CLIMATE SPECTATOR: Abbott's problem – policy not misogyny

Debate over Tony Abbott's alleged misogyny has dominated the agenda but the real heat should be on his policy, with this week’s botched attempt to incite outrage over the carbon tax leaving questions over his ability to lead.

Climate Spectator

There’s been a lot of debate in the media about whether or not Tony Abbott is a misogynist, even extending to an American style intervention by his wife and daughter. You know we’re in trouble in this country when family members, rather than policy, become front and centre in our political debate.

But where’s the debate about Abbott’s lack of policy detail?

Our chart of the week is a little unconventional in that it is nothing fancy, just your stock standard utility bill. Except it seems that Tony Abbott, nor his legion of advisers, nor the pensioner whose bill it was, seemed capable of interpreting it properly.

The failure for Abbott to do even the most simple of analysis on this occasion is in fact illustrative of a much broader problem – his lack of attention to detail.

Eighty-two-year-old pensioner Hetty Verolme of Perth, received a rather unpleasant shock when she opened her electricity bill for August and found it had gone up by $800, a 70 per cent rise relative to her last bill. She immediately concluded it must be due to the carbon tax and sent it straight through to Tony Abbott’s office in support of his campaign to "axe the tax”.

Abbott took Hetty’s carbon tax complaint straight into Parliament House, brandishing her bill while asking Prime Minister Julia Gillard:

"With an $800 increase in just one bill of which 70 per cent is due to the carbon tax how can the prime minister possibly claim that Hetty Verolme's compensation is in any way adequate?”

One problem, the predominant reason for the increase in Hetty’s bill was that her electricity consumption for the August bill had about doubled compared to her previous bill.

This was actually quite clearly illustrated on the bill. The picture below , an extract of Hetty Verolme’s bill, has a usage comparison chart on the right hand side circled in red, similar to many other electricity bills we all receive around the country. It shows that Hetty’s consumption for this bill was about twice what it was for the previous bill.

Extract of Hetty Verolme’s electricity bill
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Not only that, but the text that sits to the left of the usage comparison chart explains that rather than electricity prices going up 70 per cent as Abbott claimed, it was in fact 9.13 per cent stating:

"From 1 July 2012 electricity prices will increase. This includes 2.255c/unit for Synergy’s estimate of its costs for the federal government’s carbon price, Synergy’s allowable return and GST. This represents an estimated increase of 9.13 per cent for an average daily usage of 15.89 units.”

Tony ‘I’m not a tech head’ Abbott has for the most part got away with this lack of attention to detail because he has largely bent with the winds of the tabloid media in their sensationalist coverage around cost of living pressures. This coverage has been largely rubbish, as any cursory review of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ inflation data would reveal.

But Abbott has learnt well from his baptism of fire as press secretary for John Hewson in the unlosable 1993 election; and then Howard’s subsequent success in 1996 with his small target strategy.

He has been a brilliant opposition leader to date because of his mastery of the Keep It Simple Stupid principle. Abbott knows that the ability to get a message across in the media from opposition is incredibly constrained. Messages must be simple, short, small in number, repeated regularly, and shaped around, not against, the predominant flow of news coverage.

No point talking about a serious problem if the media aren’t already covering it. And even if something isn’t really a problem, if the media think it is, then just go with it.

So rather than focus on poor regulation of electricity networks, that have been used to raise state government revenues by stealth; rant and rave about a carbon tax which is actually a necessary and efficient economic reform.

And instead of focussing on Australia’s ridiculously poor productivity in the construction sector due to union tactics (which mean we pay 50 to 100 per cent what the US does for things like power stations, high rise buildings and new industrial plant); talk about boat people stealing our jobs.

This is has worked well for Abbott so far. But when questioned on detail, Abbott falls apart. He fell apart when Kerry O’Brien got into detail on broadband. He fell apart when Leigh Sales got into detail about Olympic Dam and the mining and carbon taxes. And so far he is running scared from Lateline’s Tony Jones, turning down every one of the program’s repeated requests for interviews.

As John Hewson sagely observed at an ANU conference of Australian economists, "Tony Abbott is the best…….opposition leader Australia has ever had. I just don’t know what he’d be like as prime minister.”

I suspect that the electorate’s poor opinion of Tony Abbott is as much a reflection of John Hewson’s observation as anything to do with perceptions of misogyny. Until he demonstrates a grip on policy detail, serious questions will hang over Abbott’s capability to lead this country.