Why Abbott lacks policy promise

Coalition policy seems to be strongest in areas where Tony Abbott doesn't have a great interest, and this is not heartening given he is the likely leader of the next government.


The one persistent problem in Tony Abbott's otherwise remarkably successful stint as opposition leader has been a failure to successfully develop and sell any policy beyond negative ones. This has serious implications for a party seemingly on the verge of entering office with, possibly, majorities in both houses. While the left is building the prospect of an Abbott government up into a sort of monstrous reactionary ogre, the more realistic risk, as insightful observers like Saul Eslake have pointed out, is that it might be a do-nothing government hobbled by its leader's aversion to complex policy and economics.

Several key Abbott policies have come under attack this week. The apparent abandonment of the Coalition's corporate tax cut and recommitment to a 1.5 per cent tax rise for large companies has refocused attention on what Abbott terms a "signature policy", his version of a Paid Parental Leave scheme. This was the policy Abbott sprang on his party in 2010, generating criticism for his lack of consultation and the generosity of the scheme to women earning up to $150,000 a year, and subsequently giving him grief after shadow cabinet rolled him on a payment for at-home mothers designed to counter internal criticism from conservatives.

The point of the policy was always to counter perceptions that Abbott's views on women were from the 12th century, and as image makeovers go, it's one of the more expensive ones. Woolworths, for example, on last year's results would have had to pay an extra $40 million in tax, or around 1 per cent of revenue, a bigger hit than the carbon price. It also means the party of small government and lower taxes will go to the election promising a tax rise - and having blocked a 1 per cent corporate tax cut for political reasons. And, oddly for a policy that is vastly more generous than Labor's, polls suggest voters prefer the latter to Abbott's scheme.

Business, and particularly big carbon emitters, is also expressing concern about the Coalition's 'soil magic' direct action climate policy, particularly with a dramatically lower carbon price in sight once the government's emissions trading scheme commences and locks into the European carbon price in 2015. Despite Greg Hunt's attempt to salvage the policy by promising a white paper and claiming it will be a "classic market mechanism" (the sort of market mechanism that will need a vast bureaucracy to calculate emission baselines and select fund recipients), the Coalition is now the sovereign risk option on climate action, deterring investment and creating confusion within business. Moreover, it still remains vastly underfunded for the task of delivering a 5 per cent emissions reduction by 2020.

Risky, too, is the Coalition's fixation with turning back asylum seeker boats, which is increasingly alarming Indonesia and this week drew criticism from a senior Indonesian parliamentarian. It's one thing to ignore persistent navy advice on policy, but another to antagonise the leaders of our most important neighbour, although it suggests that Abbott and Scott Morrison are worried that, without actually being able to turn at least some boats back, they won't have much long-term success in stopping the boats, an outcome they desperately need.

And yesterday's agreement between the Commonwealth and New South Wales over the Gonski education funding reforms increases pressure on the Coalition's policy that current education funding arrangements are operating well and there is no need for additional funding in Australia's primary and secondary education systems. From here until June 30, every state or territory that signs up to the Gonski reform offer from the Commonwealth renders the Coalition's position more untenable as it faces the growing possibility of having to implement education funding deals with the majority of states - or unilaterally breach those deals and cut funding. Abbott already faces the task of renegotiating funding with Barry O'Farrell, no fan of Abbott and in many ways his political antithesis.

The Paid Parental Leave policy is all Abbott's, by his own admission. Soil Magic was invented by Greg Hunt on the back of an envelope in the summer of 2009-10 after Abbott made campaigning against Rudd's CPRS the centrepiece of his leadership - although, ironically, "direct action" is the only position on climate change policy that Abbott had not previously held. Demonising asylum seekers has also been a speciality of Abbott and Morrison compared to the more restrained policy adopted by Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull's own NBN policy, while almost unanimously derided in tech circles and on social media, has shifted the Coalition a vast distance from its previous fear and loathing of broadband and, while voters prefer Labor's NBN, is likely to go a long way toward removing broadband as an impediment to voters switching to the Coalition. And Joe Hockey has demonstrated a firmer and firmer grasp of fiscal reality as his task beyond September 14 becomes clearer. His shift on surplus and his repeated rejection of austerity as a sound policy reflects Hockey's growing stature as the likely safe pair of hands for economic management in a Coalition government.

All of which suggests that when Coalition policy is developed in areas where Abbott has no interest, like economics or telecommunications, it's more effective, but when he plays a strong role in policy development, the results are poor. It doesn't augur well for a party likely to be given a strong mandate on September 14.

This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on April 24. Republished with permission.

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