In mid-May, the recently elected conservative government in Australia proposed its federal budget. Although Australia enjoys one of the most resilient economies in the developed world, and was left relatively unscathed by the global financial crisis, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have revealed massive spending cuts and new taxes.
Losers include low- and medium-income earners, students, and pensioners, who are all set to receive fewer benefits and increased fare costs in their day-to-day living. Two of the most contentious proposed policies would result in car fuel prices being increased and patients paying an up-front fee to see a medical doctor where previously there was no cost involved.
Meanwhile, high-income earners have been left relatively unaffected.
This is all in sharp contrast to Abbott’s pre-election promises. Famously, on election eve, he promised Australian voters that, if elected, his government would enact: “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the [goods and services tax] and no cuts to [the public broadcasters] ABC and SBS.”
All of those promises have been broken.
More than a decade ago, US President George W Bush made a similar set of promises in his 2000 presidential election campaign. He crafted his message to resonate with low- and middle-income earners, promising targeted tax cuts to peoplein that bracket. When in office, however, it was the millionaires, the high-income earners, who enjoyed the significant tax cuts. Likewise, his promises on education and health were also broken upon being elected.
However political tactics and policies are not the only similarity between Abbott and Bush. Both claim to be deeply religious. At a religious convention, Bush once claimed that God wanted him to be president. Although Abbott has never presumed a divine right to rule, at one stage of his life, he trained to be a Catholic priest. (This is particularly unusual in Australia given its relative irreligiosity compared to the US)
Abbott’s 2013 election success was, like most others, partly earned and partly fortuitous. His reputation as a persistently negative, aggressive opposition leader, earned him political acclaim, and is being partly replicated now by the new opposition. However, his campaign also took advantage of internal turmoil within his opponent’s party, the Labor Party, which had sown public mistrust over the course of its leadership.
If a double dissolution were called, as the government’s political opponents have publicly called for, it might not end well for Abbott’s government.
After only a few months in office however, Abbott’s honeymoon period was soon over and opinion polls showed his opponents ahead on both a two-party preferred basis and in leadership ratings. Just before the budget was released, the polls showed voters preferred a Labor government: 52.6 percent Labor and 47.4 percent Liberal on a two-party preferred basis. Given the many broken promises and the associated negative public reaction, it’s difficult to see how these numbers could improve this week, let alone this month or year.
One Australian policy area which has attracted particular international attention has been over the treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Australia. These asylum seekers, termed “irregular maritime arrivals” by Australian Immigration, and “illegals” by Abbott’s government, have been the topic of a long domestic debate and mounting international condemnation.
Recent riots at an off-shore detention centre in neighboring Papua New Guinea in February left one man, a 23-year-old Iranian Kurd, Reza Barati, dead and 62 people injured. Local and international human rights organisations have condemned Australia’s policies that lead to the violence. The mental and general health of the detainees has also been a prominent concern.
Although off-shore processing of asylum seekers has become a somewhat domestically accepted practice, the recent death in detention has given considerable clout to human rights activists and their political allies. This, combined with the major backlash against Abbott’s budget, and further compounded by trends in the polls, means the newly-elected government is in for some tough political times.
A one-year prime minister?
Abbott and Hockey’s budget proposals need to pass through the Senate. As it stands, all but two of the key proposals would garner enough votes to be enacted when newly elected senators begin their new terms of office on July 1.
Assuming the legislative proposals remain the same and that senators currently vowing to block the majority of Abbott’s policies stick by their guns, the newly elected government – who are only in their first year of power – will be forced to give up some of its policies and look weak, or call another election.
The new election, a double dissolution, would dissolve both the upper and lower houses of parliament, the senate and the House of Representatives, respectively. All seats in both houses are then contested.
Only six double dissolutions have been carried out in Australia’s 113-year history. The most recent happened in 1987. On all of these occasions, the double dissolution was called due to a legislative deadlock like the one Abbott could face very soon. Although Abbot enjoys a majority in the lower house, the upper house is made up of more diverse political persuasions and has the power to block legislation. For legislation to become law, there must be a majority vote in both houses.
If a double dissolution were called, as the government’s political opponents have publicly called for, it might not end well for Abbott’s government. However perhaps he will borrow another tactic from Bush and patiently rebuild his image throughout the full length of his term, in which case he would have another two or three years to convince Australians that he has their best interests at heart.
Editor’s note: In its original publication, this article incorrectly stated that Tony Abbott had once trained to become a Jesuit priest. Although he was educated by Jesuits, he trained as a Catholic, not Jesuit, priest.
Tom Burns is a Melbourne-based writer who studies bioethics and neuroscience. His work has been featured online and in print in Australia and abroad.
You can follow him on Twitter @tfburns and read his blog at www.tfburns.com.