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The survival of the fittest mentalist of the Abbott government: Shifting the balance from working people to vested interests

Launch of the Melbourne Chifley Ideas Circle

Introduction

It’s great to be here tonight to help launch the Melbourne Chifley Ideas Circle.

In a world of neo-conservative idea machines, there’s no doubt the Chifley Research Centre is a beacon of social-democratic economic sanity.

Your small team, along with your network of activists, has set itself the biggest job of all: reconciling economics and justice.

I’m an optimist about the Australian economy, both in the short-term and the long-term.

Good budget policy is the foundation of a strong economy. And a credible pathway to surplus is an essential ingredient to achieving all of our social and economic obligations.

In Labor’s last Budget we put in place funding over 10 years for two of the most important social and economic reforms of the post-war era – namely the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski school improvement reforms.

The fear mongering we’ve seen from Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey is designed to pursue a political objective of junking key election commitments as an entrée to dismantling the Australian model, built on fairness.

The Australian economy, because of the deployment of stimulus, came through the Global Financial Crisis better than any other developed economy in the world.

To be frank, the debt and deficit fear campaign peddled by the Abbott Government is all about delegitimising one of the most successful stimulus packages in the world that saved hundreds of thousands of jobs and kept the doors of tens of thousands of small businesses open.

Before this government was elected, I used to reflect from time to time on Tony Abbott’s political skills.

It was hard to deny the fact that he was an especially brutal and effective Opposition Leader. He played the politics very hard indeed, but the nagging question was how this would translate to government.

To use a metaphor, Australia elected a demolition expert as Prime Minister. My concern back then though was that you don’t keep the demolition crew on site once you start building the new house.

My topic today is about how this concern has been realised, and what I think we as a nation should do about it.

After eight months of conservative Government, I think the signs are now sufficiently concerning that I wanted to take an opportunity to pull them all together in one place.

I don’t say any of this as some kind of starry-eyed idealist about the conduct of politics and that it can necessarily be a rough and tumble business.

I’ve spent long enough in politics and thrown and received enough punches to know we can’t and shouldn’t drain all the conflict from politics.

The real question is when does it go too far? Let me comment across five dimensions that I now observe as early hallmarks of this government:

  • an excess of partisanship, particularly in economic policy;
  • an attack on key institutions including the independence of the Treasury;
  • the undermining of important conventions of government;
  • a litany of broken promises; and
  • an obvious culture of vindictiveness.

 

Partisanship

Let me start with partisanship. I have experienced many election nights in my time, but 2013 was a remarkable one.  There was of course the bitter disappointment of having lost government and losing great colleagues.

But what struck me so strongly on election night was what I can only describe as the worst prime ministerial victory speech I have heard in my long political life.

The first words a prime minister utters to the nation on election night are precious beyond measure. To use the old cliché – they are the only chance to make a first impression.

And frankly, it is not hard to get this right. These speeches write themselves. But at the very least, they need to strike a tone of humility, generosity, vision and above all reconciliation – especially after the political brutality Tony Abbott had meted out for three years without end.

I repeat, this was easy to do. If in doubt, Mr Abbott could have lifted a line from his mentor John Howard, ‘that the things that unite us are greater than the things that divide us’.

But not a bit of it. Tony Abbott managed to gloat over the size of the Labor primary vote and many other nasty, petty bits of politicking in a truly appalling effort.

I remember thinking at the time, if you can shrink to this occasion, you can shrink to anything, and so it has been, including but not limited to his petty and partisan interview with the Washington Post in October last year when he referred to our government as being in a ‘wonderful wacko world’.

We saw it again in his first address as incoming chair of the G20 in Davos this year when he managed to lecture his new G20 colleagues on debt and taxes in his inaugural appearance on the international stage.

From the feedback I have had on the Davos speech, it was greeted with mystification at best and cold anger at his condescension at worst.

It fundamentally undermined our chairmanship of the G20 right from the start, and in so doing, trashed a legacy carefully built up over 6 years of patient economic diplomacy under Labor.

Until September of last year, it was possible to believe that there might just be a leader lurking behind the brawler and he would reveal himself in government.

Until Davos, it was possible to believe there was a statesman lurking behind the bomb-thrower.

And until the Indonesian spy scandal and Mr Abbott’s pigheaded inability to manage the issue properly, we might have hoped we could have a national leader big enough to rise above his own misplaced sense of pride.

The fact is we don’t. The punchy, hyperpartisan warrior we saw in opposition – oh, and for 17 years before that in parliament and right back by all accounts to the Sydney University student council – is the man we have as Prime Minister today.

All that might not matter much if it were just about words and a pathological inability to rise to the right occasion.

But it’s not. My argument tonight is that this kind of leadership from the very top, pervades everything this government does, and in ways that will ultimately damage our model of government.

 

Institutions

That damage starts with the vital institutions of our government.

From the day John Howard sacked six departmental secretaries upon entering office in 1996, it has been clear that the conservatives in this country were happy to undermine the independence of the public service.

Let me explain.  Firstly, as Ken Henry has rightly pointed out, it has involved the sacking of the Treasury Secretary – something that has not been done in 114 years of the department’s existence.

Everyone in Canberra knows of Treasury’s tradition of policy independence. It has been valued by both sides of politics for more than a century and that has just been deliberately destroyed.

This should have been and still should be a bigger issue in the public debate and the media (or at least the non-partisan 30 percent of it) than it has been.

If we don’t notice attacks on our core institutions, we can’t be surprised when those institutions are weakened.

Worse still in my view has been the clear political purpose behind the public service sackings.

Let’s call this what it is – an implicit threat to current and future public servants.

If you implement a policy the conservatives disagree with (even if they are out of power at the time) they reserve the right to sack you.

Let’s translate that one step further: we the conservatives assert our right to be the permanent government of Australia and anyone who ignores our policy positions – leave aside whether we have been elected or not – will suffer the consequences.

If we want the Washington system, with its months of paralysis between governments, its hyperpartisanship, and all the rest of it, we can have it I guess, but it should be a choice made with eyes open.

One more word on institutions, and that is the extraordinary attack being mounted against the ABC.

It is a direct attack on the ABC’s editorial independence and it was clear from the moment Tony Abbott complained about the ABC taking “everyone’s side but Australia’s” (whatever that is supposed to mean).

But there are only two possible reasons for this – one, to soften the ABC up for budget cuts and two, to repay News Limited for their absurdly lavish assistance during the election campaign and the previous three years.

More obvious still is the extraordinary double-standard implicit in Mr Abbott attacking the ABC’s freedom of speech while trashing the Racial Discrimination Act.

Let’s not forget for a moment that the Racial Discrimination Act is itself one of the core institutions of Australia’s democracy – the protection of our citizens from abuse and discrimination on the basis of race.

In a successful multicultural society such as ours, it is a key element of our social cohesion and thus our national prosperity.

And yet Mr Abbott and his little mate Mr Brandis are happy to slice into it like a pair of amateur surgeons all to raise half a cheer from the right wing peanut gallery.

 

Conventions

Beyond the institutions of our democracy, there are the conventions, and here I’m sorry to say the news is no better.

Again, it has attracted too little comment, but this government has been obsessive about using all levers of power it can to attack its predecessor.

I’m well aware of the bitterness of years spent in opposition, but when we assumed government in 2007 we resisted the temptation to pursue what we saw as the sins of our predecessors.

To cite just one example, the Iraq war was as comprehensive a foreign policy and political scandal as it is possible to imagine: concocted intelligence, Australian casualties, billions of dollars wasted and thousands upon thousands of lost Iraqi lives.

We opposed the war, we were proven absolutely right in doing so, but even then, no royal commission, we just got on with running the country.

In contrast, we now have royal commissions into the home insulation scheme and the union movement.

The political intent is abundantly clear, and if that weren’t enough, there is further trashing of convention in accessing the Cabinet records of a preceding government.

Again, it is important to pause and ask whether this is really a road we want to go down?

 

Broken promises

In the same vein, while I know there is cynicism about political promises, it has to be said that the trashing of undertakings by this government has been extraordinary.

It doesn’t surprise me that Mr Abbott is breaking his promises of a unity ticket with Labor on Gonski and the NDIS, just to cite the worst examples.

What astonished me – as a political tactician if nothing else – was the brazen dishonesty of the promises in the first place.

All the polls put Mr Abbott well in the box seat for the 2013 election. And yet, he was happy to lie about Gonski and the NDIS when he could have told the truth and paid no political price.

It suggests the lie not just as a political tactic but as a reflex. Commitments so easily given and taken away, they speak of a fundamentally cynical political character.

Let me just remind everyone of Tony Abbott’s words to the SBS on 6 September 2013 – the eve of the election: He said, and I quote: “No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.

Now believe me, this is going to be one of those quotations you can cut out and stick on the fridge.

You know, John Howard said “never, ever” on the GST, but this is six promises in one sentence and they are as categorical as you are ever going to get.

And not only will five or all six of them be broken in the coming Budget, I’m certain he knew he would break them when he made them.

 

Vindictiveness

Finally, there is a deep streak of vindictiveness in this government. Most of us in politics and in the media have heard the stories and we have eyes to see the diplomatic sackings from Steve Bracks onwards.

But still the cat has not been belled on their conduct and it is time it was.

 

Conclusion

Obviously, the question we come to in conclusion is why… Why does Mr Abbott bother with all this stuff?

In my view, certainly a large part of it is simply that it’s in his nature. It is in the DNA of Mr Abbott and the people he surrounds himself with.

There has been such obvious adolescent glee in some of this stuff, that it’s impossible to ignore it as a strong reason.

But there is of course a deeper purpose and I have referred to it in a few places. There is a clear ideological intent to delegitimise progressive policies.

This is particularly so in regards to carbon abatement and the economic stimulus, so as to gain the ideological ascendency for their view about the very role of government.

That is, there is no role for government in economic management to secure balanced and equitable economic growth.

That intent is just as obvious in the effort to attack and discredit institutions that deliver power to weaker and more vulnerable sections of society.

That is why there is such a ferocity in the attacks on unions, Medicare, the NDIS, public schools and the public sector more generally.

Ultimately, it is about shifting the balance towards corporations and away from working people via less corporate tax and a higher GST for working people.

It’s why they trumpet spending cuts in vital social programs rather than removal of large tax expenditures for corporates.

It is the very essence of the survival of the fittest mentality identified by Thomas Piketty in his recent book, rather than the traditional social democratic model where governments intervene to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth and income, and importantly, social mobility.

That’s what this past week has been about with the radical right wing manifesto they had Mr Shepherd compile – the so-called Commission of Audit.

It’s simply one more plank added to the mythical ‘Budget Emergency’ – providing the rationale for the savage cuts they want to carry out against vital services like health and education.

The fact is we left the Budget in sound shape. In all of our Budgets from 2008-09 onwards, including in the last Budget, we faced up to the challenge of finding large savings.

But we delayed the return to surplus because the economic conditions demanded that we do so.

This was because the revenue side of the Budget did not hold up as strongly as we would have liked, not because spending increased unsustainably.

In fact our cumulative fiscal consolidation meant spending was kept in check – including in the family payments system.

They were fiscal vandals in Opposition and have been fiscal vandals since being elected. They’ve doubled the deficit by some $68 billion.

But now they aren’t just fiscal vandals, they’re also fiscal fabricators.

They have been absolutely intent on falsely demonizing our record – by fiddling the forecasts, manufacturing a sense of crisis and of course the appalling politicisation of the Treasury Secretary.

But, one undeniable fact remains – Australia’s public finances are amongst the healthiest in the developed world, envied by most of our competitors.

The reason is we did not shirk our responsibility to find savings to keep the Budget in a strong position despite the continuous revenue write-downs we were hit by.

We were Keynesians on the way down and remained Keynesians when growth returned.

These facts are ignored by Mr Abbott and his mates in the business community who he has co-opted into a conspiracy to trash our record.

I don’t mind the cut and thrust of political combat, I expect it and I will always defend Labor’s strong record.

But what I take exception to is the trashing of Australia’s record internationally for base political motives.

This is exactly what Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey have been doing, along with Mr Shepherd.

Sooner or later this runs the risk of spilling into offshore financial markets.

They ought to pause for a moment and consider that.

Friends, Mr Abbott and his gang don’t have the courage to own their behavior.

They want us to see all these events in isolation:

  • the absurd partisanship, right from the top;
  • the attacks on the public service and the ABC;
  • the targeting of their predecessors through inquiries;
  • the promises cynically made and broken;
  • and the workaday vindictiveness they prefer to do behind closed doors.

I submit it is time – well past time – to piece all of this together. All of these things matter.

We should have a Prime Minister working to reconcile our country, rather than indulge his junior common room political fantasies.

My call to you tonight is to see this picture in its entirety and in its innate ugliness. Don’t ignore it.

Recognise this vandalistic streak in this Abbott Government before it is too late and then call it for what it is. Let’s name it and dedicate ourselves to opposing it in all its forms.

As participants of politics, we learn about policies – the “what” of government if you like. But we learn the “how”, too.

And the longer I spend in public life, the more I have realised that you can’t neatly separate the “how” and the “what” of politics.

Petty, spiteful, cynical and infantile behavior from this government is not some minor issue of style.

It causes real pain for real people. It causes bad government and bad outcomes across the board, and it is in all of our interests that we stand against it and force them to change their behavior.

Thank you.

 

This speech was delivered to the Melbourne launch of the Chifley Ideas Circle, at the Celtic Club. A live version of the speech was broadcast by Australia’s Public Affairs Channel – A-PAC. 

About Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan was the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010 until 2013, and Treasurer of Australia from 2007 until 2013. Wayne is the Federal Labor Member for the seat of Lilley and tweets under @SwannyDPM.

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