Post-Budget: Just what the hell is Abbott up to?

by · June 11, 2014


In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Economics Editor Ross Gittins portrays Tony Abbott as a political “chameleon” who went from being a soft “populist” before the election — backing Labor’s spending commitments, promising minimal cuts despite saying that the Budget deficit needed to be reversed, etc. — to “an inflexible ‘conviction politician’ who doesn’t seem much worried about whom he offends”.

What surprises me is how Abbott could change from being such a supremely pragmatic, vote-obsessed pollie in opposition to being so willing to alienate so many interest groups while in government.

Abbott seems to now be playing the harsh neoliberal ideologue by attacking certain disadvantaged groups (Gittins identifies pensioners, the young unemployed and university students), and predicts this will both cause him electoral pain and end up with his nastiest policies being voted down by the Senate.

In my view Gittins misunderstands what is going on.

The government’s lack of authority since being elected means Abbott sees little choice but to go “tough” in order to try to regain position. It’s kind of an exaggerated version of Howard’s deployment of the GST in 1997-8 (itself a massive volte-face) after it lost a whole section of its right flank to Hanson, and then found that Labor was starting to unexpectedly recover despite having been punished so resoundingly in 1996. There is some debate as to how well the GST served that aim, but Howard maintained that at least tax reform gave a floundering government something to advocate for.

The task is more urgent for Abbott because he had no honeymoon, and has since rapidly slid into negative territory on a 2PP basis (Abbott’s personal approval has always been low, and any boost he got from the election has long since evaporated). He also has to contend with a much more hostile Senate than Howard did, and which is hardening against any idea he has a “mandate” to push through his “broken promises”. This means that if the Senate won’t implement most of his program, it’s much more likely that Abbott will seriously consider a double dissolution. The alternative is the Senate further exposing his weakness by forcing him to back down. That would destroy his remaining authority and open up the possibility of electoral oblivion.

To be frank, given the predictable oppositional tactics from the ALP and Greens (and related groups outside parliament) so far, Abbott might just sneak things through with such an approach. Even a narrow victory, sacrificing seats but getting his Budget through a joint sitting on the basis of a clear agenda, would dramatically shift the political balance. Such a result is far from guaranteed, and less likely thanks to the way Abbott has frittered away authority by playing to a narrow right-wing rump with a series of silly culture war salvos, the “knights and dames” flop, and the hamfisted lead-up to the Budget where the “Budget emergency” was all but forgotten until the Commission of Audit report was belatedly released. Then there is the selling of a Budget that appears so grossly weighted against disadvantaged groups, so economically incoherent (it blows out the deficit well beyond when Labor said it would be fixed) and so ideologically divorced from the concerns of the wider public. Because Abbott has had to spend so much time keeping the internal dynamics of the Coalition satisfied, the public messaging has often come across as confused and contradictory — a mixing up of which audience a minister is speaking to at any one time.

Palmer Turnbull

The Abbott-Turnbull-Palmer-Bolt-Jones fiasco becomes more comprehensible in light of the preceding. Abbott is keen to deny Palmer the image of appearing to control the government’s agenda, and so has largely cut the former LNP maverick out of the loop. Turnbull’s dinner with Palmer was seen by the ideological Right as inflating Palmer’s standing relative to the government, and thereby downgrading their influence. The Right wants Palmer to vote with the government because he has to, not because some cosy deal has been made. Hence Bolt’s repeated sprays and then Jones’ remarkable interview with Turnbull. Both were intended to strengthen Abbott relative to an alternative “friendly with Clive” approach personified by loose cannon Turnbull. Yet by coming to his defence in the way they did, Bolt and Jones actually made Abbott look weaker, and more in need of saving by them. Yet Abbott also couldn’t then attack them, because so much of his government’s internal dynamics have been about playing to its “closest friends” on the Right.

But, I hear you ask, what about the revival of the Left that seems to be happening on the streets? Surely this promises to be the basis for defeating the Budget, and Abbott with it.

The key thing to recall is that Abbott won almost entirely on the basis that voters rejected the previous government, which suffered an excruciating crisis of authority mainly caused by the decline of Labor’s social base and its subsequent attempt to rebuild through its hollowed-out union-factional structures with Gillard. It may have gotten a lot of legislation through, but beyond that technocratic appeal it failed miserably on the politics. Perhaps most saliently, it was a defeat for Australia’s political Left, even that which exists outside Canberra. There was a decline in anti-government protest under Rudd and Gillard compared with the Howard years, and even the emergence of something quite disturbing: pro-government rallies organised by progressive campaigning organisations, most obviously around the carbon price, but also around the Gonski and NDIS reforms. Sure there were small minority counter-currents, and of course on refugees there were some more significant protests after Rudd announced his brutal PNG solution, but in fact the bulk of the Left had so closely aligned itself with the government that being “anti-Abbott” was all it had to play with.

The small wave of “anti-Abbott” and “Bust the Budget” protests in the last three months may be a step up from the Rudd-Gillard years but they pale in comparison to what happened under Howard (and even those had limited impact on political outcomes until Howard pulled out an anachronistic industrial relations agenda in his final term). While I have no problem with protests against the Budget, the political repetition-compulsion at work is striking. The primary focus remains on getting a nicer result in the political system, not on developing the capacity of ordinary people to mount their own social resistance to the political system. It’s Gillardism without Gillard, where an imaginary competent Left government is just waiting in the wings once Abbott is knocked over. It’s an illusion that can only be sustained if we avoid looking closely at the really existing ALP and Greens (something made harder by Palmer’s expertise in articulating the Left’s agendas better than the Left can).

Perhaps most ominously, the ALP accepts Abbott and Hockey’s main “national interest” argument: that balancing the Budget is essential and that ordinary people must sacrifice for that end. The Greens reject the “Budget emergency” talk, yet they have no alternative economics to put in its place, having long accepted fiscal responsibility. Ironically, it is billionaire Palmer with his high-growth, big spending government talk who presents a (partial) break from that logic.

Put simply, the Left has no credible political alternative on offer right now apart from more of what failed in 2010-13, and there have not been anything like the kind of social struggles we’ve seen in Europe, especially the Indignados movement in Spain. Those struggles have shifted the political possibilities away from simply more of the fracturing of previously stable political arrangements. As five-month-old Podemos has streaked to 15 percent in a national opinion poll following its breakthrough in the European elections, the potential for something new on the Left is much clearer than here. But in both Europe and here the dissolution of the old politics proceeds apace, with the prevailing anti-political mood now impossible to ignore.

Amidst all this, Abbott is preparing for a political confrontation where, for him, there has to be a clear outcome. Whether the result is clear or simply a descent into greater chaos, it is unlikely to stop the continuing degeneration of the political system. However, it is far from certain that in the short term he will necessarily fail by raising the stakes.

Discussion9 Comments

  1. David says:

    “The primary focus remains on getting a nicer result in the political system, not on developing the capacity of ordinary people to mount their own social resistance to the political system.”

    Good article. I agree, yet the most difficult problem, building alternatives to Gillardism, is the part you don’t spend much time on in this article. How about detailing what you mean by the above quote? Building extra-electoral political parties championing alternative logic and ideology? Unions? Grass roots protest campaigns, direct action…? I appreciate your article, still it’s always easier to see the problems then solutions. Which is a real shame given how profoundly problematic our system is.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I don’t think there is any shortcut to building movements like the one in Spain, which was built on an explicitly anti-political basis. Luke Stobart has written a few Left Flank posts on this in 2014 and he has a more detailed reflection on Podemos coming up.

      The main reason the case I put is mainly negative is that the form and content of anti-Abbott organising currently is preoccupied with the political question rather than the social one. That is, it is preoccupied with who is in power/office and either replacing them or convincing them to act differently rather than seeing ordinary people in society as the collective force that has to act in its own interests.

      I think this is true also of most of the radical Left, who tend to see the way forward as the current anti-Abbott protests plus unions calling action. For example, the Red Flag editor argued:

      “For this budget to be beaten, a much wider social mobilisation is necessary. Most importantly, the union movement has to put itself at the front of this fight.” (

      Yet the unions are mobilising right now, in order to ensure the struggle continues to be limited to a narrowly political outlook (and if you listen to union leaders, there is no evidence they are interested in a “social mobilisation”). I presume the perspective that lies behind the radical Left’s argument is that a bigger political struggle will spill over into a social struggle. Yet we had multiple such protests under Howard that never threatened to spill over (not even the 800,000 people who marched against the Iraq War).

      The point I’m making is not ultra-Left “revolution now”. It is to say that the constant channeling of any popular desire for social struggle into political projects cuts in exactly the wrong direction as politics itself is seen as so disconnected from people’s interests. In this sense Podemos in Spain provides a clue, because it comes from genuine social struggles. That has much more potential than hoping that the Left’s formula of being “anti-Liberal” will be of much use to people facing nasty attacks from a weak government.

  2. Nathan says:

    This may go against the spirit of this blog, but anyhoo…..

    This is not about left or right “winning” the next election. It is about the centre, from which elections are won or lost, rejecting an out-right attack on the Australian social compact (however you may laugh at such a term)

    If this is the case then Abbott is toast. Because it is the great mushy centre of Australia that is deciding they simply don’t like what they see. The ALP doesn’t have to field much in the way of new policies (yet) or a vision….its vision is:”we won’t let these ideological nutbags wreck the joint”. Works every time in the Australian context.

    Its interesting that you mention protests, because I put it to you that people in the streets isn’t really an indication of much in this country. It may make sense in other nations, who do not have compulsory voting, but in Australia? Not really.Look at all the protests under Howard? Still in power for just shy of 12 years. We can argue later about the ‘Work Choices’ period protests, needless to say I don’t think they were really an indication of much if the subsequent elections metrics were anything to go by.

    Now on to Palmer: You are correct, the Coalition is realising that ‘negotiating’ with Clive will do them no favours. But nor will not negotiating with him….between a rock and hard place. The LNP strategy so far has been to attack Palmer; hope his coalition falls apart; tell him what he should think and do; or pretend its 1996 again, non of which appears to be working.

    On the topic of the Double Dissolution: has the LNP really become a death cult? Willing to throw itself into a fiery volcano? I can think of one sacrifice that may appease the electoral gods, and his name rhymes with “Rabbit”. No matter what the supine press gallery is saying, it is doubtful that leadership change is not being discussed. Lets see what kind of drubbing Abbott gets internationally over the next few months. It is very very unusual to have a Liberal government and PM so isolated internationally, and especially so out of step with Washington. Something’s gotta give, and it wont be Obama.

    On to the economic solution to what is clearly a global economic crisis. The solutions will not be found on the streets(although people rampaging through them will certainly focus some minds!), but in the boardrooms of major financial institutions and regulators. In this respect Australia’s position/policy is almost meaningless internationally: the financial leaders of the great powers are working out all on their own that the world is suffering a ‘crisis of demand’. This contrasts with the ‘crisis of capital’ that the flat-earthers down here on the “arse end of the world” still think we are suffering through. Too much money is locked up in bank accounts and unproductive assets(like property) of the too few. Global solutions are needed to extricate this capital and force it to flow back into the economy. No one is going to export themselves to safety; we can’t all do that. Somebody has to buy all the crap they keep producing, whether it be widgets or winery tours. To put it bluntly, any business leader who is advocating business tax relief needs a Bex/cyanide pill and a nice rest.

    Of course we may not need to do anything if the Asian Century brings us our first real war in a long time. That’ll certainly increase demand. Don’t scoff: war-mongering is the new black.

    Its depressing.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      The people in the middle were the ones who came into the squares in Spain, in their millions. That’s why it is unlike “Left” politics as usual. Less depressing.

      • Nathan says:

        Also, in this article and in subsequent tweets, I feel you are ascribing far too much tactical and organisational skills to this government and the broader “right”, when all the evidence points to the opposite. They have no plan, because if they did they wouldn’t be alienating their usual backers in the Australian community (Doctors as an example)

        What would be interesting is a synopsis of how the media, which apparently has a sectional interest in supporting this government, is now in a sort of existential crisis-do they report the reality of the turmoil of the LNP in power, or do they try and make out like nothing much is happening. I think many press-gallery journo’s can not believe what they are actually seeing, its too unsettling. Here’s an example you picked up on on:


        There still seems to be this idea that what is happening can somehow still be neatly categorised, allowing the mainstream media to maintain the illusion that it somehow is still a player, with wide-ranging and vital contacts in the halls of power. This is opposed to how they view bloggers, who just write their un-sourced opinions down. I’d rather read your blog than any of the stuff Jonathan Green writes, no matter how “insidery” it is. Like that’s any use these days, its just propaganda.

  3. Jolly Roger says:

    Yes the size and frequency of demonstrations against the govt of the day means nothing when the people in the street are known to be the people who didn’t and wont vote for the govt anyway. I think lots of people were a bit shocked when Howard ignored them so easily simply because he understood this simple truth.

    Nathan’s point about the ‘mushy middle’ is the best understanding of the Aus electorate that I have seen in a long while. They are the people who have no time for radical left thinking no matter how much you wish they did. You can develop left political alternatives to the Greens all you like but hardly any Aussies will give them the time of day. We just don’t have those traditions here like they do in Europe. Anti-politics – wasn’t that what the Democrats were supposed to be – keeping the Bastard’s honest ?? Hardly left leaning either and totally dominated by career pollies just like the ALP, LNP and the Greens now. Anyway, Tony’s dead, he just needs to be buried before he starts to stink.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I don’t think it’s a matter of creating some new Left political alternative. I’m arguing against the idea that is of any use. The question is whether the mass of people will move into action to directly further their own social interests. All the current Left projects I see around (from the unions and the ALP to the radical Left) have a practice that is either opposed to such a way forward or if such a movement did emerge they would want to see it quickly channeled into their preferred political outcome.

  4. Roger says:

    Watching Richard Wilkinson’s TED lecture puts everything into context and demonstrates the solution.

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