns frame the orderly decision that every elector in Australia has to make when they cast their ballot, a decision that will decide who will run the country for the next three years. Despite all the flotsam and jetsam that’s cast around by political parties of all stripes during campaigns, the collective decision that Australians make is actually rather important.

If the government changes, the country changes. In my view, it changed for the worse during the Howard years. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, and there were things I would have preferred were done differently, but it changed for the better during the Rudd years. Whether or not the still hypothetical Gillard years really do “move us forward” remains to be seen, but what is certainly clear is that any hypothetical Abbott years would certainly move us backward, or in the very least, halt any further progress for three years. That would be a shame.

The new “bell-weather” seat for Rudd Labor

In today’s edition of The Australian, Dennis Shanahan reported the results of some rather interesting marginal seat polling conducted by Newspoll over the last weekend. Of particular interest to me are the reported results in Lindsay, a seat that I have spent over half my life in. The Newspoll results suggest that Labor’s primary vote has collapsed to just 34% in that seat, and that the Coalition’s vote has surged to 47%. The Greens tend to poll rather poorly in Lindsay, and conservative fringe parties such as the Christian Democrats and One Nation tend to poll well, so these results, if they can be relied upon, suggest that Labor’s David Bradbury and the Rudd Government could be in some real trouble.

While I agree with Mark at Larvatus Prodeo and Possum when they suggest that the Lindsay polling results were irrevocably contaminated by the weekend state by-election in the seat of Penrith, I feel its too simplistic to dismiss the poll entirely. Federal Labor is, make no mistake, on the nose with Howard’s battlers at the moment. Tony Abbott’s straight-talking approach intrinsically appeals to that peculiar strata of the population who thought they saw someone fresh with a dab of economic blue-blood in Kevin Rudd in 2007, and switched their vote from the Coalition to Labor. Abbott is seen to be a man’s man in a way that neither Brendan Nelson nor Malcolm Turnbull was, and Rudd, at least to many, has revealed himself to be a bureaucratic ditherer who does not speak their language.

There are no simple answers to this problem; there is little doubt that Federal Labor’s pollsters and advisors are burning the midnight oil trying to find it. The Prime Minister needs to pay more attention to people in seats like Lindsay and endeavour to do a better job of explaining the achievements of his government to them, and why they should vote for him again.

The balm for Federal Labor’s pain points

There is a real danger at the moment that federal politics could descend into a deep cycle of negativism and not emerge until after this year’s federal election. The Opposition has adopted a resolutely negativist approach in recent months, focusing almost purely on attacking the government’s record and in particular, the record and personal character of the Prime Minister. There are now rumblings that Federal Labor will look more thoroughly to the negative as the election campaign draws nearer, attacking the credibility of the Opposition Leader as it seeks to turn the polls around.

While there is plenty of juicy material to draw on when it comes to negative lines of attack on the Opposition Leader, it would be a mistake for the government to rely exclusively on Tony Abbott’s failings for political sustenance. If federal politics turns into a gigantic mud-slinging match, the government stands to lose more from the exercise than the Opposition. Whomever holds government is by association responsible for the general tenor of debate. If things turn really ugly between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, it will be Kevin Rudd who will be ultimately held responsible for the poisonous state of federal politics, not the Opposition Leader.

As I see it, there are a few crucial positive points that Federal Labor needs to address in order to reclaim its ascendancy over the Opposition:

1) Mapping out a credible path on climate change

The government needs to outline a more thorough roadmap towards the implementation of its emissions trading scheme – or in the very least, a credible roadmap on climate change. The current policy – to shelve the proposed scheme until 2013 – is, by itself, a very weak platform to stand on. There has been some suggestion that Federal Labor has dropped the scheme as a kind of fig leaf to Australia’s centre-right base – but in truth, dropping the scheme has only damaged the government’s record and won it no new support.

2) Defusing asylum seeker issues whilst retaining a humanistic approach

The current situation, with boats arriving every other day, is simply not politically sustainable, but nor is the government’s absurd, ad hoc policy of temporarily freezing claims for asylum by Sri Lankans and Afghans. A new strategy is required that mixes fairness with firmness, and is designed to shape the volume of arrivals in tune with the number of asylum claims that Australia can be readily expected to process annually.

3) Finding common ground on the Resource Super Profits Tax

Federal Labor can not wage an election campaign while the mining industry is filling commercial television ad breaks with deceptive, one-sided advertising. Fighting ads with ads is counterproductive and won’t work, particularly given the government’s past angelic stance on government advertising. The only realistic option is for Labor to reach out to the mining industry through its industry contacts and seek to broker a compromise deal that retains the core income-generating potential of the RSPT whilst offering some further reasonable concessions to industry.

4) Reclaiming the government’s record

One of the biggest problems the government has is that many of its achievements are either “works in progress” due to their considerable scope and cost, or are somewhat intangible, such as its performance during the worst of the GFC and its more symbolic achievements. The government’s leadership team needs to make a more conscious effort to defend its record, and explain to the public what it is achieved, and why certain significant items it has promised have not been completely delivered (e.g. the National Broadband Network, the CPRS).

In short, it needs to publish a kind of scorecard which lays bare the government’s record and explains why certain promises have not been delivered on. In numerous instances where promises made have been broken, there are reasonable, rational reasons why that the public need to understand better.

5) Selling health reform

It really is crucial for the fate of its proposed health reform package that Federal Labor reclaims its record. At the moment, the public generally does not feel as though it can trust the Rudd Government to embark on such a costly, complex, and ambitious program of reform, when several of the large policy promises previously made have not been delivered on, three years on. The spectre of the home insulation scheme also still looms large on the national consciousness, despite the fact that culpability for the more disastrous repercussions of the scheme’s introduction does not realistically rest with the government.

Presently, the public does not really understand all that well what the government’s health reform package is all about, because it is quite a complex, multifaceted package. There is no simple message, because while the Federal Government would take control of majority funding of the public hospital system under the proposed reforms, there is still a 60:40 funding split between the federal and state governments. It is difficult to credibly argue that this set of reforms will “end the blame game” once and for all, but it certainly does appear that it may be a step in the right direction.

In short, I don’t think the Rudd Government can hope to outgun the Opposition in terms of negative political warfare, despite the rich vein of material Tony Abbott has provided it since he became Opposition Leader. To win, Federal Labor needs to retain its essential positivist voice, and demonstrate that it has both a plan for the next three years and the ability to deliver on its plan.

A strategy that centres upon the exaggerated and prolonged slagging of Tony Abbott is a strategy that only hacks the government a path towards political ruin.

The very name of Malcolm Turnbull’s albatross

Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir of his participation in the Australian Republican Movement’s campaign for a republic, Fighting for the Republic, was published in 1999. I wonder, when he was writing the words below, whether he had even the slightest inkling of what the coming years would bring (p.4):

When we launched the ARM, the monarchists quickly retaliated by forming a group called Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM). Its chairman was Lloyd Waddy, a Sydney barrister, and a number of well-known conservatives were among its founders, including Dame Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of Sydney University, and, more improbably, Michael Kirby, very much a small-‘l’ liberal and President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal.

The ACM was pretty ineffective until it hired Tony Abbott as its executive director in 1993. Abbott had been a speechwriter for Liberal leader John Hewson and was an energetic, if somewhat erratic, advocate of the status quo.

And there is this (p.26):

The monarchist campaign was largely directed by Tony Abbott, who had now left his job with the ACM to take up a seat in Parliament. One of the strategy documents prepared by Abbott encouraged the monarchists to attack me personally. ‘As their public face Turnbull is arrogant, rude and obnoxious – a filthy rich merchant banker, out of touch with real Australians. He is the Gordon Gekko of Australian politics.’

Strong words. I wonder how both parties view their interactions during the late 1990’s now? Certainly Abbott would likely view them with a healthy dose of triumphalism. It seems that the life and times of Malcolm Turnbull for the past fifteen years or so have been bookended by two quite separate and quite personal defeats by the Federal Member for Warringah.

The Member for Wentworth’s last huzzah

Let’s try and be fair and reasonable for just a moment. The Member for Wentworth is a pretty damned talented individual. Despite his predilection for despotism and bloody-mindedness, and his tendency to carp in Opposition, I think that most people would agree that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull had the capacity to make a significant and lasting contribution to public life in this country. With the announcement of his resignation today, however, all that seems to lie purely in the realm of small-l liberal fantasy about “what might have been”.

When the unifying influence of John Howard disappeared from public life in November 2007, the division inherent within the Liberal/National Coalition was laid bare for all to see. The demands of government are quite different to the demands of Opposition. Without the binding force of an electorally successful leader, the underlying rabble re-emerged. Turnbull’s own aborted stint as Opposition Leader was troubled, but hardly without merit. He was crushed between the popularity of a competent political operator in Kevin Rudd, freshly ensconced in government, and a party riven brutally along ideological lines. He needed an issue that he could run with; to nail his colours to the mast. Perhaps unwisely – he decided that issue was the government’s ETS. This invited those demanding action on climate change to view the Opposition Leader as something of a flawed hero. Those favouring inaction viewed this only as the final straw.

The closeness of the ensuing leadership ballot that deposed Turnbull and elevated Abbott indicates the extent of the Coalition’s political disintegration. If Turnbull had not nominated for the leadership, it seems almost certain that Joe Hockey, his small-l liberal compadre, would have won the ballot. As it happens, he nominated, splitting the small-l liberal vote and defeating his popular colleague. Turnbull then lost the run-off ballot to Abbott by a single vote.

With his opponent still clinging doggedly to his position on the ETS months after the fact, Abbott evidently felt that he could not allow his adversary to return to the front bench, even when a plum opportunity emerged for a reshuffle last week.

It seems that things could so easily have been different for Malcolm. The times, as it happens, did not suit him.

LOSTNEARFOSSILCREEK

It seems as though the entire Opposition has managed to get itself lost near Fossil Creek. At the end of last week, they were riding high on the home insulation scandal, delighting in the prospect of blaming the Environment Minister and the Prime Minister for deaths caused by dodgy insulation start-ups. The “oppose everything” routine was going great guns. The poll numbers for Tony Abbott were looking bad for Labor, and the Prime Minister felt the need to indulge in some extraordinary self-flagellation on Insiders last Sunday.

What a difference a week makes. This week, the Rudd Government has come out playing ball in election mode, announcing major initiatives in education and health. It is looking like Labor’s health reform plan will form the cornerstone of its re-election campaign. Despite some general public reservations about whether this plan was a process that should have already been well underway, people know that big changes need to be made to the way in which health services are provided in this country. When push comes to shove, health as an issue trumps most other issues out there, and the government’s plan is going to prove difficult to counter; unless, of course, the states and territories don’t play nice.

The timing of Tony Abbott’s barmy disappearance into Central Australia could not really have been worse. I’m not sure if his trip was planned significantly in advance or not, but it should have been gently postponed given the political developments of last week. In his absence, the government has had a free-hit, launching policies and looking positive, while Abbott scratches about in the outback, looking unkempt and managing to make an arse of himself by getting lost. His “oppose everything” schtick is starting to wear a bit thin, especially when it is phoned in from no-man’s land and he is offering no serious policy alternative.

I don’t doubt that the Opposition Leader could learn a lot from engaging more closely with Aboriginal communities, but it was very, very questionable politics to do so while he had the government looking like it might collapse on the canvas after a tough week. Federal Labor has now regained control of the news cycle, and I would not be surprised if the polls in the next couple of weeks reflect that.

Just what is Malcolm Turnbull playing at?

As a Labor supporter, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, I prefer Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott as the leader of the Federal Opposition. This is not just because Turnbull agrees with the Labor Party on climate change, and it’s certainly not because Malcolm Turnbull laid bare the ideological chasm between the liberal and conservative wings of his party – a divided and ineffective opposition is in nobody’s interests. However Turnbull, at least on some issues (e.g. climate change, the republic), offered the electorate a glimmer of hope that concrete bipartisan progress was not impossible, and that the nation is capable of moving beyond the one-eyed partisan bickering that characterises our political system, even if just for a moment or two. Turnbull showed promising signs of understanding that the job of an Opposition is not always to oppose; it is to present an alternative vision for the nation and to back that vision up with policy. Sometimes it is better to be constructive. This is a lesson that Kevin Rudd adopted in Opposition to mighty effect, cherry-picking policy from the government whilst magnifying points of differentiation in other areas. Abbott, in contrast, appears to be set on the “oppose for opposition’s sake” approach. Perhaps he should have a bit of a chat to his mate Peter Debnam on that topic.

Despite all this, I am still a bit shocked at how Malcolm Turnbull has behaved since he was defeated in the leadership ballot last week. Immediately after the ballot, Turnbull asserted the following, as Ben Packham reports in the Herald Sun:

“I am not going to run a commentary on Tony Abbott. Lots of people ran commentaries on me when I was leader but I’m going to be more measured in my backbench remarks,” Mr Turnbull said yesterday.

I guess it all depends on what one considers “more measured” to mean, but a week has been proven once again to be a very long time in politics. Today, less than a week after those remarks, Turnbull posted a strident attack on his leader’s position on climate change on his blog, which quite frankly has to be read to be believed:

While a shadow minister, Tony Abbott was never afraid of speaking bluntly in a manner that was at odds with Coalition policy.

So as I am a humble backbencher I am sure he won’t complain if I tell a few home truths about the farce that the Coalition’s policy, or lack of policy, on climate change has descended into.

First, let’s get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money.

To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money.
Somebody has to pay.
So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, “bullshit.” Moreover he knows it.

If Turnbull continues to undermine Abbott’s position in this way, it will lay waste to the Liberal Party. This is, make no mistake, a running commentary on Tony Abbott’s leadership qualities, and it is a commentary that promises to continue well into the New Year. Abbott is already going to find it frightfully difficult to produce a policy on climate change that reduces emissions without significant costs. Even if a so-called “magic pudding” policy is found, it’s hard to imagine it being a dessert that the divided Coalition caucus is going to be happy to eat (insert “just desserts” pun here).

Seriously, how is the Coalition going to be a competitive force if its spurned leader – a media darling – feels able to fearlessly criticise his party’s policies in this way? It is, simply put, unsustainable.