OVER the summer, I’ve been talking to hundreds of Australians from all walks of life – in the street, on the beach, in cafes, even at the pub; and I’ve been talking with my colleagues.
The PM began his over-hyped ‘do or die’ Canberra press club address today by making a folksy claim to have his finger on the national and political pulse: ‘over the summer I’ve been talking …,’ but his efforts were undercut by the key verb, ‘talking’. If Abbott wanted to reassure his audience, he would make at least some concession to listening. If he wanted to convince us he would feed back some of what he had learnt. Sometimes, the job is just too big for the man and as his talk proceeded, it became increasingly clear that Abbott’s self-set task of reassurance and redirection was too big for him, too big for one who prefers simple rhetoric, lazy cliché and bald assertion to any more persuasively advanced discourse. He talked at his audience for at least half an hour but by the end convinced few, as Chris Uhlman put it bluntly, that it would not be better if he just resigned.
Talking to people is not communication, unless you are prepared to listen and share. That means being equipped to listen. No matter how many times the PM may tell us that we have ‘won the lottery of life’ as he puts it in his schmaltzy empty phrase, because we are ‘free, fair and prosperous,’ Australians will need more convincing if they are to believe that his government’s increased surveillance and anti-terror and immigration law changes do not mean that he has increased the power of the state over the individual. Above all, the poor, the needy, the unemployed, the underemployed including those long suffering Australians in remote and regional indigenous communities would be wondering what type of lottery they had won.
Abbott then sketched a global perspective as testing, tumultuous, troubled and one in which anything could happen: ‘expect the unexpected’ was his takeaway message. Here was a chance to commend Australians on their resilience or their capacity to support one another but instead he chose to shape his comments to make a case for a strong, protective government with the smarts to strengthen our economy. He repeated the tired old saw that only a Coalition government could deliver the government’s future. Would we have any future if the previous government, a Labor government had not been able to stimulate the economy to bring us through the GFC relatively unscathed? Will we have any future, moreover, if we continue to deny climate change, a key part of the future revealingly missing from his quick synopsis? As always his perspective was selective and defective in convincing detail.
There followed a lot of boilerplate rhetoric about a strong economy. Apparently a strong economy was something his LNP government was building as only his government could. Those thousands of workers who are now out of a job as a result of his axing of public service jobs would beg to differ. Those who watch the figures would be hard pressed to find a shred of evidence to support his case that he and his government was ‘growing the economy’. Almost every indicator from unemployment to business and consumer confidence points in the other direction.
Much as Abbott chose to claim his government was continuing to create more jobs, he ignored unemployment trends completely. Buckets of new jobs are no consolation if we have barrow-loads of jobs expiring or ceasing to be, such as those of advocacy service workers whose careers were terminated in a stroke of the government’s pen. Or those who lost their jobs when the renewable energy sector copped a hiding from a government with an ideological commitment to coal.
All pundits agreed that to succeed his speech needed a new direction if not a bold new policy initiative. So where was it? Ten minutes into his speech there was but the vaguest outline. A new ‘families policy’ and a new ‘small business and jobs policy’ along with building roads seem to be the most detail we will get from the PM that he has anything at all planned to boost economic growth. If he had plans, he gave no detail. Yet, because he gave no detail, no one would be persuaded that these exist or that they would work.
Now came something else all too familiar, some Labor government bashing. Under Labor, the PM intoned, government was spending too much; borrowing too much; and paying out too much dead money in interest alone. He had the rubbery figures to prove it. Abbott once again represented debt in nominal terms, a tactic he and his colleagues had done to death in the election campaign. Few are bluffed. Any reasonable, responsible view of debt as linked to GDP and government revenue shows we’re in pretty good shape, despite the Coalition’s scare tactics, tactics along with its broken promises which have so damaged its credibility that it has undermined its own legitimacy, a process which has further depressed business and consumer confidence.
Abbott, the ideological right wing economic dry then sloganeered about deficits, again in nominal terms and not in relation to increasing productivity. Overlooking his government’s practice in the Howard-Costello years he made the false claim:
‘We’ve never been a country that’s ripped off future generations to pay for today …’ this was rich coming form a member of a government which had entirely squandered the windfall of the resources boom on boosting its chances at the ballot box by offering tax reductions. Abbott (and his advisers) must assume that his audience has no memory.
The economy is stronger, the budget is improving and the jobs market has strengthened claimed the PM in Pollyanna fashion. His assertion is flatly contradicted by the evidence. Unemployment is up, growth is flat while confidence is down. Part of this is caused by the Abbott government, especially its scaremongering about fictive debt crises and its punitive cuts to struggling low-income families.
There followed reassurances about getting tough on terror with a swipe at Labor for reducing police and security agencies funding with no specifics. This was a dangerous ploy given that the bungled Sydney siege, a preventable action insofar as it was caused by a man who somehow fell off the radar despite his police record and a tragic event in which there are still unanswered questions about police tactics which caused the death of one innocent hostage remains fresh in everyone’s memory.
Abbott’s sycophantic streak was embellished under pressure when he ventured to embrace small business. His praise of the local merchant as a type of community benefactor and altruist was ideologically correct for the party faithful but gratingly at odds with reality in mixed company:
I admire people who take risks, have a go and employ others … If you’re a small business owner, it’s likely that you’ve mortgaged your home in order to invest, employ and serve the community.
Quite literally, you have put your economic life on the line for others…
What Abbott offered up to the Press Club today was just more of the same old rhetoric, the same old unconvincing claptrap. The need to please his backers eclipsed his capacity to even heed, let along answer his critics. Abbott had nothing substantial new to offer, apart from the well-leaked ‘news’ that his paid parental leave was ‘off the table’. Nowhere did the PM attempt to hold himself to account or confront in public his failure to meet expectations. Nor did he give any sign that he had the capacity to deliver on the trust, the hopes that others had placed in him. He stood today, facing the end of his career, a tin pot general of open market ideology whose ambition and capacity to attack conferred a premature and undeserved image of competence and depth that now was well and truly shattered.