Time for Abbott's 'banana republic' moment

Australia's growing fear of the future makes it a strange time for the government to see a polling honeymoon. Is Tony Abbott capable of levelling with Australians about what's next?

Perhaps the Abbott government is now having the post-election honeymoon most commentators argued it didn’t have in the first three months after it was elected last September.

In the immediate aftermath of the election - some called it a landslide for the coalition - Tony Abbott’s approval rating was very ordinary and last November, both Newspoll and the Nielsen Poll had the government trailing the opposition.

This apparently was the first time in 40 years that a newly elected government had polled so badly.

And despite the fact that he was virtually invisible, Bill Shorten had a 51 per cent approval rating in November. One possible explanation of this - though not one favored by most commentators - was that the less they saw of Shorten, the more people approved of his performance.

There was almost unanimous agreement at the end of 2013 that what the polls reflected was the fact that Australians, rather than voting for the Abbott-led coalition with any great enthusiasm or expectations, had, with steely intent, decided to most emphatically reject a Labor government consumed for three years by the leadership battle between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Yet here we are a couple of months later and the government, according to the latest polls, is almost back to where it was at the time of the election, Tony Abbott’s approval rating has improved - if somewhat marginally - and Bill Shorten’s approval rating has dropped more than 10 points to below 40 per cent.

This at a time when unemployment in Australia is at the highest level for a decade, when both Holden and Ford have announced they are quitting Australia, when job losses in manufacturing are announced almost daily - the Alcoa announcement of 1000 jobs to go is just the latest - and when there is a widespread feeling that things are going to get worse in the not too distant future.

This is a strange time for a government to have a belated honeymoon. Now the commentators of course have their explanation for this. Their explanation is essentially that Labor is tarnished with its union connection, that Bill Shorten is a captive of the unions, and that because of this, Labor has nothing to offer in terms of meeting the challenges confronting the nation.

Maybe, but the fact is that we remain in the grip of opinion polls as our main - if not only - source of understanding for what is happening to people’s lives at this time of great economic change.

This means our understanding of what’s going on can change quite radically from opinion poll to opinion poll. In other words, we have no real understanding of what’s happening at all.

Here’s one view of what’s happening based, it must be admitted, on rather limited anecdotal evidence. Many Australians are fearful about the future. This fear is based on the reality of their own lives and their experience of the community in which they live.

The world is changing. Their jobs are not secure and most of them have no cushion of savings to fall back on if they lose their jobs. More than that, the future for their children looks rather bleak - many accept that their children will be worse off than their parents.

This is a most bitter pill to swallow after half a century or more of economic growth in which it became an accepted and eternal truth that each generation must be wealthier – more comfortable and relaxed, in John Howard’s immortal words - than the previous one.

In his column on Tuesday (A grim prediction for the middle class) Bob Gottliebsen wrote about Australia’s shrinking middle class, a rise in the number of people on high incomes and an even sharper rise in those on low incomes. In this, he argued, Australia is following down a path already well-trodden by the United States.

This would not come as a great revelation for many Australians and not just those who have lost their manufacturing jobs in recent months. Their sense of insecurity and apprehension about the future is well founded and they know it.

There is something approaching a recognition of all this by the Abbott government, especially by Treasurer Joe Hockey, though it is cloaked in spin about naughty trade unions and weak-kneed employers and the rotten carbon tax and mining tax and other such diversions.

In the United States there is now the beginning of a discussion about growing inequality, a shrinking middle class and a growing poverty-stricken working class - in the US, that’s what being in the working class means, having to live on wages below the poverty line.

Even leading Republicans like Senator Mark Rubio, a potential presidential candidate, talk about the challenges facing America in what he calls this post-industrial age. He is no longer on about small government. Instead, he argues that governments have to abandon 20th century programs that address problems of the past and focus on developing new programs for a new economic reality.

Joe Hockey’s end of entitlements speeches - ‘end of entitlements’ has become a sort of mantra - hint at this new reality without actually spelling out what he means.

That’s understandable because what he means is what many people now suspect; that they will have to accept a new reality in which their jobs will not be secure and when, in order to retain their jobs, they will have to accept lower wages and worse conditions.

In a sense, that’s what Australian Workers Union chief Paul Howes was saying a couple of weeks ago when he called for a new accord between workers and employers and endorsed the need for what he called wage restraint.

What he meant by wage restraint was the sort of deal his union has negotiated for Alcoa workers who still have a job, where they agree to a four-year freeze on wages which, given inflation, means a 10 per cent cut in wages. Howes admits that even with this agreement, the workers at Alcoa may still eventually lose their jobs.

At least Howes - even if he was somehow polishing his future Labor leadership credentials - was acknowledging the reality of post-industrial Australia.

Bill Shorten, on the other hand, sounds like someone trapped in the past. He blames Abbott for the manufacturing job losses and argues that Labor would have kept Holden and Toyota in Australia and ‘saved’ all the manufacturing jobs that are disappearing.

Some honesty from Shorten, some sense that he understands the fears about the future that afflict many people, wouldn’t do him any harm.

But the real question for now is whether the Abbott government is capable of a Paul Keating ‘banana republic’ moment and can level with Australians about the sort of future that confronts them.

Paul Keating’s banana republic moment of course was followed by a series of reforms that fundamentally changed Australia.

If Hockey is to really level with the Australian people, the government needs more than the bogeymen of the carbon tax and the mining tax and reining in the unions as its plan to address the challenges ahead.

Tony Abbott’s oft -repeated assertion that those workers losing their jobs in manufacturing will somehow go on to better jobs is nothing more than a sound bite.

It is a sign that the government is not even close to acknowledging the reality of the lives of many Australians.

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