Australian PM Tony Abbott faces tough summer
‘Barnacle-clearing’ leader believes he can turn government’s fortunes around
Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott, who says his government has had ‘a year of achievement’ and that repealing the carbon tax is his greatest achievement for women. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA
Sometimes a phrase just sticks with a government. Historians will have two great contenders when looking to sum up how last year went for Australian prime minister Tony Abbott: “barnacle-clearing” and “shirtfront”.
The former is what Abbott said he was going to do in the dying days of the year in an attempt to turn around the fortunes of his Liberal-National coalition government. The latter is what he said he was going to do to Vladimir Putin prior to their meeting at the G20 summit in Brisbane.
The barnacle-clearing came through a reshuffled cabinet and trying to make the issue of GP charges go away. The reshuffle doubled the number of women cabinet ministers, from one to two. Abbott’s other major change to the cabinet involved appointing a defence minister, Kevin Andrews, who had previously declared he had “no interest in defence issues”.
About 82 per cent of visits to GPs in Australia cost nothing, under a system known as “bulk billing”. The rest are paid for upfront, with the patient then able to claim back about half of the cost from the government.
In its first budget last May, the coalition announced it would charge $7 (€4.66) per visit for all bulk-billed GP and medical test visits.
The opposition Labor party immediately characterised this as a “GP tax”, welfare organisations said it would put poor people off going to the doctor, and tens of thousands took to the streets in protest.
After months of unrelenting pressure, Abbott finally acted. But to Labor’s great delight, he didn’t actually dump the imposition of a charge, he just cut the amount paid to doctors by $5, who in turn will pass it on to the public. The opposition is hoping that every time someone goes to a doctor they will be reminded whose fault the $5 charge is.
It might even make them want to “shirtfront” Abbott. Shirtfront is an old Australian Rules football term describing an aggressive collision between two players, where one player is hit “front-on” by another.
MH17 atrocity Abbott’s use of an archaic term – so little used any more that the Australian media had to explain it – was meant to show his outrage with Russia’s alleged role in the MH17atrocity. But given that Putin has not yet held his hands up and admitted anything, Abbott’s shirtfronting was perhaps more bluster than anything else.
The year started so well for the government. It was still on a high from winning power in a landslide the previous September over a Labor party riven by internecine disputes and backstabbing.
The coalition won 90 out of 150 seats in the lower house and so had no need to do deals with the Greens or independents, as the previous minority Labor government was forced to do.
In the senate, the coalition holds 33 out of 76 seats, and so needs six more votes to pass legislation. With two religious conservatives (one Catholic, one Protestant) and four votes controlled by conservative businessman Clive Palmer, the coalition seemed to think that getting those votes would be easy.
It thought wrong. The senate did not vote as expected, and one member of the Palmer United Party has recently gone independent, making it even harder to get the numbers.
The coalition’s woes started in earnest in May with a budget it still has not managed to pass through a hostile senate. As well as proposing a GP charge, it planned to deregulate university fees (which Labor said was the “Americanisation” of education and would lead to “$100,000 degrees”), increase petrol excise, ban anyone under 30 from getting the dole for six months, cut foreign aid by $7.6 billion over five years, and slash funding to Australia’s prime science body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (which has been responsible for world-changing inventions such as wifi).
It was not just the Labor party that said the budget was unfair. Chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society, John Falzon, said: “There are measures in this budget that rip the guts out of what remains of a fair and egalitarian Australia.”
Ben Phillips of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling said the budget was “very regressive”. “The overall impact will fall mostly on the poor,” he said.
Last week the government released its mid-year economic and fiscal outlook paper (the financial year in Australia is July 1st to June 30th). The headline figure sees the budget deficit blow out to A$40.4 billion – A$10.6 billion worse than the A$29.8 billion forecast in its May budget.
Company tax has fallen dramatically, especially in the resources sector, where the price of iron ore has halved in a year and is set to fall further.
Aggressive in opposition
The economic paper went unnoticed by most though; the government released it on the day of the Sydney siege.
Abbott was the most aggressive opposition leader Australia has yet seen, characterising then Labor leader Julia Gillard as the most incompetent and untrustworthy prime minister ever. But Gillard at her lowest point was judged “competent” by 53 per cent of Australians. In the latest poll for Fairfax newspapers, only 50 per cent said Abbott was competent, the lowest on record for a prime minister.
Many found Abbott’s repeated attacks on Gillard sexist. She said Abbott was a misogynist.
But Abbott, who is minister for women as well as prime minister, says his government has had “a year of achievement” and that repealing the carbon tax is his greatest achievement for women.
“As many of us know, women are particularly focused on the household budget and the repeal of the carbon tax means a $550 a year benefit for the average family,” he said.
The coalition has trailed Labor in polls since May’s budget. The latest poll shows Labor leading 39 to 38 per cent on primary vote, and with a massive 54 to 46 per cent lead after preferences. On the question of preferred prime minister, Labor leader Bill Shorten now leads Abbott by 47 to 39.
On these numbers Labor can relax a bit over the Christmas break. For the coalition, though, it’s going to be a hell of a summer.