Yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured us that – despite announcing the election date seven months early – the campaign had not actually begun. Today, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott fell right into her trap, and came out swinging in full campaign mode.
His address to the National Press Club left no doubt that as far as he was concerned, knowing the poll date was a signal to ramp up the rhetoric. Right from the beginning, he spoke as though he was directly addressing the Australian public – that he was listening to ‘you, the Australian people’. Now, while the NPC is televised, it’s primarily a forum for the media to listen to a long speech and get an extended time for questions. Not for Abbott, though.
In rapid succession, he ran through his well-known talking points. The ‘carbon tax’ will go. The Mining Resources Rent Tax will go. The boats will be stopped (‘we’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again’). It was all about the people – but not all the people. Abbott wants to ‘reach out to all the decent people of our country’, to those migrants who have come to our country ‘not to change our way of life, but to share it’.
Mr Abbott? Senator Cory Bernardi called. He wants his dogwhistle back.
With that established, Abbott settled in, and for the next hour we were treated to a barrage of negative campaigning. Most of it was familiar stuff – the Prime Minister ‘fibbed’ about the ‘carbon tax’, ‘faceless men’ of Labor, big spending, more taxes, puppets of the Greens, protecting people of bad character like Craig Thomson and former Speaker Peter Slipper, etc, etc. There were more than a few jaw-droppers mixed in with that.
First, he claimed that people are saving more than ever before – but only because they don’t trust the government. It conjures up visions of old ladies surrounding by jars full of five cent pieces, or stuffing bank notes into their mattresses. It’s ridiculous and overblown – not to mention there isn’t a shred of proof for such an assertion.
We were treated to a few moments of outright silliness. Abbott claimed he had ‘never been anti-union’, that he ‘deeply respects women’s choices’, and – this is my favourite – that ‘no decent government should ever deliberately set out to divide Australians’.
I guess it’s okay if the Opposition does it.
There were some expected personal slurs, delivered in a rather slippery fashion. Abbott reminded us he has three daughters and a wife, and therefore understands and champions women’s needs. His wife Margie, he informed us, was a Girl Guide Leader. No need to point out that the PM was in a childless de facto relationship with a hairdresser, after all that. He told us he wasn’t ‘just a glorified tourist from Canberra’ – perhaps a reference to his photo ops in the middle of disasters, or maybe just letting us know yet again that he’s visited 215 small businesses since the 2010 election. Then Abbott all but called the PM a coward, stating that he wasn’t afraid to get out and ‘get an ear-bashing’ from the people. It was an obvious reference to the hysterical anti-carbon tax rally on the lawns of Parliament House where protesters bayed for blood under the approving smiles of the Opposition.
Then came the clearly outrageous – and possibly defamatory – statement that the Prime Minister’s office had ‘orchestrated a riot on Australia Day‘. To say this twists the known facts is only the start. What we know is that a former staffer told someone that Abbott had made apparently derogatory comments about the Tent Embassy, and through miscommunication, that led to an angry outburst from indigenous activists that resulted in the Prime Minister and Abbott being escorted to safety by security personnel. There has never been any evidence that a ‘riot’ (a legal term, one never applied to the situation by prosecutors) was planned out of the PM’s office.
And then during questions, Abbott was asked about the resignation today of South Australian Liberal leader Isobel Redmond. In his response, Abbott clearly stated that it was only due to ‘electoral malfeasance’ that the ALP had won the last state election. He didn’t point the finger specifically at either the Electoral Commission or Labor, but the implication was clear. It was his ‘illegitimate government’ message all over again.
Despite Abbott’s assertions that he had already presented the Opposition’s plans the last time he appeared at the NPC – around a year ago – there was little that was new, and nothing of substance. In fact, he stated proudly that the Coalition would only release its policy costings after the government had released theirs – as though the election were nothing more than a giant game of chicken.
What little we did get in the way of policy was hardly encouraging. In government, the Coalition would not only scrap the ‘carbon tax’, the MRRT and the NBN, but also get rid of the Schoolkids’ Bonus, and the Low Income Superannuation Contribution Scheme (funded through the mining tax). He wouldn’t be drawn on whether the carbon price compensation would be withdrawn, or whether Labor’s tax cuts would be removed, but he’s often said that without a carbon price, no one needs a compensation scheme. He also hinted that he would look at removing the means test for the private health insurance rebate.
Incredibly, he remarked that families wouldn’t be hurt by the removal of the Schoolkids’ Bonus.
(On a personal note, that one had me gobsmacked. My two girls started secondary school this year, and without that bonus, we would have had a struggle paying for the associated costs – and that’s to go to a public school. I’m lucky – we’re relatively comfortable, financially speaking. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a single parent, or a single, low-income household trying to cope.)
Possibly the most telling moments came in response to questions. Abbott had made statements on several occasions to the effect that, should he be elected but face a hostile Senate who refused to pass the ‘carbon tax’ repeal, he would call a double dissolution election in 2014. He was asked if he thought that was akin to saying he didn’t trust the Australian people to know their own minds, that it showed an arrogant disregard? His response? Labor wouldn’t be stupid enough to ‘ensure’ they stayed in Opposition for a long time by refusing the repeal – but in the unlikely event they did, he would indeed dissolve the Parliament.
A double dissolution election is a serious matter. The provision exists so that if Parliament is simply unworkable (for example, a Senate that refuses to pass the Budget), the people have an opportunity to show their preferences and elect new representatives. It’s not there so that a leader can throw a tantrum if his favourite piece of legislation is blocked. That Abbott would repeatedly affirm his willingness to throw Parliament into disarray if he didn’t get his way shows an appalling amount of arrogance.
That was only hammered home by his response to a question about trust. Reminded that when he was Health Minister, Abbott broke a promise not to increase the Medicare Safety Net threshold, he excused himself by saying he was ‘rolled’ by his colleagues. Then he paused, broke into a broad grin and said, ‘But now I am the authority’.
This is not the thinking of a party leader, first among equals. This is someone who gives the clear impression that holding the Prime Ministership is a mandate to do whatever he wishes – and that if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll simply do whatever he can to get rid of those who stand in his way.
That, frankly, is the thinking of a would-be dictator.
Abbott wound up with a call to arms: ‘I’m ready, the Coalition is ready, Australia is ready’.
The question is: ‘Are we ready to elect someone who thinks the democratic process is his personal servant?’