Wednesday, 29 October 2014

From class warfare to patriotism — the hypocrisy of Abbott’s ‘mature debate’ –

From class warfare to patriotism — the hypocrisy of Abbott’s ‘mature debate’ –

From class warfare to patriotism — the hypocrisy of Abbott’s ‘mature debate’

The Government’s capacity to prosecute a reform agenda will be
undermined by the way it has squandered trust and goodwill in the

As plenty of observers have noted, Tony Abbott’s hypocrisy
in calling for a “mature debate” on tax reform and federalism is almost

Speaking last night to those noted advocates of economic
reform, the Business Council of Australia, he laid it on still thicker.
Among the reforms he nominated as demonstrating his government’s
commitment to getting the budget under control was “changing social
welfare indexation means that we avoid saddling the next generation with
this generation’s debts”. That was a reform that was “too hard for the
Howard government”, he said, but “one charge that can’t be made against
this Government is that we’ve put short-term politics above the
long-term national interest.”

Of course, in 2011, when the Labor government proposed to stop indexation of family tax benefit payments, Abbott called it “class war”
and Joe Hockey called it “politics of envy”. The Coalition’s cuts to
family tax benefit payments go beyond a pause in indexation to include a
cut to the access threshold to $100,000. But that’s not “class war”,
that’s “avoiding saddling the next generation with this generation’s

But Abbott went further last night, suggesting that failing
to join in his “mature debate” on tax and federalism was somehow
unpatriotic, saying he was “inviting the Labor Party, the state
governments to join Team Australia and think of our country and not just
the next election.” So, it’s “class war” when a Labor government seeks
reforms, but a failure of patriotic feeling when Labor fails to support a
Coalition government.

But hypocrisy is one of the great lubricants of politics.
Yesterday’s cynical opportunist is frequently today’s statesmanlike
mature debater, before transforming into tomorrow’s grubby hypocrite as
the cycles of electoral fortune carry people back and forth from
government to opposition. Labor, which continued to oppose a GST even
after John Howard took it to an election and won, doesn’t have an
especially strong case to complain about opportunism in opposition. And
just because Abbott is being profoundly hypocritical doesn’t mean he’s
wrong in suggesting that Australia could benefit from politicians of
both state and federal level being a little less, well, political about
tax and federalism.

The more substantial problem for Abbott is that, for all
that he is correct to seek to initiate such a debate, he comes to it
without any goodwill or trust, and that is likely to cruel whatever
chances he has of success. The opposition of Labor is virtually a
given — and from Labor’s perspective, an entirely rational decision.
But the government needlessly upset the states with its unilateral $80
billion budget funding cuts in health and education in May, and it has
given Labor oppositions in Victoria, NSW and Queensland another issue to
campaign on with a possible GST rise. Goodwill at the state level is
going to be hard to come by for a time.

Similarly, voter goodwill on reform might be hard to come by
after the government’s budget debacle, which damaged voter perceptions
of both Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey, although Abbott has managed to
recover some ground with voters by emphasising national security. Reform
is only successful if voters trust the political leaders implementing
it, in the way they trusted Hawke, and trusted Howard, for a time. The
budget has badly damaged voter trust in the Coalition. Nor will last
night’s speech help things. Abbott used his address to the BCA last
night to call for it to lead the charge for economic reform, similar to
the way he has repeatedly tried to outsource the prosecution of the case
for industrial relations reform to business. But business is not
particularly well regarded by voters — the main fiscal reform most
voters, including Liberal voters, want to see is businesses paying more
tax. And voters already think the Coalition’s economic management is
primarily aimed at benefiting business rather than voters. Getting
business to lead your campaign for economic reform is akin to putting
Jacqui Lambie in charge of outreach to the Muslim community.

The lack of voter trust in the government will also increase
the risks around its decision to index fuel excise regardless of Senate
opposition. The government is well within its rights to implement the
increase without legislation, and previous governments have done the
same. But the idea that Labor and/or the Greens will somehow feel
pressured into supporting legislation for it next year is an eccentric
one: the rise will be hated by motorists, remind them of the
government’s broken promises, and give non-government parties the
opportunity to establish their credentials for reducing the cost of
living for motorists by blocking it.

In a rational world, of course, this trivial increase in
excise would occasion little comment, given it is so small as to be
barely noticeable amid oil price and currency volatility, and it would
be Labor and the Greens being criticised for undermining revenue and
preventing a carbon price signal for fossil fuel use. But in Australia
all politicians genuflect to the Motorist — just as the Coalition did in
opposition when it tried to link the carbon price to fuel price
increases. Worse, there is no trust or community goodwill for the
government to draw on in arguing its case for indexation (which it has
never done, beyond Joe Hockey saying poor people didn’t drive). That
goodwill has been consumed in less than a year through political
maladroitness and zealotry, and it will undermine all government
attempts to argue for reform henceforth, until it can somehow recover

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