Tony Abbott’s year of living dangerously

Go hard in your first budget, moderate in the second and sweeten the third. This is a well-trodden path by governments wanting a second term in office.

Go hard in your first budget, moderate in the second and sweeten the third. This is a well-trodden path by governments wanting a second term in office. The Abbott Government however has entered perilous new terrain, pushing a hard right wing agenda that has undermined its authority. Key budget measures are failing to get through the Senate, forcing the Coalition to go back to the drawing board to realise its savings targets. If it sticks to its ‘budget repair’ mantra it will be forced to go hard in its second budget, inflicting political wounds that might prove electorally fatal. A beleaguered Prime Minister and his Treasurer now look vulnerable. They are scarred by one defeat after another as they wage their austerity campaign. No GP co-payment and now no university fee deregulation. Their cuts to the ABC and indifference towards the Australian manufacturing industry are hurting them. Predictably the Coalition has taken a beating in the latest polls. It faces a calamitous electoral outcome unless radical political surgery is performed – excising extremism and replacing it with moderation. Installing Malcolm Turnbull as Treasurer won’t be enough for the beleaguered Coalition. Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Mathias Cormann, Christopher Pyne and David Johnston [who was recently replaced as Defence Minister by Kevin Andrews] are deeply unpopular figures having presided over one of the most deeply unpopular political programs in history. Replacing these senior MPs with moderate alternatives is not going to happen, leaving one outcome almost certain – defeat at the next election if Labor remains disciplined. What does all of this tell us about contemporary Australian politics? One thing seems clear – the Coalition’s program of austerity policies has alienated and angered thousands of voters, fuelling growing hostility towards its leadership. All of this was predictable for those who remember the failed ‘Fightback!’ package that the Coalition campaigned on during the 1993 election. The 650-page tome was replete with austerity measures: radical cuts to public programs and spending much like the Coalition’s current agenda. It turned out to be an electoral disaster – the longest suicide note in history some said. Having failed in 1993, the Coalition’s 2014 austerity campaign is a great illustration of the tendency of history to repeat itself. The mistakes of the past have been visited on the present. Emboldened by securing government, blinkered to the lessons of history, a kind of self-destructive neo-liberal economic zealotry has persisted in the Coalition. Corrosive of good judgment, austerity evangelism does great damage to all. The New Year is set to be a tumultuous one. With few victories likely in its budget battle, the Coalition’s credibility and support base will continue to be undermined in the lead up to the next Federal Budget. A restless backbench will look to Tony Abbott for a Cabinet reshuffle, some urging the promotion of Malcolm Turnbull, others apoplectic at the prospect. The problem for Turnbull is that his presence at the top of the Cabinet table will invite constant leadership speculation, fuelled by the tantalising prospect that the Coalition might be competitive at the next election if he is Prime Minister. As Abbott’s popularity dives, Turnbull’s will rise, creating a sense of inevitability that there is no other alternative but to elevate Turnbull to the top job. What a year 2015 might be! What a year 2014 has been. There will be no shortage of fascinating stories in the year ahead. The next Federal Budget, global economic jitters, the future of manufacturing, the impending automotive industry closure, the industries of the future, jobs and our changing workplaces will all attract my attention. In the meantime, thank you for your comments and suggestions over the past year. A very happy New Year to you in 2015. Associate Professor John Spoehr is the Executive Director of the Australian Workplace Innovation and Social Research Centre at the University of Adelaide @JohnSpoehr

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