The Politics    Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tony Abbott may yet discover his purpose

By Sean Kelly

Source
What defines this government?

Almost two years into the Abbott government, it would be difficult to say precisely what the prime minister wants to achieve.

He brought down a fairly savage first budget premised upon a supposed debt and deficit emergency – only to back away from almost everything in it when the measures included proved politically unfeasible. The second budget was as different in character from its predecessor as was possible.

He said he would make Indigenous affairs a priority, then went missing during the Adam Goodes controversy, and has not yet led clearly on the issue of constitutional recognition.

The government seemed headed for superannuation reform until it wasn’t, and for GST changes until it delegated control of that policy to the Opposition.

This isn’t to say the government hasn’t had achievements – it has done some of what it clearly promised it would, including largely stopping the boats and abolishing the carbon and mining taxes – just that it’s difficult to explain its aims within a coherent framework, except perhaps for a general tendency towards what you might call “conservative populism”, meaning chest-beating on national security, ABC-bashing, and an anti-tax rhetoric which is not always matched by its actions.

Two years sounds like a long time, but it doesn’t have to be defining. It’s widely accepted that John Howard’s first term meandered along vaguely until he gave it direction, two years in, with the bombshell announcement that he would pursue a GST. And while Howard almost lost the subsequent election, there is an argument he could have actually lost it were it not for the substantive debate that the GST push gave him.

It’s worth bearing all this in mind, because the prime minister is about to have a lot of policy options in front of him. The Productivity Commission today released its draft workplace relations report. NSW Premier Mike Baird has recently given Abbott some useful political cover if he decides to undertake a renewed push for expanding the GST. There is a White Paper on reform of the federation due next year.

None of these debates will be easy. The prime minister would have to strap on his campaign boots and go for gold. But so far it seems campaigning, far more than the day-to-day drudgery of governing, is this prime minister’s expertise. A difficult argument might be exactly what he needs.

For the rest of us, it would mean our politicians were actually talking about something more meaningful than travel entitlements and the ABC.

The clock is ticking, but Tony Abbott still has time. 

 

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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