Why Abbott Should Release The Coalition’s Costings

The Political Dividends of Honesty

Political cynics might look back upon the second prime ministership (1949 to 1966) of Sir Robert Menzies and say that he must have been very devious to have lasted for so long in office. The fact of the matter was that an important reason as to why Sir Robert Menzies was able to serve for long was because he was honest with the Australian people. The then relatively new Liberal Party achieved one of the greatest swings to it in Australian history because Sir Robert Menzies was upfront with the electorate during the course of the 1949 campaign.

Sir Robert Menzies promised that he would repeal petrol rationing and respect the independence of the banks which had been under threat of nationalization from the federal Labor government of Ben Chiefly. To his relative credit, the *honourable Ben Chiefly went into the 1949 election being honest about his agenda, if not what his vision was for Australia.

(*The term ‘honourable’ is applied to Ben Chiefly not as an appellation the goes to a prime minister and parliamentarian but because he was a man of integrity in his own right).

The unfortunate Chifley socialist agenda for Australia was one of creating a strong state so that economic growth and equity could be facilitated. Sir Robert Menzies was not adverse to the state engineering socio-economic settings to promote economic prosperity but fundamentally believed that the private sector should be the creator and driver of wealth and incomes. For all the post-war turmoil that the Chiefly government had experienced in overcoming communist inspired strikes, his government could still have won the 1949 election had Sir Robert Menzies not articulated his support for a market economy.

Similarly, Malcolm Fraser helped lead the coalition parties to a landslide victory in the December 1975 federal elections following his appointment as caretaker prime minister campaigning on the slogan “Turn on the Lights, Australia” following the disaster of the Whitlam interregnum (1972 to 1975).

Winning Undeserved Public Trust

Alternately, it is alas also true that political leaders can win elections by offering the electorate something for nothing. Bob Hawke in the March 1983 federal election campaigned vigorously on the basis of ‘bringing people together’ such that he won the Australian people’s trust to lead the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to a landslide election victory. That Hawke as prime minister would implement an essentially neo-liberal economic agenda so wrong footed the Liberal Party they respectively *lost the 1987 and 1990 federal elections.

(*Even though the saying may be true that there are no prizes for second place, the pinnacle of Andrew Peacock’s political career was the early December 1984 federal election where his personally tenacious campaign saved the Liberals from an electoral rout).

Public anger toward the ALP that they had won the March 1990 federal election might have caught up with Labor in the March 1993 election had Prime Minister Paul Keating not waged an effective anti-Goods and Services (GST) campaign. An argument could be put that Paul Keating conned the Australian electorate but, to be fair to him, his campaign tapped into a widespread anxiety that a Hewson-led coalition government would take economic rationalism (which most people by then were heartily sick of) to new unbearable extremes.

By campaigning on the slogan “For All of Us” the Liberal campaign of 1996 astutely tapped into widespread public disenchantment with corporatist neo-liberal rule by the ALP which favoured those in the power loop. For all its achievements in paying off the public foreign debt and considerably expanding the nation’s revenue base by applying a GST the Howard government essentially broke faith with the Australian people by still pursuing an essentially economic rationalist agenda, particularly with regard to industrial relations with the respective passing of the 1996 Workplace Relations Act, and Work Choices in 2005.

For all John Howard’s political successes as prime minister (1996 to 2007), including outmanoeuvring his deputy Peter Costello to deny him Liberal Party leadership, he ultimately could not evade the internal sabotage by *rent-seeking elements within the two major parties in order to implement their agenda of phasing out Australian states via ‘regionalization’ (sic) and by entering into disadvantageous trading arrangements with a mercantilist Peoples Republic of China (PRC) by adopting a dud super-profits taxation regime for the vital mining sector.

(*Rent-seeking is when public policy is manipulated by an elite to gain exclusive access to the revenue derived from extracting natural resources).

The Nexus Between Credibility and Trust

The advent of the prime ministership of Julia Gillard (2010 to 2013) was a potential circuit breaker with regard to saving Australia from rent-seeking. Very unfortunately – due to Prime Minister Gillard leading a parliamentary minority government- she was coerced into legislating a carbon tax in late 2011 which took effect in the second half of the following year. As adverse as the carbon tax has been in contributing to cost of living pressures, this unnecessarily burdensome impost fatally undercut Julia Gillard’s credibility with the Australian people. This was because Prime Minister Gillard had previously solemnly promised before the 2010 poll that, if she led a government after the election, she would never introduce such a tax.

By fatally undercutting her popularity, Julia Gillard’s undeserved lack of credibility led the ALP to reinstate Kevin Rudd as prime minister in June 2013 to avoid an electoral wipe-out. There has even being a hope in ALP ranks that a Rudd return could deliver electoral victory.

Perhaps an even deeper and more pertinent question is not whether Kevin Rudd can win the September 7th 2013 federal election for his party but whether it would be a positive development for the nation that there be an ALP federal election victory? The balance of probabilities is that, in relative terms, Australia’s genuine national interest would be served by the ALP winning the 2013 federal election to stop Tony Abbott becoming prime minister.

As Opposition Leader (2009 to 2013), Tony Abbott has had a significant impact in foisting a rent-seeking agenda on Australia. His superb parliamentary manoeuvring resulted in the Gillard government passing the carbon tax legislation and the overall context – which was consequently created – has since provided him with an apparently insurmountable in-built political advantage.

The only real challenge that Tony Abbott now faces is to be a sufficiently small target so that he can win the September 2013 federal election. Although the 2013 federal election is a relatively lacklustre affair, Abbott is still enhancing his in-built strategic advantage. Supposed campaign gaffes such as the sex appeal comment are causing the ALP to conduct an ultimately counterproductive campaign against Tony Abbott. Although the Opposition Leader has had high opinion poll dissatisfaction ratings, the ALP do not seem to realize that this is not a fatal problem for Tony Abbott.

Abbott is a political leader who has brilliantly converted his supposed unpopularity into a political asset. His avowed and disingenuous opposition to a carbon tax (which he helped facilitate) has created a context where most Australians actually trust Tony Abbott to be their prime minister even if they have reservations about his personality. The Opposition Leader is misperceived by too many people as some-one who will do the ‘right thing’ by the nation due to his supposed courage in opposing the carbon tax.

Due to Abbott’s perceived credibility, he now has the capacity to pursue a *Lasch political strategy of winning lower income voters from the ALP to the coalition. The Opposition Leader’s announcement that the Liberals will preference the Greens last is a prime example of the implementation of a Lasch political strategy. Abbott knows that – because many Labor and swinging voters in marginal seats correctly despise the Greens for their advocacy of a carbon tax- they might consequently give their support to the coalition because the ALP cannot afford to place the Greens last with regard to preferences.

(* A Lasch political strategy is where the conservative socio-political orientation of lower income earners are exploited by anti-social democratic strategists to win their support over right wing political parties even if it may not be in their industrial or economic interests to do so).

The current political success that Abbott is experiencing in the 2013 federal election campaign is testament to the need for strategy and tactics to be aligned. The only substantial strategic gain that the ALP has made by replacing Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd as prime minister has been that the almost inevitable prospect of a Labor electoral wipe-out has receded. This development has occurred because the Rudd reinstatement can be conceptualized as a move away from a broken promise in connection to not introducing a carbon tax.

If the ALP is to have a chance of countering Abbott’s Lasch tactic with regard to the coalition preferencing the Greens last, then Prime Minister Rudd should *emphasise that it was the coalition and the Greens voting together in 2010 which thwarted the introduction of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and in so doing established the foundation for the subsequent adoption of a carbon tax. An articulation of this past occurrence by Kevin Rudd would undermine the formidable but undeserved credibility that Tony Abbott has accrued due to the imposition of the carbon tax impost.

(*A strong aspect of Kevin Rudd’s performance in the August 21st debate with Tony Abbott was his pointing out that it was the coalition combined with the Greens who thwarted the introduction of an ETS).

The 2013 Election Campaign ‘Fightback’: Why The ALP Should Fight To Make Abbott Pay For Not Releasing His Costings

Kevin Rudd could publicly challenge Tony Abbott to have his party pledge to bring the carbon tax to a one year early end should the ALP the 2013 federal election. Abbott- in probably refusing to make such an undertaking- would convey that his opposition to the carbon tax behind the scenes which he helped create is disingenuous.

Indeed, Kevin Rudd highlighting Abbott’s disingenuousness is a key to the ALP possibly winning the September 7th 2013 federal election. Furthermore, the overwhelming focus of the Labor national campaign should be to focus on Abbott’s refusal to release the coalition’s costings of their policies. This has been a prominent issue which the ALP has raised against Abbott but is still not front and centre of the ALP national campaign as it should be.

An ALP focus on the issues of credibility with regard to Abbott’s refusal to release the coalition’s major costings could be the means by which the Opposition Leader loses the trust that he has gained with most of the public due to his ostensible opposition to a carbon tax.

Currently however it is this trust that Tony Abbott undeservedly has of too many Australians which is fatally undermining ALP attacks on him. Because Abbott still has too much undeserved public credibility the ALP national campaign is just not hitting home. Consequently Abbott can effectively campaign with the generalized platitudes of his Real Solutions policy document.

If Tony Abbott is to offer Australia ‘real solutions’ then he should release his policy costings for sufficient scrutiny before polling day. The reason why Abbott will not provide policy detail concerning costings is because he does not want to reveal the steep spending cuts he plans to implement.

Ironically, the ALP national campaign could really become unstuck if the coalition was to unveil the full suite of their costings and budget cuts well in advance of the poll date. Should this improbable event occur, the ALP could always legitimately counter that they had raised an important policy concern which Abbott attempted to evade.

Given the devious way in which Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey (the shadow Treasurer) previously undermined Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader in late 2009, it is virtually impossible that these two senior coalition leaders will be honest with the Australian people. An Australian politician who was honest was Dr. John Hewson who, as Opposition Leader during the 1993 federal election campaign, clearly outlined his policies and costings for public scrutiny.

The honest of Dr. Hewson was commendable and he probably would still have won the March 1993 federal election had he also allayed fears about his neo-liberal agenda. The then Opposition Leader’s ideological agenda came to the fore because Prime Minister Keating focused on the GST as a regressive tax to the exclusion of other campaign issues (such as a draconian industrial relations policy). While this approach of Keating’s may in itself have been disingenuous, it at least conveyed to a sufficient number of Australians that the then Opposition Leader was too extreme to be trusted with the prime ministership.

Tony Abbott is similarly impervious to the disastrous socio-economic impact that the rent-seeking policies which he helped facilitate over the last four years as Opposition Leader and which he will ruthlessly inflict if he becomes prime minister. While it is impossible for Kevin Rudd to campaign on a concept as esoteric as rent-seeking, he can still vigorously challenge Abbott to release his policy costings well in advance of the federal election.

It is said that oppositions do not win elections but rather that governments lose them. The second Rudd government is a government which too many Australians are unsure about and in such a context are prepared to shift their support to Abbott because they actually trust him despite having some personal reservations. The cornerstone of trust is credibility and Abbott has gained this because of, and not despite, his pursuit of a rent-seeking agenda.

If the ALP is to deny Abbott the credibility which he has so shrewdly gained, but to which he is not entitled, then the Rudd campaign must even more vigorously (but still calmly) focus then on what has already been undertaken to date on his refusal to release before time important coalition policy costings/budget cuts.

Let Abbott’s refusal to ‘square’ with the Australian people be the 1993 issue of the 2013 campaign!

Dr. David Paul Bennett is the Director of Social Action Australia Pty Ltd.