05 June 2015


Insofar as the Abbott government has a heart or a core at all, it is trying to create a convincing form of non-economic protectionism. It can't succeed at that, it won't succeed, although it already seems to have a convincing re-election scenario in place.


For most of the 20th century the Australian economy was highly protected. Australian manufacturers were protected from import competition by tariffs and other similar measures. In return for this protection they were obliged to pay Australian workers higher wages than workers in other countries would get for similar work.

Murdoch commentator Paul Kelly identified what he called "the Australian Settlement", a system in five parts which began to be unravelled in the 1980s under Hawke and Keating:
  • White Australia
  • Import protection
  • Centralised wage fixation
  • State paternalism; and
  • Imperial benevolence (first under Britain, then the US)
This system of economic protectionism began to falter in the 1960s, and aspects of it were modified during the 1970s and '80s. The wholesale removal of this system and an embrace of a low-tariff exposure to global market forces took place under the Labor government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-96). They slashed tariffs and other trade barriers, and floated the exchange rate of the Australian dollar (i.e. rather than have government set the value of the currency, it was set by the market). They also reduced the share of corporate income that went to wages, and wound back long-standing measures that limited labour market flexibility.

The governments that followed Hawke-Keating did relatively little in terms of economic reform. Even now, commentators will urge politicians to engage in more economic reform, without being specific what that should be: roads or public transport, broadband, still more reductions in working conditions, more tax or less (usually less), etc. No politician wants to burn themselves out like Hawke and Keating did, realising too late that all political careers end and that you may as well do something with them whilst you're there.

Abbott's dreaming

Tony Abbott never promised to reintroduce trade protectionism or centralised wage fixation. What he seems to want is a variation on Kelly's five themes, namely:
  • A mainly Caucasian Australia, with vigorous non-Caucasian cultures like Islam or Indigenous communities shunted to the fringes and policed for any sign of dissent;
  • Trade-promotion measures that only really apply to high-volume mineral and agriculture exports
  • Acquiescence to import deals favourable to foreign goods and services (e.g. interstate dispute settlement processes)
  • State paternalism (but only in policing, defence, and intelligence, at the expense of civil liberties); and
  • Imperial benevolence (definitely the US, but one that's less dominant globally and which has made significant missteps in western Asia)
As far as employment is concerned, Abbott regards jobs as private-sector welfare, rather than as roles necessary for the economy to function (more on that later), or occupations that give workers' lives meaning. Abbott believes that a sound economy will make jobs plentiful and stable, and believes his mere presence in government is all that's necessary to give the economy the confidence it needs to keep producing stuff and keep people employed.

This government has given no thought at all to the idea of economic development leaving employment behind, and what that means for the nation. That isn't quite the stuff of treason but it does mean we are being misgoverned.

This government has been keen on some form of state paternalism in a straitened age. It wanted to extend this to welfare recipients, but this only focused on inequality and made gainfully employed people fear for what might happen if their personal circumstances deteriorated through no fault of their own. No government is safe in those rare but potent occasions when middle-income people start identifying with lower-income people.

The government's lust for state paternalism has shifted from social security (which presupposes social division without social disintegration) to national security (which regards division as disintegration). The first step has been to define "national security" to include people who aren't threats to the nation in any meaningful sense: lonely randoms who stumble into militant Islam (which does not quite include that attention-seeking loser from Sydney's Martin Place siege, but Murdoch journos and other simpletons lump him in), asylum seekers, artists - and anyone using that thing Abbott can't quite fathom, in terms of its form or its appeal: the internet.

The press gallery has been content to report this as some sort of Canberra parlour game - which it is, sort of, if you overlook actual threats to civil liberties, and believe all that policing activity precludes any real threat to Australian lives and property.

Which brings us to ...

Laura Tingle and business confidence

Laura Tingle is political editor for The Australian Financial Review. She is one of the few press gallery journalists who, when a politician makes an announcement, validates and verifies it with other sources of information*.

The target market for The Australian Financial Review is corporate Australia. These people who seemed so enthusiastic about the prospect of an Abbott government while Labor were in office, yet who are according to Tingle quite surprised and dismayed by the reality of the Abbott government.
No one can think of a funny retort to Tony Abbott, possibly because they are having enough trouble coming to terms with the unhinged nature of the rhetoric in which our Prime Minister now engages.
Firstly, Abbott was always big on the apocalyptic rhetoric. It was part of his 'junkyard dog' thing when he was first elected to Parliament in 1994, in the dying days of the Keating government. He did it all the time when Howard was in government; the press gallery regarded it as part of his charm. He kept at it when Labor were in government, and since he became Liberal leader in 2009 he has pretty much done it daily.

That word "now" does Tingle a disservice. In the lead-up to the last election, when the press gallery seemed convinced that the sunlit uplands of good government were within reach, Tingle was at least dubious, occasionally putting Cassandra-like warnings on the record. Nobody in the press gallery has any right to be surprised at Abbott; the more experience you have, the less right you have to act all surprised at what he and his government are like.

Secondly, Bill Shorten comes up with funny retorts to Abbott all the time. As an authoritarian, Abbott regards others as either allies or enemies. Being ridiculed blurs that clear line, and Abbott hates ambiguity. Mockery is the very thing authoritarianism elevates you above.

The press gallery thinks it's their job to stand around whispering and giggling about powerful figures. They resent Shorten's funny retorts, which they call "zingers", which they have to report to outsiders undeserving of insider wit.
Abbott is taking a wild punt on a message that would be coming out of the Coalition's focus groups. That is, whatever voters think of him, the thing they crave more than anything else is stability and certainty, not just after the Rudd/Gillard years but at a time of deep economic uncertainty, and even amid the shock they have had in the past 12 months when the return of "adult government" only gave them more uncertainty in the form of the 2014 budget and February's almost leadership coup. In what could be a tight election contest, Tony Abbott will be relying on this yearning for stability to save his increasingly undeserving neck.
The lack of scrutiny of Abbott, the fact that the press gallery gave him a free pass for being the antidote to both Rudd and Gillard, meant that he could create a sense of certainty without any ability to deliver it. All Opposition Leaders promise a sense of certainty: even those who never made it sought to cultivate an unthreatening image. It's why he was so ready to be portrayed as a "daggy dad", and why he implied (largely unchallenged) that he contained economic confidence within his person awaiting release by vice-regal imprimatur.

Abbott never had the ability to restore economic confidence, nor confidence in the security of the nation (however defined). Nor was there any basis for confidence in his administrative ability, nor in the regard for which his Coalition colleagues held him. Again, the more time you've spent in the press gallery and the fancier your official title, the less excuse you have to be surprised by Abbott.

The business community worked closely with Abbott before the last election. They gave him millions of dollars. They helped develop such policies as this government has. They accepted his assurances that he had the relationship with the public necessary for those policies to not only pass through parliament but be accepted and supported by the wider public.

Now they admit, feebly and privately, that this wasn't what they meant. Their creation, like that of Dr Frankenstein, careens across the landscape on a mission to crush, kill, destroy. Laura Tingle is too polite to confront them with this.

Abbott was always undeserving of the job of Prime Minister. This isn't a recent development.
The Prime Minister is desperate to shut down any possible area of Labor attack.
Oppositions gotta oppose.
Yet all he is currently achieving is open warfare within his own ranks on a range of contentious issues from national security to gay marriage, and policy chaos in the pronouncements of his ministers. He is actually fomenting division between his cabinet and the party room on national security.
And you expected - what, exactly? Was it really only social media denizens who knew an Abbott government would tie itself up in its own contradictions?
On Wednesday, Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenburg [sic] tried to give the government wriggle room on retirement incomes policy, telling a Canberra conference "the government will, of course, consider good ideas put forward as part of the tax white paper process and any changes recommended by that process will be taken to the Australian people at the next election".

It should not have been that controversial a statement.

Yet it was smacked down within hours, first by Treasurer Joe Hockey, then by Abbott.

Hockey had second thoughts on Thursday and he too tried to keep some room for change in a second term.
Two things come from that.

First, the government's tax reform process is as dead as Greg Jericho said it was. Next time Abbott, Hockey, Frydenberg or anyone else confuses it with a live prospect, journalists should laugh and  let their audience in on the joke. They should not do what they usually do - simply broadcast the quote, considering they have chewed up media space and thereby done their jobs.

Second, what the government is trying to do is not only shut down their own options, but those for the alternative government. It's possible that Abbott, Hockey et al won't even be in government after the next election. The government claims Labor will jack up taxes, while Labor denies it: this is to deny Labor the scope an alternative government needs to address the country's economic issues (real or perceived). Therefore, Abbott will claim that Labor would balance the budget through retirement incomes, because all other options will be ruled out; the press gallery will not think outside that narrative, so there's the next election for ya.
Ironically, retirement income is an area where everyone agrees that, because of its long-term nature, there needs to be bipartisanship. Both sides of politics pay lip service to this idea yet cannot resist the temptation to play politics, whether on pensions or super.
If bipartisanship isn't possible (let alone whether it results in the best possible policy), stop wishing for it. Where better to stop wishing for something so unnecessary and counterproductive than the hard-bitten no-nonsense pages of The Australian Financial Review?
Years ago it became fashionable to outsource service delivery from government to the private sector. But in the current, fetid atmosphere, people outside government are taking an "oh for goodness sake, let me do that" approach to policy too.
This idea that policy and politics is too important for politicians - I'm sure I've heard it before, and not just "in the current, fetid atmosphere". It's called democracy, Laura. As the major parties' lack of touch with people increases, as they seek cosy bipartisanship over the tumult of consultation, expect "the current, fetid atmosphere" to become the new normal. Political climate change, if you will.
A point of underlying agreement was that things can't stay as they are. As shadow treasurer Chris Bowen told the conference, the irony of the government's approach of doing nothing is to create more uncertainty. That's because few people believe the system is working, equitable or affordable.
Bipartisanship led us to this position. Bipartisanship keeps us in stasis. Therefore, to move on from this position, we need something other than bipartisanship.
Sinodinos reflected on how important external pressure and community consensus had proved in forcing the hand of governments on numerous occasions, notably on Howard's signature tax reforms and on climate change.
How much did he charge to say that? (Zing!)
Dawkins observed that the risks of vacating a policy debate are leaving it open for others, and making it harder to do an inevitable U-turn without looking ridiculous.
Likewise! (Zing! Balance!)
Unfortunately, Tony Abbott seems to have perfected the art of looking ridiculous whether or not he is doing U-turns.
Zing. Bipartisanship is the last refuge of political and journalistic scoundrels. If you want to get important things done, bipartisanship must die; if you want to tell the big stories, kill your yearning for bipartisanship.

* "Other sources of information" does not include other politicians, anonymous sources, or other journalists. This verification and validation is, in theory, what journalists do. In practice, press gallery journalists do this rarely if at all, which is why disdain for press gallery journalists does not mean a disdain for the very practice of journalism per se.


  1. I thought earlier tonight, in the wake of Dutton/Abbott on Triggs/ SHY, what power hungry people they are and how unimaginative their vision.. nothing better than a quarry with millions of dumbed down people on the periphery, waiting to get smacked down if so much as a peep is raised.

    Gillian Triggs is the latest individual to warn on trends in her case the increasingly corrupted legal system, for example.

    I think Abbott is predicated on the idea that international capital wants to do an assett strip on Australia and his job is to collaborate to save his own hide. Labor is scared of International forces also, which is why it was timid in government on certain things, resource wars and globalising comprehensive surveillance for example.

    It hoped the public would play safe, but Australians are greedy possums, always wanting just that little bit more, as we see with the wretched mortgage belt and housing policy. Self interest plus crude ignorance and induced racial and sexual fears have engineered a split in a dumbed down electorate dislocated from the realities of our time and consent manufacture has trumped native intelligence.

    I wonder how is that people can't or won't recognise the heavy jawed brutist Abbott pathology, or do they like having a brown shirt for leader because it saves them the effort of thinking and maybe snapping out of denial as to where life is heading?

    Some here may recognise that Abbott's guardian (dark) angel is Joseph De Maistre, but I don't think many people out in well-fed home improvements land would have the slightest notion of who and what De Maistre was and what he proposed for civilisation a couple of centuries ago.

    P. Walter

    1. AuldBrixtonian7/6/15 12:32 am

      If there were a big red button marked "implement Australian feudalism" on the wall, Abbott would be punching it relentlessly.

  2. Abbott and his government.
    The classic case of people being promoted far above their own level of incompetence.

    1. Anon, I think many of us underestimate Abbott. I think this plays to his advantage. I have come to the conclusion that he will win the next election because he is remarkably competent in furthering his own interest. Whatever it takes. He said so to Tony Windsor.

      Disturbingly there seem to be enough people in this country who admire him, particularly when he talks Putin-tough on asylum seekers. He is helped too by the ALP who appear confused and lethargic.

      I wonder too if Abbott's position is helped by the large number of people who did not vote in the last federal election. According to research by Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute 4.3 million Australians eligible to vote in 2013 did not do so either because they did not turn up or failed to register.

      That whole cabinet leaking matter has not been exploited by the ALP or the media when compared with the spotlight focused on ALP upheavals during the Rudd-Gillard years.

      Imagine! A PM gathering an army of back benchers about him to wobble spears at dissenting cabinet colleagues. How is that reflective of 'grown up' government?

      Whether one agrees with her or not Gillian Triggs has shown up the short-comings of our leadership. In my opinion she is a clear thinker and a serious minded woman who respects the responsibilities of her position despite the insults hurled at her by government MPs and certain members of the media.

      I have reached the stage of snapping off the radio every time Abbott's repetitive simple sentences reach my ears. I know I am being treated like a mug.