Coalition campaign launch – out-Howarding Howard
Right now I have a song stuck in my head. It’s playing over and over and over. It’s the Coalition’s campaign theme song, complete with jingoistic lyrics that sounded a little like they were written by John Williamson’s less-talented apprentice:
“It’s the Aussie way/ to see things through/ to get things done/ to be true blue … now’s the time/ to get things right/ shine on Australia /let’s stand up and fight … so stand up Australia and support real action’.
That song was played every single time a new speaker fronted up to the podium.
And they rolled them out from every level of government. First we had Campbell Newman, the Mayor of Brisbane, giving us the long list of his achievements – everything from a new bus depot to tree planting. He was followed by WA Premier Colin Barnett. Predictably, Barnett sounded the warning bell on the idea of the mining tax.
Warren Truss, Leader of the Nationals and aspiring Deputy Prime Minister, was next, as the voice of regional Australia. His speech was largely confined to motherhood statements on how people from regional Australia needed more support with study, internet access and transport. A promise of several four-lane highways was followed up by the remarkable observation that ‘every labor cabinet minister lives in a capital city’. The implication was clear: Labor doesn’t understand, and doesn’t want to know about the needs of rural and regional Australia. He didn’t spell it out, but then, he really didn’t need to do so. Everyone in the room understood what he wasn’t saying.
Following him was Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. Fresh from her stare-off victory against Gerald the Gnome on ABC’s Yes We Canberra, she jumped straight into her designated role as the Coalition’s attack dog. Her speech consisted of some of the strongest vitriol yet heard in the campaign, mixed up with equal parts scorn and withering sarcasm. ‘Shallow end of the gene pool’ was one of her milder descriptions of the ALP.
She played the experience card, then. Government, she said was ‘not a job for amateurs’. The Coalition was made up of people who had ‘done it before’. The team was led by a man who had been a ‘competent’ health minister, who was particularly effective’ in women’s health. ‘People are alive today, and they thank Tony Abbott for it,’ she said, and proceeded to introduce him as everyone’s friend, an experienced politician and the man who would lead the Coalition back to government.
Abbott led off by praising ‘a deputy I can trust, a predecessor who’s a friend and a former Prime Minister who’s a hero’. The latter was obviously Howard, but commentators were unsure as to whether the ‘predecessor’ was supposed to refer to Malcolm Turnbull. As for his comments about Julie Bishop, Abbott might well have been hoping that the party faithful would choose not to recall how she has been the trusted deputy of no less than three Liberal leaders to date.
Accolades done with, Abbott settled down to the task of defining himself in opposition to Labor. It’s what he’s done all through this campaign so far – first a criticism of Labor, then a statement about how he’s not like that. All of that was fairly predictable – but he was just winding up. Invoking the spectre of 1975, he thundered, ‘Our task is nothing less to save Australia from the worst government in its history’.
In one moment, he managed to link the current election with one of the most infamous events in Australia’s political history, and attempt to paint himself as a crusading saviour appearing in its time of need to ‘restore honour and integrity to Australian public life’.
That hyperbole may well come back to haunt him, not least because the Liberal member most closely associated with the Whitlam dismissal, Malcolm Fraser, was conspicuously absent from the gathering, after having delivered a scathingly negative verdict on Abbott. Diehard Labor voters are still particularly bitter about 1975 – it’s a tale handed down to the next generation with an admonition to never forget what was done to Whitlam’s government. It’s just possible that Abbott’s attempt to scare the electorate could backfire, and send wavering Labor faithful rallying around the standard.
Abbott indulged in more criticism before giving us the timetable for his first few months as Prime Minister – something that even Sky News (normally very well-disposed towards the Liberal leader) called ‘an act of hubris’. It looked as though he was taking his election for granted.
Day 1 is going to be very busy for the putative PM. Abbott plans to be on the phone to Nauru to reopen its asylum seeker processing centre, discontinue Labor’s Building the Education Revolution program, and ‘safeguard those who make their living from the sea’ (in some unspecified way). Oh, and he’ll lift the mining tax – the one that hasn’t actually been levied yet.
Later that week he’ll call a meeting of the Cabinet and the National Security Committee, which he promised to chair and make sure all his ministers attended (a barely-disguised dig at allegations that Gillard had not done so). Presumably he’ll actually appoint the Cabinet sometime between stopping programs that don’t currently exist and phoning Nauru.
He’ll also be asking Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey to set up a ‘Debt Reduction Taskforce’ to prepare a plan to start ‘repaying the debt’. That’s a little confusing, since he has already been touting some $40 billion of ‘savings’ apparently designed to do what he’s now saying will need to be investigated.
While Robb and Hockey are busy with their calculators, Abbott will forge ahead for the next month preparing an economic statement outlining ‘risks and opportunities’, releasing the Murray-Darling basin plan, visiting countries in the region to ‘repair’ trade and alliance relations, reassuring ‘frightened householders’ that they’ll get reimbursed before their roofs spontaneously burst into flame, and changing Question Time rules to prevent ministers from obfuscation and filibustering.
After that he’ll settle down for a more leisurely two-month period of recruiting for the Green Army, having a COAG meeting that will not adjourn until all states agree on local boards and beds for public hospitals, miscellaneous small business reforms, preparing for the Emissions Reduction Fund, forming a National Violent Gang Squad (which is not as alarming as it sounds), and a side-trip to Afghanistan to ‘reassure’ Australia’s soldiers that they are supported.
If my tone sounds a bit flippant, well, all that’s about to change.
‘Those thinking of voting Green,’ said Abbott, needed to know that the Coalition would meet their 2020 emission targets – but not through taxes. Those targets will be met by buying soil abatements and tree planting (and see my earlier blog on the Coalition’s climate change policy for the potential problems there). To underscore the point that the Coalition is absolutely opposed to a carbon tax of any kind, Abbott added, ‘We will never damage our economy with futile gestures’.
Futile gestures. The party that claims it is the ‘only one’ with a climate change policy dismissed and derided the idea that is largely accepted as the only one – short of direct governmental intervention – that can push countries towards a lower carbon economy.
It got nastier.
On paid parental leave, Abbott extolled the virtues of the Coalition’s policy. The ‘most conservative instinct of all’ was to have a family, and there was a ‘natural instinct’ for women to have children – so the Coalition, by extension, was only helping what comes naturally. This is a statement straight out of the 1950s, right up there with ‘one for Mum, one for Dad, and one for the country). It implies that anyone who does not want children is somehow unnatural. It’s impossible to say if it was a deliberate swipe at Gillard (who has no children), but it would certainly be something that anyone hearing it could be expected to conclude.
Then Abbott sounded the dogwhistle that pretty much everyone had been waiting for – the imminent threat of asylum seekers on our borders, apparently the major reason that Labor is slipping in the polls. He’ll ‘stop the boats’. He’ll reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas for all asylum seekers. He’ll re-open Nauru and send all asylum seekers there. Convicted people smugglers will be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of 12 months. Repeat offenders will be sentenced to 10 years.
But … the same penalties will be applied to anyone who ‘assists’ a people smuggler, or who ‘conceals or harbours a non-citizen’. Have a think about that. How is such a ‘crime’ going to be discovered? Where would you look? Obviously, you’re not going to go knocking on doors trying to find out if Auntie Flo from Birmingham has overstayed her visa. So how on earth could you spot these dastardly ‘non-citizens’?
Well, for a start you wouldn’t bother looking for Auntie Flo. You’d look for asylum seekers who’d arrived by boat – and how would you find them? You’d start by looking at refugee advocacy groups, who have a long history of non-cooperation with the idea of mandatory detention. Sounds a little like a veiled threat, really.
But here’s the real kicker.
The offence of concealing and harbouring a ‘non-citizen’ already exists.
Under S.233E of the Migration Act 1958, offenders are to be penalised with a prison term of 10 years, or 1000 penalty units, or both. So Abbott promised nothing new. He merely reminded people of what is already in place. Why do that? Why announce a policy whose previous existence can be ascertained with two minutes’ work on Google? Because he wanted to look tough and hoped no one would figure out he wasn’t actually promising anything? Because he was sending a warning to refugee advocacy groups? Because he didn’t even know that it already existed?
None of these options is at all palatable – and coupled with the re-introduction of the draconian measures utilised by the Howard government, it makes for truly disturbing news.
Abbott wound up by describing his political creed as ‘genial and pragmatic’. I’ll leave the judgment of ‘pragmatic’ as an exercise for the reader. But ‘genial’? After listening to all the criticism (both sly and overt) over the campaign, after hearing him employ xenophobic fear-mongering language on the subject of asylum seekers, and after seeing him apparently give carte blanche to his candidates to engage in inflammatory rhetoric aimed squarely at people rather than policies?
I’m going to have to disagree on that one. He’s out-Howarded John Howard at his worst.
And I still have that song in my head.