Ghosts of ideologies past hover around Abbott’s budget reply

Tony Abbot’s budget reply speech was rife with contradictions. AAP/Alan Porritt

To quote American baseball manager Yogi Berra, it was “déjà vu all over again” last night when I listened to Tony Abbott’s budget reply. I was back in the 1970s but without the big-collared shirts and clunky shoes. And I felt like invoking Hawaii Five-0, saying “Book ‘em, Danno” for the crimes of partisan hyperbole and assassination of complexity.

When I heard Abbott shrilly asserting the crime of “class warfare” by Labor, I thought of Malcolm Fraser and his rhetoric about radical, socialist big government. Likewise, there was Abbott glorifying the Coalition as the party supporting small business, self-reliant citizens and reward for hard work.

It is amusing to think that only Abbott and Trotskyists talk publicly these days about class struggle. You won’t find the Labor Party walking that talk any more. That stopped in the 1960s under Whitlam, and the Hawke and Keating governments certainly put paid to such notions. So Abbott’s accusations sit awkwardly next to the complaints on the left about the selling-out of Labor.

Even John Howard highlighted the changed Labor philosophy in his recent autobiography by strongly contrasting Whitlam, who expanded government spending to replace private enterprise, with Kevin Rudd, who expanded government spending to help private enterprise.

Meanwhile, Swan and Gillard still tried to stir some ghosts of Labor past by claiming theirs was a traditional Labor budget that helped the battlers.

Of course, the contradictions continue to pile on top of each other. Last night Abbott invoked an archaic piece of left terminology in order to frighten swinging voters about the radicalism (eh?) of Labor, as if denying tax write-offs for business trips and reducing superannuation contributions was some Marxist monstering of the ruling classes.

If those are the measures of radicalism, then Robert Menzies and Dwight Eisenhower must be revolutionary communists: much higher and more widespread tax rates were quite acceptable during their times.

While conjuring ghosts of Labor past with clarion calls of class struggle, Abbott was also trying to deny Gillard and Swan their claims to it, using his speech to mourn a “once honourable party”. This was, of course all done with tongue firmly planted in his check. Abbott wants to replace the Light on the Hill with the Right on the Hill by appealling to Labor voters.

And, of course, right-wing, capitalist Abbott refused left-wing, socialist Labor the chance to reduce company tax, but blames Labor for cancelling the commitment. He did remind me of the hysterical complaints from the right of rampant socialism in 1973 when Whitlam reduced tariffs by 25% and removed the superphosphate bounty. Think about that for the current parallels: free-market reforms introduced by a Labor government attacked by the guardians of free enterprise.

Both left and right have always used each other as means of navigating their own quests for meaning and ideology. Each party, then, cannot do without the other, just as the terms left and right have no meaning without each other. Thus, the Coalition has always used Labor to complain of big government while proclaiming their own capitalist purity. Therefore, last night Abbott mouthed the usual stuff of hard work, small business and reward and insisted the government live within its means just as households have to, and reducing the “massive” debt.

Despite implications, Abbott has not declared himself a believer in small government with a desire to slash government spending across the board. He just talks of reducing Labor’s spending, not of reducing spending for constituencies he wants to attract. And lots of Australians believe in reduced government spending – for other people but not for themselves for they, of course, are hard-working battlers who are hard done by.

Neither party is willing to annoy too many constituencies. That’s why the government turned around the budget without making hard cuts. That’s also why Abbott talked of cutting the carbon and minerals taxes and why there were the usual attacks on the “tribes of public servants” (boo hiss to them for wasting all our hard earned dollars; they’re not battlers like us).

With Tony, it will be all so easy to get rid of all that nasty debt and reduce government spending – while also covering the income lost from carbon and mineral taxes. And, like the proverbial magic pudding, more would suddenly spew forth from the Australian economy.

On matters of debt, he treats Australians as if they are paragons of virtue. But the dirty secret of the past 20 or more years is that no politician has wished to commit political hara kiri by telling many Australians to pull their heads in. Private debt stands at 150% of GDP. It’s only gone down because the GFC frightened many people into cutting back spending. If only private debt was as low as our government debt!

Abbott complained about government measures that mean “a full pensioner faces up to $10,000 a year more for in-home aged care and up to $25,000 a year more for residential care”.

Is he backing the Coalition away from means-testing social security, the bedrock of our welfare system, for more universal entitlement? If so, that is truly Whitlamesque. Similarly, he complained the government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme “was short-changed $2.9 billion from the Productivity Commission’s version”. Will Abbott also pony up to that?

On this matter of the Alice in Wonderland unreality of Abbott’s stand, he repeated the intention to turn back the refugee boats, even though the Indonesians and the Immigration Department either refuse to cooperate or deny that it can work.

As I said, things have always been messier than the usual partisan labels allow and it is always useful to probe partisan hyperbole of either side.

However, now I think we are in the era of zombie politics when the party corpses mouth words that remind us of the past but are effectively brain dead. Recently, the conservative American thinker Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay challenging the left for its failure in ideas for social justice in this age of globalisation. “This absence of a plausible progressive counter-narrative” was, he said, unhealthy.

Equally, however, the right is effectively caught by this problem of globalisation. The nostrums from die-hard sections of the right are more economic rationalism, more of the same that got us into the global financial crisis in the first place. Mitt Romney is a zombie repeating such recipes for America’s malaise.

Yet most Australians are opposed to them, opposed to more privatisations and the other measures. What will Abbott do in power when faced by such voters on one side and by business on the other which still believes in such measures for their bottom lines?

Both sides are focused solely on the short-term battles and struggles of survival. This suits Abbott as, to borrow from his past time as a boxer, he is good in the clinches.

But we don’t know what he believes. It is a melange of things designed to carry him into the Lodge. It seems as though he is letting the mounting contradictions wait until he gets there. But he will find himself immediately backed into a place that the ALP took five years of political incompetence to nurture - a corner.