Back on the 13th of May, I wrote about the Budget:
The most important thing about this Budget is that it symbolises the brokenness of Australian politics. It’s a tipping point, a crisis moment for the political class.
In the week between the Budget’s delivery and the resumption of Parliament, things went from bad to worse for the Abbott government.
The polls were nightmarish, both Prime Minister Abbott and Treasurer Hockey had trouble understanding or communicating the impact of measures such as the GP co-payment and the HECS and higher education fee increases. Thousands marched in the streets. The commentariat launched attacks on whingers and bludgers, but University Vice-Chancellors, Liberal State Premiers and the President of the Australian Medical Association had joined the chorus of outrage. Even the Business Council of Australia thought the “Earn or Learn” cuts to the under 30s dole were too much.
Then the whole thing got swallowed up by #winkgate and #daughtergate.
Backbench MPs backgrounded withering criticism of the government’s political strategy to The Australian while News Limited columnists veered from asserting that the impact wasn’t too bad anyway to denouncing just about everyone for their purported selfishness. Tony Abbott oscillated between threats of a double dissolution and promises of second term tax cuts, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he hardly had the authority or credibility to enunciate either.
That failure, and the failure of the usual interest group/media/industrial complex suspects to weave their narrative of “fiscal reponsibility”, is demonstrated also by Labor’s decision to oppose the freeze on family benefits. Clearly, they’re calculating they can safely ignore the demand to “fix their own mess”.
Meanwhile, as if to confirm my suspicion that PUP is angling for a double dissolution, Clive Palmer pronounced:
Well we are unusual, we don’t like them, we don’t like this budget and we aren’t going to talk to them.
And the media rushed to leadership speculation.
We saw this same panicky, existential attempt by the media to frame the debate in conventional, ‘objective’ terms quite starkly in the attempts earlier this year to downplay or completely ignore the significance of the March in March protests. Any political expression that comes from outside the narrow Canberra-defined world of ‘politics’ is discounted as naive or wrong-headed or a throwback to a quaint 60s idealism.
It’s hard to escape the view that with the public losing faith in institutions, including the media itself, journalists are subconsciously fighting a rearguard action to seize back control of the narrative and cast it in a comfortable framework that suits them and the political classes they report on. In this, they are betraying the principles of their craft – representing the powerful to the public rather than the other way around. Worse for them, they’re also missing the bigger story.
Tim Dunlop is absolutely right about what’s going on when he points out that “The Prime Minister has no authority”:
Howard took four full terms as prime minister to completely ruin his reputation for honesty. Abbott has done it in less than one full year. How could anyone be so clumsy?
The answer lies in authority.
Both inside and outside the party, Abbott draws on very shallow reservoirs of support. This in turn is related to the fact that the Coalition itself no longer connects with a significant “base”.
This is why our politics has become more and more an exercise in media management than in policy commitment. And that situation is made worse by the fact that the media itself has fractured beyond repair and thus mirrors the political sphere in its lack of authority.
Such a situation does not lend itself to long-term planning. It lends itself to short-term shock-and-awe tactics. When you sense the precariousness of your grip on power, you want to shake things up as quickly as possible, to try to alter the landscape radically while you can.
That’s why this budget feels like WorkChoices for everything.
Howard waited for three terms and a favourable Senate before he dared try anything like that. I sincerely doubt that Abbott, even on his best day, thinks he will last that long, and so there is no time to waste.
And he’s right about this:
Are we therefore heading for a hung parliament? I have no idea, but one thing you can be sure of is that if we are, the anti-politician/post-politics position that is likely to resonate powerfully in the electorate is all but owned by Clive Palmer.
Both Abbott and Shorten should be scared to death.
So, what does happen now?
I wonder which of the following scenarios is more plausible:
1. The Senate threatens to block many of the budget measures, negotiations are a farce, the Coalition continues to drop in the polls and casts around for a new leader. Perhaps someone who could jettison the Tony Abbott signature policies of Direct Action and PPL and save a bucket of money to fund backdowns on all the Budget nasties?
But who? Those close to the Coalition party room say Scott Morrison’s stocks are riding high (“he stopped the boats”)!
2. The Senate threatens to block many of the budget measures, negotiations are a farce, the Coalition continues to drop in the polls, and Tony Abbott calls a Double Dissolution election directed against pesky Greens and the obstructive Mr Palmer, asking “Who governs Australia?”.
3. The Senate rolls over, people realise that it’s important to support the fire brigade (or something), Tony Abbott is thanked by a grateful people for saving Australia from Debt and Deficit.
(3) seemed to be what the Government was trying to conjure up last week. This week, I’m not sure what their plan is, but no doubt for a little while, we’ll continue to hear about Toughness.