Calendars have only just been flipped over to February and already so much has happened in Australian politics this new year. In just a few weeks the government’s standing has gone from bad to worse. Many of the government’s woes over the last 18 months have been as a result of difficult policy decisions made in response to the less than ideal budgetary position. A lot of the government’s troubles are also down to Tony Abbott’s leadership and the style of governance he has allowed to linger. So far in 2015 all the missteps are down to Tony Abbott – and only Tony Abbott.
That brings us to today, the 2nd of February, 2015. The Prime Minister made a rare appearance at the National Press Club today in a bid to give the public a taste of a government finally engaging with the public and proving that they have begun to listen to voter concerns.
Election night in Queensland drew our attention to the address in spectacular fashion, with Jane Prentice nominating it as a forum at which the Prime Minister had to perform some kind of miraculous recovery effort – setting out a way to escape the doldrums.
Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Abbott was unable to perform this feat. There were ever so slight slivers of hope that the speech might give some kind of direction. At best it was a tired, spent leader trying to conjure up a final burst of energy, sprinting a bit, but wobbling at the crucial moment. At worst it was a display of arrogance and disdain for voters. Actually, it was probably a mix of the two.
The Prime Minister started by making some broad statements about what government should do and followed that with what his government had done and what it could both do, and do better.
In reality, what the Prime Minister should have done first was to move pretty swiftly into apology mode. Almost the whole speech could have been one long mea culpa, with a little bit of what he and the government were going to do for the next 18 months thrown in at the end.
Making broad statements about what governments should do is irrelevant when you have already achieved government. You draw attention to the fact that you are not doing those things if you need to spend time talking about them. Furthermore, it is the talk of an Opposition Leader and that is not a good look 18 months into office.
In other words, Tony Abbott had his speech in completely the wrong order.The resulting display was at least one-third waffle and two-thirds slight improvement.
The arrogance sprang from the way the Prime Minister took so long getting to what everyone was made to believe was the point of the speech – an apology for taking voters for mugs and a new way forward. In the case of a new way forward, we only got a brief glimpse of that, but again it was all vision and no substance. Again, something expected of Oppositions early on in a political term.
Shockingly, the Prime Minister also implied that voters were stupid and had encountered a “fit of absent-mindedness” in the Victorian and Queensland elections. Even a rookie politician knows that this kind of thought must not be put into words publicly, regardless of whether it is a correct observation or not.
It was tired precisely for the reasons mentioned above, in that there had been little thought and substance woven into the speech. And the Prime Minister looked tired too. There was very little energy put into the delivery, except when the PM mentioned the few things his government has actually done. The fact that came so early gave the address a valedictory feel.
Tony Abbott has spoken multiple times of hitting the reset button. On each occasion he has instead forgotten that the metaphorical button ever existed in the first place. Today was another one of those days for the struggling leader.
Today could have been Tony Abbott’s last chance to save his leadership and he did a very poor job of fighting for it . Or perhaps he knows that he is a spent force and today’s speech was simply going through the motions. He did however imply that his colleagues would have a fight on their hands to unseat him.
It is pretty clear from some of the facial expressions of his colleagues, captured on film throughout the hour, that they had noticed his suboptimal performance too.
Just last week at the National Press Club came an announcement one of the first confirmed and specific funding cuts. Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, in his address flagged that the Coalition will dump the Schoolkids Bonus, a policy change made by the Gillard Government. The upfront payment replaced a tax refund, which required the provision of receipts before the payment was made. To date, the government has made payments to more than 1.2 million families, totaling $588 million dollars.
This decision caused some debate, but, in as important a policy area as education, there can always be more attention focused on the impacts of political actions.
In announcing the decision, Tony Abbott remarked that the Schoolkids Bonus was, “a cash splash with borrowed money”. Is it really that simple? Or should we be looking a little more critically and thoughtfully? And in conclusion, was it right for the Coalition to make the decision to dump the payment altogether?
In politics, every single decision, often every phrase, even almost every word is subjected to the political spin cycle. And politicians love to engage in hyperbole, even if they do not know how to pronounce it. And not much is different here.
The change made by the Gillard Government, in that sense, is open to being called exactly what Tony Abbott referred to it as. The timing of the move and new mode of delivery for the payment are questionable, at least on appearance. It’s an election year and probably close to 9 out of 10 people would expect the government to lose at the September 14 poll – the opinion polls have been saying so and even the betting has the Coalition as stark favourites. So the payment of course could be painted in a way as an electoral bribe. It is also borrowed money.
But on closer inspection, the payment itself is actually of the utmost importance. It’s to be used for the education of Australian children – our nation’s future. The Coalition will have you believe that the payment will not be used for education purposes in all cases and they may be right in some cases. But that way of thinking is very illiberal for a supposed Liberal Party. Conservatives see human nature as flawed, and not liberals. Liberals have a largely positive view of human nature.
Scrapping the payment altogether, apart from being illiberal, is also a bad thing for education and equality. For ‘equality’, read equality of opportunity – that should be the main game in education policy as equality of outcomes is a completely unattainable and unreasonable aim in the area of education policy.
We should be ensuring that absolutely every child and young adult has access to an education. It must not be a one size fits all approach, but access to education tailored to meet the needs of those engaged in it must be without roadblocks. That includes assisting families with the cost of school-related supplies.
What the Coalition should have done, rather than deciding to scrap the payment altogether, was announce that they will seek to reinstate the old Education Tax Refund. But of course the budget is in a bit of a mess and they have instead planned to cut funding in an area of policy-making which should be quarantined from cuts in most circumstances.
The decision is not an electoral game-changer, but it’s not a good choice of policy.