Posts Tagged ‘Coalition Government’

As I write this, just two days after the Australian election, the sense of shock in the electorate at the Liberal-National Coalition’s narrow victory over Labor is still causing most citizens to mutter, confused, “What the actual fuck?” I am not being coarse for the sake of effect. That is by far the most common comment.

It’s not just that there was a widespread sense that the Coalition, victim of recent leadership instability, was long overdue a “pull yourselves together” kicking.

It was that a Labor victory had been predicted for so long, with “two party preferred” margins of as high as 53-47 in their favour being forecast in usually reliable opinion polls as late as the morning of election day, that the eventual win by their opponents was … well, flabbergasting. Stupefying. “Shome mishtake, shurely?” (Election night in Australia is universally accompanied by parties and heavy drinking.)

In its way, this result is just as shocking (and therefore interesting) as the Brexit vote and the Presidential win of Donald Trump.

So in the end, what was it that produced a result which looks like ending up as 51-49 outcome in favour of the Coalition and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, now owners of a wafter thin majority that will theoretically allow them to continue to hold the Government benches for another three years?

There are many factors and I will try and unpick them intelligently for any election tragics out there.

Bill Shorten in Parliament

All the natural charisma of a brick.

Firstly and most obviously, the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, was an unpopular figure, in part because he had a history as a dominant and powerful head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which is not an organisation which spends much of its time cultivating the affection of the middle class centre of Australia where most Australians sit, but also because in Parliament and on TV he exhibited all the natural charisma of a brick.

Ironically a decent, engaging and friendly character away from the cameras, once they turned on he became over-controlled, lecturing, somewhat superior and just plain boring.

And as he was Labor Leader for six years, that was a long time to bore people.

The recently anointed Leader of the Liberal Party, by contrast, has been a relentlessly cheerful “ordinary bloke”, with an ever-present baseball cap perched on his head, who made no pretence of any great intellectual heft, but insisted he had plenty of empathy for the “battlers” – Aussies who want a “fair go”, or as they picturesquely put it here, “a fair suck of the saveloy”.

As one Liberal insider put it: “When he got the job last year he immediately began building his persona as an ordinary, knockabout bloke who can knock back a beer and roll up his shirt sleeves to have a go. He knew the importance of filling in the picture before his opponents defined him to the public.”

By achieving this, Morrison captured the aspiration of many working people to not actually be working people, thanks very much, but rather to ascend to comfortable middle class status.

Not for nothing was Scott Morrison’s first act after his win to go to his evangelical Church on Sunday morning, and then to go to the football on Sunday night.

Whereas the Labor Party – with a complex and substantial “tax and spend” agenda that required endless explanation – appeared mired in the class-warfare battles of previous decades, stating, in effect, “We’ll tax you what we need and then spend it on you as we see fit”, to which many Australians on Saturday clearly said “Thanks a lot, I’ll just keep me money and spend it myself”.

Whether or not a new Liberal-National Coalition government will actually do anything much to help the people who switched their votes to them remains to be seen – they didn’t expect themselves to win either, so they have a very sketchy plan for government – but painting Labor as the party of higher taxation was certainly a successful part of their pitch. It will be a long cold day in hell till a political party in Australia again goes into an election promising significant tax reform or even tax increases.

This effect was multiplied by the Labor Party’s inability (wary of offending environmentally-aware/Green voters further south) to enthusiastically support the proposed Adani coal mine in regional Queensland.

The Coalition found it simplicity itself to portray Labor as wishy-washy on the mine (which they were) and by implication, therefore, as wishy-washy on jobs for regional people – estimated as maybe as many as 15,000 jobs from Adani alone. This effect was re-doubled by no apparent solution to endlessly rising power prices and problems with water supply to regional areas.

The wash up is that are now no Labour seats left in Queensland anywhere north of the Brisbane river. And the “don’t care about jobs” message hurt Labor in regional New South Wales, too, where the impact of Adani was little more than symbolic of two very different agendas for Government, but where Labor was portrayed as having forgotten their core base (and the extraction industries generally) in favour of chasing a more ideologically-driven pro-environment vote.

The scale of the rout is notable. Across Queensland Coalition candidates in fact polled 57 per cent to Labor’s 43 per cent. Unheard of margins.

Scott Morrison Victory speech

“How good is Queensland?!” If you’re a Liberal, very, very good.

“How good is Queensland?!” roared Scott Morrison when the results were known, and he was cheered to the rafters by an audience in New South Wales. It’s hard to explain to an overseas audience quite how unlikely that is. Maybe Manchester United supporters offering to go over to Anfield and cheer on Liverpool so the Kop can have a day off. Lakers fans cheering for the Celtics. That sort of thing.

By running dead on new coal mines and talking up their climate change credentials, Labor made a bold attempt to speak to inner city Sydney and seats across left-leaning Victoria in particular, which had recently delivered a massive electoral setback to the Liberals in a recent State election.

The attempt failed.

Although the Green vote around the nation stayed roughly the same at 10.5% (approximately, counting continues), blue collar voters were resolutely unimpressed.

It’s not that they don’t care about climate change, it’s just that they want to care about it without paying more tax on a second investment home, (often called a “bricks and mortar pension” in Australia), or their parents having to give up long-established tax breaks on shares in their superannuation portfolio.

Ironically in well-to-do Coalition seats in the centre of cities there were small swings to the Greens and even to high-taxing Labor – the so-called “Doctor’s wives” effect, where comfortably off people dabble in more progressive politics because whatever the outcome it won’t really affect them. But move into the outer suburban ring and the effect was reversed, leading to a clutch of vital Coalition wins in seats in marginal seats in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania where they should, by all expectations, have been swept aside.

So it is worthwhile considering why the Liberal-National scare tactics on tax were so effective.

Australians are not, in a general sense, anti-taxation in the way that some in America are. It’s not that they are selfish. Indeed, Australians donate more per head of population to charity – including to charities overseas – than any other country in the world.

It is rather that they do not trust Government to spend those taxes wisely.

The Bill Australia can't afford.

Simple idea, cleverly expressed, and devastatingly powerful.

As part of a growing trend worldwide, Australians are deeply suspicious of Government at all levels, so when the Coalition festooned all the polling stations in the country in bunting – in stark Labour red – with an unflattering photo of Bill Shorten looking, frankly, confused, with the slogan “Labor: It’s the Bill Australia can’t afford.” it was highly effective. At no stage did Labor ever manage to convey their contrasting priorities with such devastating and effective directness.

And it was this scenario – starkly similarly to Clinton’s shock loss to Trump in America – that led one member of the public writing in to a radio station on Sunday morning to dismiss the Labor effort as having been led by “Hillary Shorten”. You could hear the heads nodding in agreement around the country’s breakfast tables.

Or in the case of those who were yet to get up having drunk themselves to sleep in either distress or celebration just a few hours previously, there was a muttered “Yeah … what she said …” from under a pillow.

Perhaps the most significant thing to say about this election is that it shows, once again, that political parties in the Western world are no longer either mere vehicles for those who traditionally made up their supporter base or even perfectly aligned to those who they seek to lead, and especially on the Left.

Pennsylvania coal miners voted for Trump. On Saturday so did coal miners in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and those who want to be coal miners in Queensland. Voters in Wales and Northern England and the South West voted against their obvious self-interest for Brexit. On Saturday so did those working in the tourism industry in Queensland who said, in effect, we’d rather have a coal mine than the Barrier Reef.

This time round, Australia’s Conservative parties portrayed themselves as simple-thinking, straight-talking managers, eschewing the internecine struggles that have consumed them in recent years (the Coalition parties have been split between hard right cultural warriors and small-l liberals, much like in Britain) and opted instead for a pitch that they were just a bunch of good old blokes on the side of “ordinary” Aussies – yes, even those who work down coal mines, milk the cows, and for those – by offering vague and very unlikely promises on road building – who are stuck in commuter traffic queues for hours every day.

By contrast the Labor Party was simply too overly intellectual, too long-winded, and they constantly beetled off down obscurantist paths – all very noble in their own right, to be sure – without taking care of their knitting. As one radio commentator explained: “I went to see the mechanic who works on my car, and I asked him who he was going to vote for, and he said Liberal because he didn’t want to lose his tax break on the one investment property his family owned. When I told him there was no chance of that, because any change to the law meant that existing arrangements were grandfathered, he looked at me and said ‘What the fuck does ‘Grandfathered’ mean?’”

Quite.

You couldn’t summarise Labor’s failures to explain their goals any more simply, nor could you sound a better warning to the Left around the world as they seek to come to terms with the appeal of populist right wing heroes.

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen next. The Coalition now have a clean slate and the thrill of a totally unexpected win, and they could take the chance to shift their party back to the centre, (especially as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, leader of the hard right, lost his seat to an Independent), deliver modest but welcome tax cuts, finally make some progress on climate change – a notable failure for some years – and de-fang Labor for a generation.

Labor will retreat and lick their wounds, but they already show little sign of having learned their lesson, as their next Leader, far from a consensus politician from the centre, will very likely be a dyed-in-the-wool tub-thumping leftie. Which will do wonders for reviving the spirits of their own members, but very little for the electorate at large. Sound familiar?

In the meantime, Australians will move on to arguing about this week’s football, and saying “Thank God that’s over for another three years.” Although with a likely Government majority of just 1, they might be counting those chickens a tad early.

Abbott and his friends make their opinion of "temporary" tax increases very clear after the Queensland floods.

Abbott and his friends make their opinion of “temporary” tax increases very clear after the devastating Queensland floods. Now he proposes exactly the same idea.

We are on record as eschewing the general “bagging” of politicians per se, believing that some respect for our system of Government – some general belief that it is not entirely corrupted and merely the venue for amoral power-hungry sociopaths to do nothing but big note themselves and promote their career – is necessary for the well-being of the community and the country, but sometimes, even for a committed small-D democrat, it is very hard not to despair and simply scream incoherently “a plague on both your houses”.

It’s not just the nonsense they spout: it’s the nonsense they spout when they defend each other spouting nonsense.

If you give it, you have to take it. Abbott ruthlessly and effectively crucified Gillard. Is it his turn now?

If you give it, you have to take it. Abbott ruthlessly and effectively crucified Gillard. Is it his turn now?

In Australia, senior Liberal Christopher Pyne (or “Christopher Robin” as he is known in the Wellthisiswhatithink household, because of his repeatedly childish behaviour in Parliament and elsewhere) has denied that the introduction of a “deficit levy” – read, an extra tax to pay down debt – would be Tony Abbott’s “Julia Gillard moment”, (Julia Gillard being the immediate past Prime Minister, deposed by Abbott, who never got over being christened Juliar for bringing in a carbon tax when she had said pre-election that she wouldn’t), despite a majority of Australians saying the Abbott move would indeed be a broken promise.

Abbott promised repeatedly not to increase taxes. “You can’t tax your way to prosperity” was a mantra. So was “Tax cuts, without new taxes”.

Despite this, the Liberal-National coalition frontbencher played down the latest Galaxy poll, which showed a whopping 72 per cent believe the tax hike would indeed represent a blatant broken promise.

Australians know the government will have to make tough decisions to get the budget back on track, he said. “They know it won’t be easy and it is important that everyone shares in that burden of repairing the damage Labor did to the economy and to the budget,” Mr Pyne told ABC TV on Sunday.

The Australian Government can afford 58 of these, but needs a new tax to pay for the "budget crisis", and needs people to work till 70 till they get their pension, and is going to make wholesale cuts in the coming budget. When people work out that these are choices, and not inevitabilities, the backlash for Abbot could be horrible.

The Australian Government can apparently afford 58 of these, but now needs a new tax to pay for the “budget crisis”, plus it needs people to work till 70 to get their pension, and it is going to make wholesale cuts in the coming budget. When people work out that these are choices, and not inevitabilities, the backlash for Abbot could be horrible.

This is, however, in the face of the Government paying a massive $12.5 billion to buy new fighter jets, the serviceability and usability of which are the subject of on-going debate in defence circles as well as the country as a whole.

The contrast between “toys for the boys” and forecast swingeing cuts to welfare has brought the debate into sharp relief, not to mention damaged the Government’s standing.

It now trails the Labor Party that it just replaced by four percentage points. Two party-preferred support for the coalition has plunged 5.5 percentage points since the September election, with its vote now 48 per cent compared to Labor’s 52 per cent. Short honeymoon even by today’s low-attention ten-second soundbite standards of public discourse.

According to the poll, published by News Corp Australia, the Abbott government is facing a voter backlash over the possible new debt tax on those earning more than $80,000.

Certainly, the government has yet to confirm the deficit levy will be included in the May 13 budget but it seems that only a howl of outrage from the Australian middle class will prevent it.

But with huge – some would say laughable – bravado, the Prime Minister has said any levy would be temporary, and therefore wouldn’t break an election promise not to increase taxes.

So let’s just get that clear. If you only break a promise for a while, it’s not a broken promise, right? So what does it become? A bent promise? A slightly tarnished promise? Do we now have a whole new level of Government probity (or otherwise) to parse?

Mr Pyne went on to deny that a levy (read: a new tax) would be Mr Abbott’s “Julia Gillard moment” – a reference to the former prime minister’s broken promise on the carbon tax. “There is no easy way out from the debt and deficit disaster that Labor’s left us,” Mr Pyne said. “But what we do has to be fair to everyone, and it has to be right for the country. That’s the job of government.”

Newly-minted Opposition Leader Bill Shorten finally woke up from his slumber and weighed in. He said Labor would oppose a deficit levy, and urged the prime minister to drop the tax hike before next week’s budget.

“Increasing taxes on working class and middle class Australians is a terrible mistake, and people will not forgive Mr Abbott for breaking this very big promise,” Mr Shorten told reporters in Melbourne.

Whilst we find it somewhat stomach-churning to hear it from one of the core team who allowed wasteful spending to again become a way of life for Australian Governments – and who lacked the guts to challenge Gillard for the top job in time to actually repair Labor’s fortunes – we think he’s right.

Having allowed his plans to leak and become discussed, Abbot is now between a rock and a hard place. If he backs down on the new tax because his advisors reckon he can ride it out (or, more likely, are so deep in their bubble they fundamentally misjudge the anger it will cause) then he will be seen to be weak in the fight against the very fiscal crisis that he has promoted as needing fixing.

If he levies the tax, he will be pilloried for breaking the most fundamental pre-election commitment he made.

And in other commitments made pre-election, Abbott also locked in several “No Cut” promises leaving him, hopefully in this correspondent’s opinion, with even less wriggle room. Just take a look at this:

 

Right: noted.

Right: noted.

 

Against a backdrop of Coalition MPs privately venting that the new tax move was “Crazy”, and “Electoral suicide”, even the uncontroversial (generally) Sydney Morning Herald asked yesterday “Could it become known as the “Abbott moment”, when a prime minister cursed his political fate and consigned his government to one term? A big call, to be sure, especially so far out from the next federal poll in 2016.”

We are under no illusion. We think Abbott is about to hand the Liberal Party leadership on a plate to the man who should have had it all along, Malcolm Turnbull, were it not for the “hard right” putsch that idiotically deposed him in Abbott’s favour by a single vote. Not immediately, not in the very short term, but before long. You heard it here first. Our tip would be just before Christmas 2014, as it was even before Abbott won the General Election.

To misquote George Bush Snr, “Read my lips: no way out.”

The Australian public is agog at the news today that the Abbott Government has placed an A$12.5 billion order for the F-35 strike fighter. That’s a lot of money for a nation with 22 million people. The Labor Opposition (who started this macho nonsense) needless to say agrees with the decision.

F 35 fighter

Wheeeeeeeee!

Which is interesting, because the troubled F-35 programme has its limitations.

It’s been plagued with developmental problems, not least of which the plane is extremely noisy and annoys local residents wherever it is based, so the good burghers of Newcastle in New South Wales may find themselves less than enthusiastic about their soon-to-be top gun neighbours than they might have thought.

But perhaps most relevant for the Australian public is that without in-air refuelling (and Australia has just five in-air refuelling units, by the way, to service what will eventually be a collection of 72 sooper-dooper shiny fighters, so presumably now we’re going to have to invest in a lot more of the refuelling planes, too) the new fighter jet has a maximum range of 2,200 kms, out and back.

Which logically means that the residents of Queensland should probably leave off looking for mud crabs and start building air-raid shelters, as they won’t reach anywhere else. Big place, Australia.

Meanwhile, the Abbott Government is saying it is so worried about Australia’s budget position that they are flagging we will have to pay an extra $6 to visit the GP, on top of the money we already contribute to Medicare via our taxes, and we will eventually be allowed to retire and claim our pension (which we have paid into all our lives) when we are about 82 or some such nonsense.

Forgive me for being naive, but I am reasonably sure that I remember that what we spend our public money on used to be a choice? In which case, I vote for fewer toys for the boys, a health system free at the point of use, and to be allowed to retire when I was originally promised I could.

To be more serious for a moment. The only time these planes would ever be used in anger would be if America or perhaps the EU asked us to join them in some military adventure in some far-flung region, and offered us base space over there so we could help out. Just as we did in Afghanistan, flying from a base in Kyrgyzstan.

But does the Australian public have much of an appetite for such efforts, still? After the pain endured in Afghanistan and the wanton idiocies of Iraq, (and we are still waiting to see Messrs Howard, Bush and Blair arraigned as war criminals), we doubt it. And that’s really what should be being debated over this purchase. Just where, exactly, Dear Prime Minister, do you intend to be using these aircraft, and why?

Lockheed Martin and the American government will no doubt consider this a wonderful decision, but we consider this an egregious and excessive use of our tax dollars that concretes us in even more tightly in lockstep with America at exactly the time that our growing engagement with Asia, and especially China, suggests that a slightly more neutral posture would be a wise and measured stance.

Do you agree?