Mirrors on the ceilingTony Abbott made a speech at the National Press Club yesterday.
The pink champagne on ice
And she said "We are all just prisoners here, of our own device"
And in the master's chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can't kill the beast
- Eagles Hotel California
The more gullible members of the journosphere claimed yesterday morning that this would be the speech where Abbott went positive rather than just gainsaying Gillard. They had no basis for reporting that, as Abbott wouldn't have shown them the speech beforehand, so they made this claim on the basis of Liberal spin, which they passed on without thinking whether or not it might be true. Why would Tony Abbott want to "go positive", given his success as a nark? On what basis could he do so, given his record? This sort of scrutiny is what adds value in journalism; in today's reporting from the Canberra press gallery it is almost entirely absent.
Abbott has achieved what generations of politicians have only dreamed of: the media take him at his word. His speeches are reported verbatim and accorded a merit they do not deserve. Where his words differ from those of others (particularly the Prime Minister and members of the incumbent government), he is assumed to be right and they wrong. This veneration of Abbott by the press gallery (always "Mr Abbott" from the press gallery; he is rarely addressed as "Tony" while the Prime Minister is addressed regularly as "Julia") is unprecedented in a democracy. Stalin achieved this state of absolute credibility at some point in the 1930s; so too did Mao 20 or 30 years after that. It's unnatural, and in a country like Australia - not only a robust democracy but a place that prides itself on taking the piss - this uncritical approach to a politician is unheard of.
References to appalling dictators aside, the reason why the Australian media give Abbott the free pass that they do is not from any sinister intent, or even a consistent ideology. Abbott is the anti-Gillard. You can't make the case that Gillard is a hopeless cretin who should be chucked from office at the first opportunity if you believe that Abbott would be worse. So, they pretend that Abbott wouldn't be worse, and that when he says he loves his country and wants to help the unfortunate, such statements treated as though the unfortunate are being helped by his very words - if only that damned incumbent government would just rack off out of his way.
What follows is a very long post which takes Abbott's speech, and some of the media commentary that followed it, seriously. The speech shows up Abbott's weaknesses and why he can't lead an effective government (and reinforces my long-held view that the guy will never lead the Liberals to victory).
The headline of the speech is "My Plan for a Stronger Economy and a Stronger Australia". It's mostly a "greatest hits" of attack lines, combined with a wishlist about how he'd like his government to go if everything went as well as it possibly could all the time. There's no plan, only a dream.
It's nice that he wishes things were different and better, we all do. Abbott has only showed that he doesn't have what it takes to get our country to that better place. He's been Opposition Leader for more than two years now, head of a party with a long and proud record in government, and the best he and his people can come up with is a wishlist with a few punchlines embedded in it.
It is a testament to the stupidity of the Australian media that they regard it as a "fresh start", "promising", or other descriptions which belie a keening urge to believe in Abbott so long as he remains a potent threat to Gillard. Don't let me colour your perceptions though, heavens no. Here, read it:
The government often cites the fragile international economic situation but fails to propose any new policies to respond to it.Nowhere in this speech are any new policies for the Coalition.
Labor’s economic strategy is to hope that China’s strength will keep our economy growing. It’s lazy, complacent economic management ...It sure is, and it's the very economic policy that the Howard government pursued since about 2003. Those assumptions are baked into Abbott's assumptions too, as we'll see.
The Eurozone crisis is a terrible verdict on governments that spend too much, borrow too much and tax too much yet our prime minister is lecturing the Europeans while copying their failures.You only say something like this if you know you're talking to mugs. Europe's in debt, Australia's in debt, therefore Australia must be down the economic toilet like Europe is (the UK is outside "the Eurozone" but it is still in economic trouble, far worse than Australia's). Only if you are sure that you'd get away with it would you even make such sloppy linkage.
At the heart of Labor’s failure is the assumption that bigger government and higher taxes are the answer to every problem.That assumption doesn't support the fact that government is smaller as a share of GDP and the tax take is smaller in real terms than it was under Howard and Costello. It was true that Labor loved big-government solutions, but not in the past 30 years or so: strangely, toward the end of his speech Abbott cites Ben Chifley with approval, but never once mentioned Menzies or any other Liberal other than Howard.
Gambling is a problem so let’s force every club to redesign every poker machine.That's as dishonest a non-sequitur as anything we've seen from the gambling lobby, the government or anyone else. Measures to help gambling addicts are not taxes, they actually depress government revenue.
The government has completely failed to appreciate the iron law of economics that no country has ever taxed its way to prosperity.
To anyone who thought Wilkie's proposals were flawed, and that Gillard's offhand sop to him was worse, note this speech: an Abbott government will do nothing to help gambling addicts. They don't see it as a public policy problem, and will therefore propose no public policy solutions. It's no good asserting that you feel great sympathy for gambling victims and their families, or throwing some money at counselling. There was a time when gambling reform was possible, the time has passed; and those who wanted change and were clear about what they wanted have to wonder whether they did as much as they could. Abbott wasn't obliged to go into detail about this issue in this particular speech, but he also wasn't obliged to be quite so naked about the sheer absence of any motivation to consider whether pokie addiction is a problem, let alone whether or not there are appropriate and cost-effective public policy responses open to a Coalition government.
The only foundation for a successful country is a strong economy. The only way to take the pressure off family budgets, to increase job opportunities, and to have the better services and infrastructure that every Australian wants is to build a stronger economy.This is the heart of the speech: a gobbet of banality. He doesn't understand, here or anywhere else in the speech, that in order to "have the better services and infrastructure that every Australian wants" is to increase taxes; conversely, that to reduce taxes means some of those services and infrastructure will have to wait. It's dishonest to pretend that you can have better services/infrastructure while cutting taxes.
That’s why my plan for a stronger economy is to scrap unnecessary taxes, cut government spending and reduce the red tape burden on business.
Again, you can only get away with saying stuff like that if you know your audience are
My plan to reduce the cost of living pressures on families is to take the carbon tax off their power and transport and make government live within its means. That way, there can be lower taxes and less upward pressure on interest rates.No: power and transport costs will increase anyway, and Australians will miss out on trade opportunities from international commercial action on climate change. Some plan.
Australians can be confident that the Liberal and National parties will provide good economic management in the future because that’s what we’ve always done in the past.Not only were the latter achievements due to the "lazy" policy of relying on Chinese growth, but also on the crazy asset-and-debt manipulation which has reaped the whirlwind of the Great Recession/Global Financial Crisis. Only Liberals, aching for the perks of office, regard the Howard government as "a lost golden age of reform and prosperity"; it is flatly dishonest to imply, let alone state, that a Coalition government could or would Restore The Good Old Days.
We’ve done it before and we will do it again. After all, 16 members of the current shadow cabinet were ministers in the Howard government which now looks like a lost golden age of reform and prosperity.
Australia was a stronger society because we had a stronger economy. Between 1996 and 2007, real wages increased more than 20 per cent, real household wealth per person more than doubled, and there were more than two million new jobs.
Besides, Abbott has promised to abolish the carbon pricing mechanism before. Nowhere in this speech is a new initiative. He's also being sneaky in implying that such abolition won't impose costs on the economy (and yes, on household budgets) in the same way that interest on borrowings is a cost.
What Australia most needs now is a competent, trustworthy, adult government with achievable plans for a better economy and a stronger society.Abbott and his crew can't offer that - neither absolutely, nor relative to the flawed Gillard government. Aspirational statements just don't count - not after two election losses, and two years as leader. There's the usual snark about whether Abbott can be described as "competent, trustworthy, adult" in himself, or that his team can be described as such - both in themselves and in comparison with the incumbents.
My vision for Australia is to restore hope, reward and opportunity by delivering lower taxes, better services, more opportunities for work and stronger borders.In the above quote, "vision" should be replaced with "wish". People will have their wishes but they can only be realised if we drop the pretense that Abbott can or will run a government that delivers better services and infrastructure (I'll get to his terrible cant about disabled people presently).
The government I lead will do fewer things but do them better so that the Australian people, individually and in community, will be best placed to realise the visions that each of us has for a better life.
At the heart of our plan for a stronger economy is getting government spending down and productivity up so that borrowing reduces, the pressure on interest rates comes off, and taxes can responsibly come down ... Australians can have tax cuts without a carbon tax but only if we get government spending down by eliminating wasteful and unnecessary programmes and permanently reducing the size of government.What Abbott is proposing is to return the tax base to what it was under Howard and Costello. That tax base was headed for a structural deficit over time, with an ageing population - and without skewing taxes toward economic growth areas and away from taxing small business and personal incomes. There's nothing strong about a structural deficit, quite the opposite in fact.
Abbott has no right to be believed that he would cut the size of government. Nowhere in his background is there even a single event, like Howard standing against car industry donations in 1981, in Abbott's background. Abbott is all about spending more money with less accountability over time. Small government fans have set their cap at the wrong man; he is not entitled to be taken at these words. Geoff Kitney does so in The Australian Financial Review today - it's a junior-reporter error and every greybeard who made it should be sacked at once.
... pink batts ... school halls ... Victorian brown coal power stations ... Telstra’s copper wires ... a National Broadband Network that people don’t need ... The last coalition government turned an inherited $10 billion budget black hole ...Blah blah - he's happy to talk about infrastructure and stimulus in general but he decries it in the particular. He's decided that people don't need NBN, a quote that will haunt him throughout history and wreck any claims he may have to being a visionary, or understanding the serendipitous effect that infrastructure generally (and communications in particular) has on economic growth and development over time.
At the last election, the coalition identified $50 billion in responsible savings ...No you didn't, and all the little mice who've been in the press gallery for two years or more should have called bullshit on that.
Finding savings is a big task but we’re up for it and will release all our costings in good time for the next election.What patronising drivel - "in good time"! Abbott's costings are vague and sloppy at the best of times an they seem to have learned nothing from the last election, other than to blame the accountancy firm that gave the cover (if you're running a consultancy, and the Federal Opposition approaches you wanting some work done - run for your life!). He has no right to be taken on face value. Such assertions should simply be regarded as "uncosted" or "unsupported" until proven otherwise.
The starting point will be programmes that have become bywords for waste. Discontinuing the computers in schools programme, which parents are now having to pay for anyway, could save over half a billion dollars.Why has it become "a byword for waste" and are there no benefits to investing in young people in this manner? None at all?
Not proceeding with the extra bureaucracies associated with hospital changes that no one will notice could save over half a billion dollars. Not proceeding with the so-called GP super clinics which are delivering new buildings not more doctors could save about $200 million.Reversing bureaucratic changes is not cost-free. How much could be saved by not proceeding with a new layer of bureaucracy supporting local busybodies who can hold up efficient healthcare delivery without improving it? Oh wait, that's actually a Coalition proposal.
Big savings could be made in the government’s $350 a throw set top box programme since Gerry Harvey can supply and install them for half the price.How much would you expect to pay, Tony? How much would you expect to pay? Harvey has been blindsided by e-commerce, what do you think he knows about set-top boxes? Are you seriously going to base public policy reform on an idle comment?
Vastly reducing the number of consultancies (which have cost over $2 billion over the past four years) would produce significant savings.Sure - but then all oppositions say that, don't they. No consultancies would wan to work for the Coalition after their disgraceful treatment of Horwaths.
Not proceeding with the carbon tax would deliver $31 billion in savings over the forward estimates period with a net improvement of $4 billion in the budget bottom line. Not proceeding with the mining tax would deliver $14 billion in savings over the forward estimates period with a net improvement of $6 billion in the budget bottom line.All of those figures are bullshit. This isn't my fault, I'm just pointing it out; and journalists should do so too.
There are many problems with the government’s so-called Fair Work Act: there’s a flexibility problem, a militancy problem but above all else a productivity problem which is hardly surprising when workplace negotiations are always meant to involve outside union bosses rather than the employees of a business.That would be the same Productivity Commission that proposed mandatory limits on pokies, and the disability care scheme that will be axed (more on that below); you'd think that the Coalition would have done its own review and come up with a few ideas of its own, surely.
A serious review of the Act would have been given to the Productivity Commission rather than to departmental officials even under the auspices of a distinguished committee.
The coalition will save business $1 billion a year in red tape expenses by requiring each department and agency to quantify the costs of its regulations and to set targets to reduce them.Garbage. What self-serving nonsense that would be on the bureaucrats' part, and hardly cost-free.
We’ll give people the chance to show what they can do – not what they can’t – by offering employers incentives to take on young people and seniors who might otherwise become trapped in the welfare system.Why haven't any of those half-arsed incentive schemes worked? Why would they work just because Abbott hopes they might?
There will be tough love too. Why should fit young people be able to take the dole when unskilled work is readily available? Why should middle aged people with bad backs or a bout of mental illness be semi-permanently parked on the disability pension because it’s easier than helping them to experience once more the fulfilment of work?
We’re going to work with the states to make public hospitals and public schools more accountable to their communities with local boards and councils choosing leaders, employing staff and controlling budgets.Nowhere is there any evidence that this will improve health an education outcomes: quite the opposite, especially when you consider just how skewed the board members will be if the US experience is any guide. The US provides a warning, not a model, for Australian health and education services, and this should receive greater scrutiny than it has.
And we’re going to deliver a fair-dinkum paid parental leave scheme, not the government’s re-badged baby bonus.That's the nearest there is to a tangible "plan"; it was announced already, and the funding model was bogus (a "special levy" rather than a Great Big New Tax That Will Be Passed Onto Us All).
I want to change Australia for the better. That means change which reflects our best work and family values and our deepest instincts. That’s why paid parental leave is best understood as a conservative reform that makes it more achievable for women to have combine larger families with better careers, if that’s their choice.
As far as I’m concerned, there should never be first and second class Australians based on where they were born, how they worship, or the length of time their forbears have been here.Fine words. The leaders who believed that sentiment, like Malcolm Fraser, jumped on splitters like Cor Bernardi with both feet when they attempted to play up community divisions. Next time a Liberal does this, watch for Abbott to do absolutely bugger-all or come out with some weaselly Howardism like asserting their right to free speech.
Now, I want to end forever any lingering suspicion that the coalition has a good head but a cold heart for dealing with Aboriginal people.Yes, let's. No evidence-based policy, arbitrary shifting of goalposts every few years, and a refusal to consult anyone other than Pearson makes Aboriginal policy an absolute shambles. Abbott turns up to Aboriginal communities in order to patronise,not to learn.
Should I become prime minister, I will spend at least a week every year in a remote indigenous community because if these places are good enough for Australians to live in they should be good enough for a prime minister and senior officials to stay in.Imagine the expensive facilities used for once a year by Prime Minister Abbott and a squad of bureaucrats, and know that they'll be better than the facilities of people who live there every day - and that little Potemkin Village will be better than the standard, and not much else will change.
After all, the measure of a decent society is how it looks after its most vulnerable members ... The coalition strongly supports the Productivity Commission’s recommendation for a disability insurance scheme but, with an estimated price tag of $6 billion a year (roughly equal to the Commonwealth’s current interest bill) this important and necessary reform can’t fully be implemented until the budget returns to strong surplus.The whole idea of the national disability insurance scheme is to improve independence and outcomes for people while joining up expensive programs that are currently disjointed. It is a revenue-saving, intelligent-spending measure, not some expensive nice-to-have that is forever on the never-never.
One of my final acts as health minister was to establish the Medicare dental scheme to give people on chronic disease care plans access to up to $4000 worth of dental treatment every two years: not check-ups but treatment.The whole reason why politicians get elected to government is to solve problems. Pissant quibbling over "an aspiration not a commitment" undermines any benefit gained from talking about this issue in a considered way, and completely negates any digs at the incumbents for not acting. There was all this build-up, addressing a real issue, and then - pfft, it's not a commitment, I'm not promising anything, blah blah weasel weasel.
I always envisaged that this would be the precursor to putting dental services more generally on Medicare ... The big problem with Medicare, as it stands, is that it supports treatment for every part of the body except the mouth. People sometimes spend years on Medicare-funded antibiotics because they can’t get Medicare-funded dentistry. One in three Australians say that they’ve avoided dental treatment because they can’t afford it.
I stress that Medicare funded dentistry is an aspiration not a commitment.
It’s the kind of initiative that can’t responsibly be implemented until the budget returns to strong surplus but it’s the kind of social dividend that should motivate the economic changes that Australia needs.In other words: it will be put on the never-never forever and a day by the Coalition, if you really want it you'll have to vote Labor.
Politicians have to address issues as they arise. It isn't good enough to say (as Abbott does) that you'll only deliver when everything's absolutely perfect, when there's plenty of money and the sun is shining and the wind's in your hair and your footy team is winning and ... no. Politics is the art of what's possible under the circumstances. Abbott is vague about the circumstances in the hope that nobody will notice the fact that he's vague about what he'll do. Because he's talking to a bunch of people who are desperate for him to succeed, they overlook the fact that he's a fair-weather sailor and would be hopeless if circumstances turned against Australia.
No one should be fooled by Labor’s carbon tax which is socialism masquerading as environmentalism and won’t actually start to reduce domestic emissions until the carbon tax is well over $100 a tonne. The best way to reduce emissions is to invest intelligently in the changes that cost-conscious enterprises are already making to become more energy efficient.This point has been made before but it bears repeating: Abbott believes Labor's market-based solution is socialism, whereas his plan for splashing around billions of dollars of taxpayer money "by 2020 by reinforcing what businesses are already doing" shows that he really doesn't understand the business of politics, he doesn't understand what words mean; politics and words, the very business he's in.
That’s what our $10 billion emissions reduction fund is for: reducing domestic emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 by reinforcing what businesses are already doing.
That’s why the Green Army providing a reliable, substantial workforce to support the land care efforts of local councils, farmers and volunteers should turn out to be one of the next coalition government’s signature policies.There's going to be a layer of bureaucracy over volunteers doing what farmers should be doing themselves - sounds pretty nanny-state socialistic to me.
A Plan for Strong BordersYou've heard this shit before: next.
Finally, the coalition’s plan for a more prosperous future will try to ensure that our children and grandchildren look back appreciatively on the big decisions this generation has made.He negates himself once he gets down to details. Sic 'im, Grog!
We have a responsibility to ensure that our land is as productive as possible, that’s why we are looking at new dam sites especially in northern Australia which could become a food bowl to Asia.
With abundant coal and iron ore, Australia should have a natural advantage in making steel.Should, but doesn't. Graham Bradley imperiously led Bluescope as it ignored the possibility that China might become a net steel exporter, and now that it has done so (China, that is) it appears that Bluescope has been wagered on the wrong outcome. If Bluescope's taxes were cut to $1 and all its employees worked for free, it would still be unable to exploit this "natural advantage" because there is no defence against dopey management. What's Abbott going to do about it anyway? Keen and rend his garments for the people who first labelled Menzies "Pig Iron Bob"?
With abundant bauxite and cheap power, Australia should have a natural advantage in making aluminium.Cheap power? Really? I thought it was hellishly expensive, especially when you consider how far apart where the bauxite is and where the power stations are. Oh well.
With greater export orientation to drive higher production volumes, there’s no reason why Australia can’t sustain a viable motor industry.There's sixty years of reasons why Australia can't have such an export industry, if only you'd face up to it. Here's why a domestic car market can't justify itself either.
The demands of the resources sector should help to sustain a sophisticated heavy engineering capacity in Australia. In this case, the tyranny of distance should actually be working for us, not against us.Yes but it fucking doesn't, you stupid man. Engineering shops in WA are hitting the wall because mining operations are importing their heavy engineering ready-made rather than have Australians make it: high dollar, high wages, it's been going on for years. If you're going to strap on the fluro gear an the hard hat I wish you'd go to those places and find out why.
The ministers in the next Liberal National government will be responsible reformers.No, they'll be people like Kevin Andrews, who had no idea, and Sophie Mirabella or Barnaby Joyce, who have no idea.
... we also understand that Australians are an optimistic people who want a government that sees potential rather than just problems.And you will piss away that potential on dams with aluminium walls up in buffalo country, which is why you mus never become Prime Minister.
By the close of the next coalition government’s first term, I am confident that waste, mismanagement and reckless spending will have been brought under control; more tax cuts will be in prospect; there will be community controlled public schools and hospitals; and just about every fit working age person will be in work, preferably for a wage but if not for the dole.Based on what?
What economic forecasting is going to claim that the economy will be strong enough to sustain full employment in five years? What does "in prospect" mean, and how is it different from "in your dreams"?
Better broadband will once more be delivered through market competition freeing more money to tackle traffic gridlock.I've already called bullshit on that, and will do so again.
Instead, as the new parliamentary year dawns ...Yes? Is this the bit where he gets all positive and gives us a glimpse of the sunlit uplands?
... Fair Work Australia ... Craig Thomson ...No.
The best way to help the country right now would be to change the government and the best way to change the government would be to give the people their choice at an election. Changing the government, of course, is but a means to an end: to bring out the best in our people and in our nation.Depends who you mean by "our", really.
In his famous “light on the hill” speech, Ben Chifley said that the purpose of public life ...Famous what? Fucking who?
It's a good thing I wasn't at the National Pikers' Club for this, because this would have been the point when my skull exploded from bullshit overload, and a whirring sound would have emanated from a simple plot in the Bathurst Cemetery.
Chifley was talking about the purpose of the labour movement, not some airy notion of public life. Abbott diminishes himself by misrepresenting Chifley in this manner, a bum note toward the end of what was supposedly a major speech. Chifley lost because he was deaf to fundamental shifts in the nation's development in his time, too.
But cheer up, it gets worse:
People should be in public life for the right reasons. Mine are to serve our country, to stand up for the things I believe in, to do the right thing by my fellow Australians as best I can, to build a nation that will inspire us more and to lead a government that will disappoint us less.With ideals like that you might make a useful backbencher, but never a Prime Minister. A "government that will disappoint us less", well hooray for low expectations!
Members of the National Pikers' Club could have saved themselves time and embarrassment by reading this, but instead they lined up to take Abbott at his word:
- Lenore Taylor adopted a Grattanesque more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, declaring that however bad Abbott's speech was it was better than anything Gillard could offer. She made no case for such a claim. Abbott was so vacuous and slippery that he ought to have no standing other than the formal title of his office to criticise Gillard for anything.
- Peter Hartcher said it was "a new start". The guy's been in office for two years and there was nothing new in that speech at all. It's not new and it isn't a start. It's bullshit, Abbott is bullshit and so too is Hartcher's hit-and-miss reputation as a commentator.
- Phillip Coorey said the Coalition have a plan. There was no plan, there is no evidence that there ever was a plan, more bullshit.
- Lanai Vasek tiptoes gingerly around the idea that, you know, it's possible that Abbott could be talking bullshit but other Liberals are talking bullshit too, so at least they're being consistent.
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on the National Press Club. Come, Mrs Reinhart, and sack the press gallery space-fillers over whom you will have influence or managerial control. Realise how little would be lost, and how well politics could be reported on from the communities affected by it.