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Changing climates

Forget the polls, News Corp is not happy with Abbott … again

AAP/Glenn Hunt

Many commentators on climate change articles in this publication have abandoned hope that effective action on climate change will happen under an Abbott government. The only solution for those concerned about Australia’s unacceptable carbon footprint is to “kick this mob out”, as the Daily Telegraph famously beseeched voters to do to Labor at the last federal poll.

Were this to happen, Labor would need to turn its own climate policies around, and do much better than it did in the Rudd-Gillard years. The possibility of a different Senate mix and a rise in the green vote are other important contingencies that could break or worsen the mediocrity of the two-party monopoly over representative – but not deliberative – democracy in Australia.

But for now, what is clear is that the Abbott government is in a great deal of trouble. The first sign of this is when News Corp’s newsletter to the Australian political elite, The Australian, starts to editorialise against the government.

It has only happened thrice to the Abbott government previously – in July , November and December last year, and last Tuesday.

Last July, the national broadsheet rebuked Abbott for not “communing with his people”, and to lead rather than behaving “as if he were opposition leader”.

In the aftermath of the shocking first budget, I observed at the time that The Australian’s complaint seemed to be that:

Tony, we are happy to help you out, get you elected, manufacture a majority view around carbon and whatever else, but hey, you are making it difficult for us by turning on the electorate.

Last November, Abbott’s communication problem was pinpointed again:

Limply, the Prime Minister is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why. At stake is his political credibility, no less. Mr Abbott risks becoming a “oncer” if he allows his opponents to constantly control the agenda.

But in the same editorial, The Australian also pressures Abbott, and his chief of staff Peta Credlin, to be harder on economic reform, requiring an even greater effort to communicate such a position. The December editorial further condemned the centralisation of power within the Prime Minister’s Office.

Last Tuesday, The Australian asked whether Abbott is capable of learning from his mistakes. The answer will decide whether he will survive one term in office. Referring to Abbott’s near political death in February, “little has changed”, lamented the editorial:

The common thread is lousy judgment, a poor sense of political priorities, inept messaging via the media, and a tin ear for the concerns and reactions of the electorate.

While The Australian is urging the Abbott government to keep up an IPA-style agenda, Abbott himself does not seem to be able to cope with having centralised power to his own office. He is falling out with News Corp for not being hardline enough on economic reform, fallen out with his own ministry for branch stacking partyroom meetings by bringing in National Party votes, and the polls are slipping away from him by the week.

Many political analysts are seeing Abbott as being “out of time” and a spent force. He has so alienated the electorate on such a vast front of issues, and now his fellow ministers over his trickery on same-sex marriage. And all this comes amid the reboot of “good government”.

The Dyson Heydon affair has virtually neutralised the credibility of the royal commission into trade unions, whose terms of reference were to look at the labour movement, not the Labor Party.

It is no small irony that the man in whose honour Heydon was to speak at a Liberal Party function, Sir Garfield Barwick, was the legal oracle who advised then-governor-general John Kerr how to dismiss the Whitlam government.

Barwick’s hero-worship status among Liberals came from his role in the dismissal. To be lining up to pay his respects while attacking the credibility of the Labor leader looks like another 1975 in the making – except this time it is about dismissing the Labor leader’s prospects at the next election.

But one thing going for the 1975 dismissal was that at least it did not cost taxpayers A$60-80 million – unlike the current royal commission.

The Coalition’s internal focus groups must be telling it that it is going to get hit hard by female voters next election, so Abbott is now trying to espouse the virtues of increasing female representation in his party. But as the minister for women, he can’t even get this right. It was announced the day after this pledge that the frontrunning Liberal nominee for the Canning byelection is a hyper-macho SAS soldier, Andrew Hastie, who appeared on the SBS program The Search For Warriors.

Abbott appeared to be endorsing the Hastie decision by way of a convoluted logic that:

It’s up to every pre-selection panel to choose the best candidate, regardless of gender … if even the Australian army can become less blokey, then so must we.

While it may not help with improving the women’s vote, Hastie’s nomination will aid Abbott’s only constant front-page winner: national security. Hastie has vowed to use his military experience to help:

… defeat the security threats we face as a nation.

On the same day as Abbott’s endorsement, it was revealed that cabinet’s National Security Committee has asked for a list of anything related to national security to be provided weekly, for announcement on a day-to-day basis. A taste of this is the reckless use of a Liberal backbencher, Dan Tehan, to declare that Australia urgently needs to gets its fighter jets into Syria.

As Laura Tingle opined in the Australian Financial Review on Friday:

Bombing Syria. Messing with the constitution to get a political outcome on same sex-marriage. These are now the playthings of a prime minister so desperate, so out of control that he is overseeing the complete surrender of proper governance to day-to-day tactics.

In her op-ed piece “Tony Abbott: determined to lead the Whitlam government of our time?”, Tingle revisits the comparison the IPA would like to make between Abbott and Gough Whitlam, with both governments being driven by a recklessness to change the institutions that make up our social contract as quickly and zealously as possible, without consultation.

In Whitlam’s case, our half-formed social democracy had its greatest single period of growth – some would say at the expense of economic gain. Abbott’s agenda has always been to sacrifice Australia’s now-rich and diverse social contract to class-distorted economic benchmarks that will never even be realised in what is looking like his only term in office.

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