The prime minister of the Opposition
Tony Abbott continues to be defined by what he opposes

Joe Hockey reckons Australians should “have a go”. The response of many to this odd piece of Budget night rhetoric might well have been: at what?

In the rare moments of quiet that occur inside the Canberra bubble, Hockey and his parliamentary colleagues must be asking similar questions of each other. As the Abbott government approaches its second anniversary in office, what does it exist for?  

Remember the 2013 budget emergency? The nation risked following Greece’s path off the fiscal cliff, Tony Abbott informed the Australian people in Churchillian rhetoric.

Two years on, Budget 2015 saw the government wave the white flag on tackling the Commonwealth’s structural deficit, spooked as it was by the savage public backlash to the “lifters and leaners” offering of 12 months earlier. Faced with the choice between slaying the debt and deficit monster and keeping their jobs, Abbott and Hockey chose the latter path.

Despite a minor rise in budget tax receipts – half a percentage point of GDP this year and smaller projected increases over the next three years – treasury forecasts that spending will make up some 25.3% of GDP in 2018–19. This exceeds Labor spending in the majority of budgets handed down in the Rudd–Gillard years. In 2013, Hockey promised to return the budget to surplus within a year of taking office. He now admits that a ‘quality trajectory back to surplus’ is unlikely to occur inside a decade. The once-pressing task of budget repair will almost certainly be put on hold in 2016, an election year. The treasurer also ruled out changes to negative gearing, increasing the GST or closing superannuation loopholes for the mega-wealthy estimated to cost billions for the budget bottom line.

Hockey has journeyed far from his “end of the age of entitlement” talk. Two weeks ago he visited Darwin to announce a 50-centimetre extension for a local pool to meet Olympic specifications. The cost? A cool $8.8 million. (It was later revealed that the pool is in fact 30 centimetres too long.)

Olympian backflipping is scarcely restricted to matters fiscal. Take the Coalition’s much-vaunted parental leave scheme, championed, rather cynically, by Abbott in Opposition during 2010. Scheduled to begin this July, the $20 billion scheme is now “off the table”.

A fortnight ago, at the behest of mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and radio host Alan Jones, the prime minister proclaimed that the nation “needed” to hold a public inquiry into iron ore pricing. Within a week, the inquiry was categorically ruled out, after a ferocious lobbying campaign executed by the big mining companies, Rio and BHP.

This is a near-two-year-old government desperately in search of a coherent agenda. One moment Team Abbott is indulging (before dropping) a fringe libertarian push to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; the next it flip-flops on allegedly essential cuts to Medicare schedule payments. One of the few decisions to have stood the test of time is Abbott’s bizarre Australia Day “captain’s pick” to knight Prince Philip.  

No matter what friendly pundits say of Abbott’s “budget poll bounce” he has not grown in the transition from Opposition leader to prime minister, but instead shrunk in the role, in the same manner as his Labor predecessors Rudd and Gillard were perceived to lack prime ministerial gravitas. This much is evident by Abbott’s repeated attempts to shift the political debate onto national security, culminating in last Tuesday’s extraordinary announcement of legislation allowing the immigration minister to strip an Australian of their citizenship.

Abbott is the first prime minister of the Opposition to occupy the top job. On most issues he continues to be defined by what he opposes. He is at his best campaigning against this or that policy rather than making the case for change. Indeed, the Dr No of Opposition, battling carbon pricing and mining taxes, has apparently progressed to opposing his own 2014 budget. This year’s affair, which was more favourably received, was couched in terms of “fairness”, a brazen attempt to appropriate the current Labor Opposition’s oft-repeated mantra.

All this risks repeating the folly of the 2013 election. For fear of appearing risky to swinging voters, Abbott ruled out doing anything much at all if elected. In office this strategy proved untenable, leading to a series of broken promises and subsequent backflips.

Abbott’s prime-ministerial oppositionalism presents Bill Shorten’s Labor Party with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to retake the Lodge in a single attempt. As I have argued previously, a small-target electoral strategy is not enough to win office or prepare the party for the challenges of government. And Shorten needs to appear prime ministerial ahead of acquiring the keys to the Lodge, setting the agenda where Abbott won’t or can’t.

Surprisingly, same-sex marriage might just be the beginning. Yesterday Shorten introduced a bill in the federal parliament to legalise same-sex marriage. Not only will the move avoid the crazy spectacle of the ALP debating a binding vote on the issue at its July national conference, it invites the reappearance of Abbott’s “Dr No” persona in the face of an overwhelming groundswell support for parliamentary action. Oh, and it’s the right and just thing to do. Shorten’s having a prime-ministerial “go”, in other words.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

@dyrenfurth

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