Nicholas Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times.
Nick Stuart has written three books,
Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography;
What Goes Up: Behind the 2007 Election; and
Rudd's Way: November 2007 - June 2010.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
I often provide advice. It's not always taken.
Tony Abbott needs to listen
Nevertheless, I keep trying and today I used my soapbox on the Canberra Times to offer a bit of helpful advice to the PM . . .
Ah, welcome back!
Yes, the Parliamentary winter break always offers a good chance for pollies and their hard-partying staffers to escape dreary Canberra's cold and grab a bit of time in the sun. After all, it's a well-known fact that nothing ever happens (politically) during this entire period. What's that you say? Never been busier? Budget not passed? Economy stalling? Goodness gracious, but don't worry about that, I'm sure that nice Mr Tony Abbott has a terrific plan in his back pocket that will fix everything up quick smart. Nevertheless, and just in case he doesn't, it's obviously my civic duty to ride to the rescue with a few carefully chosen words to provide assistance.
So here goes. Firstly a diagnosis of the problem, then the remedy. It's simple, really, and I'm sure my solutions will be of great assistance.
A cabinet full of old fuddy-duddies.
A couple of problems here. Firstly, the hopeless ones are all on the frontbench while the talented ones sit further back. Unfortunately, the opportunity for a shake-up has passed with the winter break. Abbott can't afford to shuffle the ministry now because he'll be throwing the new chums into a baptism of fire without any chance to get across the issues in the portfolio. The counter-argument to this, of course, is that no one can really be worse than George "Voltaire" Brandis, Peter "chuckles" Dutton or what's his name, you know the bloke, he's Deputy Prime Minister, oh, it's on the tip of my tongue. No, sorry, lost it.
That's the problem, of course. If Abbott dumps everyone who's hopeless, of course he'll have room to promote others. However, in the process, he'll create a number of enemies. That's something nobody who's just one party-room vote away from oblivion wants to do. Actually, perhaps it's best just to soldier on with the dodgy team Abbott so foolishly chose to begin with.
Only one woman in Cabinet.
The electorate's focussing on domestic issues that breed discontent.
Abbott realised he needed to grasp control of the agenda and how better to do that than reverting to the old, tried and proven methods. That's why he began referring to "Team Australia" because, guess what, he's the captain. Well, at least until the next election anyway.
One of the few advantages a prime minister has is the opportunity to define issues in the public consciousness. Abbott's done this cleverly, through a careful choice of words. After all, who doesn't want to be on the home team? Then, by extending the analogy and identifying himself as "Australia", Abbott emasculates his critics. He's cleverly managed to define any opponents as if they somehow don't represent ordinary values. Nevertheless, although he's insulated himself against criticism for now, this is a high-stakes game. As long as Abbott expresses anodyne sentiments, he's fine. But in opposition the populist politician declared the Middle-East wars were a case of "baddies versus baddies". What's changed? And who's funding the Islamic State, anyway. Sure, occupation, looting and extortion provide revenue today but a lot came from the Saudi's. This raises the question: why should Western nations get involved in an inter-Arab dispute? Come to think of it, perhaps this isn't the way to go either.
Abbott's now paying the price for (allegedly) telling Tony Windsor "the only thing I wouldn't do is sell my arse – but I'd give serious thought to it". Clive Palmer is well aware today that he holds the key and he's going to extort a huge policy price before he hands it over.
Again, it's the sales job for pushing on that's vital. As long as we the public believe we're all engaged in making sacrifices together, things will be fine. But the minute people realise that, although the government says it needs to hike taxes, it's leaving the rich alone and extorting money from the middle, it will have a problem. It wouldn't matter if the budget were fair, rigorous and intellectually consistent to begin with – but it isn't so, unfortunately, tweaking it won't be enough. Maybe I shouldn't offer Abbott any advice about this, either.
The economy's stuffed.
Now this is becoming a real issue. Last week, I escaped the hurly-burly to sit in the parliamentary library where, by mistake, I picked up the Monthly Statistical Bulletin. I'd thought it was Who Weekly and, as you can imagine, turned at once to the illustrations: 42 exciting graphs including "household debt and saving ratios" and "foreign debt", all displayed over the past five glorious years.
It's not even a year since the election yet, so it's impossible to interpret an "Abbott" running through the economy. Yet look at numbers of, say, dwelling approvals and you note they're heading down. So is business investment. Profits are flat-lining and wages share of that is headed down, but the CPI is up. The picture isn't all negative, but it's certainly not good and there's no discernible economic recovery at this stage. This doesn't mean the foundations aren't in place; but it does mean (with one year down and two to go) that the government will be hoping pretty desperately that something changes soon. Maybe the problem is bigger than I thought.
So, can we expect a challenge? No, let's not get excited. Nothing's going to happen until December 3 at the earliest, because that's the penultimate sitting day this year, which means it's the next real opportunity for a spill. Even then, however, Abbott's rivals can still afford to bide their time. Unless there's a double dissolution, the earliest date a normal half-Senate election can possibly be held is August,6, 2016. That's almost two years away. A lot can happen between then and now.