Paul Bongiorno
Post-Bali Nine executions, Tony Abbott still has axiom to grind

Every now and then something happens that is so horrible everything else for the moment seems unimportant. That was certainly the way Australia’s political leaders across the board dealt with the cruel state killing of two compatriots in Indonesia. It was one of those events governments are not responsible for but have no choice but to confront.

The executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran gave new meaning to an assessment Tony Abbott famously made in Afghanistan four years ago: “Shit happens.” It certainly does. And that is not to trivialise the gruesome spectacle that shrouded Indonesia’s handling of the entire dreadful saga in these past days; it is to characterise it as the obscenity it really was.

In regard to our giant near neighbour, for the second time in his prime ministership Abbott was in a place he would rather not be. He is, after all, the opposition leader who promised to recast the focus of foreign policy: “More Jakarta and less Geneva.” He wanted to restore and reinvigorate the relationship.

On coming to office the Edward Snowden revelations hit. They documented that Australia’s spies had, under the previous government, targeted president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. When no apology was forthcoming from Canberra – Abbott even suggested it was for the president’s own security – Indonesia recalled its ambassador. More than that, it cancelled co-operation dealing with people smuggling. It took almost a year for that to blow over and for the ambassador to return.

This time it was Jakarta that precipitated the crisis. New president Joko Widodo was stubbornly deaf to Australia’s united and sustained pleas for mercy. Abbott described the executions as cruel and unnecessary. He said the nation deeply, deeply regrets them because after 10 years on death row “both of these young Australians were fully rehabilitated”. As a measure of his disgust, he became the first Australian prime minister to recall our ambassador. For good measure, ministerial visits will remain suspended. 

Bill Shorten said the opposition was disgusted at the futile act of execution. He pledged Labor to campaign against the death penalty wherever it exists. Indeed, if anything good can come from this tragedy, it is the confirmation of Australia’s bipartisan rejection of capital punishment and its embrace by the community.

Also on display was the firm conviction that criminals can be rehabilitated. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop sombrely claimed that rehabilitation was a fundamental aspect of successful prison systems. Ironically this was achieved with spectacular success for the Bali Nine ringleaders in the decrepit Kerobokan prison. But President Widodo was unwilling to notice it.

Some on social media saw the reform of Chan and Sukumaran as an opportunistic ploy. They only changed because they were caught. The cynics might be right. But plenty don’t change when they’re caught. They wallow in resentment and antisocial hatred. They take anger to their early graves. Something, according to witnesses, these two did not do.

But, of course, in politics there’s the “shit that happens”, which is entirely your own doing. After the joint news conference with Julie Bishop, the prime minister went in to cabinet pre-budget deliberations. The punters aren’t expecting his government’s labours to be much of an improvement on last year’s failed effort. According to a ReachTEL poll, only 5 per cent think they will be better off. A clear majority – 54 per cent – think they will be worse off, while 41 per cent think the Hockey economic manifesto will leave them where they are now.

And when it comes to one of the Coalition’s favourite mantras of “returning the budget to surplus”, the electorate is of little faith. According to the Essential poll, 52 per cent say they are not at all or not very confident the government has “an effective plan to eliminate the deficit”.

And right on cue, Treasurer Joe Hockey sends out another confusing signal. His budget will not be putting a figure on any revenue he plans to get by making the big transnationals pay tax on any profits earned in Australia. That seems as good as raising the white flag of surrender. It could mean you are not expecting to either do anything, or do anything meaningful enough, to recoup a tax flow.

His reason was puzzling even to government staffers. He told the Adelaide ABC that if you put a number in the budget papers on what you are going to attain from these companies, “because it’s such a limited number of companies, it sends alarm bells to those companies”. Puzzling, because those companies already know who they are. They outed themselves at the senate economics committee inquiry: Apple, Microsoft and Google admitted they were being audited by the Australian Tax Office. Rio Tinto and BHP similarly confirmed their arrangements with Singapore are under the ATO’s microscope. These and other companies are estimated by our fiscal sleuths to move $60 billion offshore to tax havens.

The inquiry’s chairman, Labor senator Sam Dastyari, says he’s flabbergasted. Hockey’s answer makes no sense, he says, especially in light of the treasurer’s raising of expectations that he’s on the case. But the treasurer’s office insists he hasn’t given up on the mission, he just scrambled his words. They say Hockey will bag extra revenue, he just doesn’t know how much. Probably because he won’t find out before the budget exactly how he’s going to do it.

Dastyari says the treasurer could do worse than pick up Labor’s policy, costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office. That would give him $2 billion in revenue and the promise to get it through the senate.

There is no such generous offer for Social Services Minister Scott Morrison. He has $5.5 billion blocked in the senate from last year. These are measures tightening family benefits and other payments. One of the more contentious is the plan to change the eligibility of single-income families for Family Tax Benefit Part B. The payments would cease when the child reaches the age of six rather than 15. Also there’s the plan to freeze FTB payments and halve end-of-year supplements.

The opposition cites NATSEM modelling that found a single-income family with two kids on an income of $65,000 would lose $6000 if these measures were passed. Labor’s Jenny Macklin says there’s no way this meanness will ever be supported.

But Morrison has a cunning plan. If the senate buckles, the funds will go to his whiz-bang new families’ package. He gave us all a peep at some of it this week in the form of a $246 million nanny pilot program. He’s confident in-home childcare, funded by the government, will be a hit with shift workers and nurses, police and ambulance officers and firefighters. More than that, the pilot will look to regional areas where the availability of mainstream childcare is restricted.

Morrison says his package will fully cover costs “through savings measures that we’ve already outlined”. And if Labor doesn’t want to pursue and support those savings, then they’ll have to identify other savings to support this package. So far Macklin is unmoved. She says taking money off families to give to families is “like robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

The minister accuses Labor of hypocrisy. He says the previous government went through $15 billion in savings in the Family Tax Benefit area doing things similar to what the Coalition has now proposed. 

 The trouble for him is these arguments have held no sway for the past 12 months. It’s hard to see what’s different now, except in Morrison the government has a much more effective operator than his predecessor Kevin Andrews.

New health minister Sussan Ley looks like having more success with her campaign against the powerful chemists’ lobby. She’s been locked in intense and, according to sources, at times bitter negotiations with the Pharmacy Guild for the next five-year Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

She is under-riding orders from Hockey to find $3 billion in savings in the pharmacy area and another $7 billion in other parts of her vast portfolio. Ley has shown a steely determination to achieve $1 billion by targeting a range of off-the-shelf drugs, many sold in supermarkets. When items such as paracetamol, aspirin, antacids, medicated shampoos and Imodium are prescribed by doctors, their cost skyrockets.

The minister gives the example of a $2 packet of paracetamol rising to $8.66. A good whack of that – $6.76 – goes to the chemist as a dispensing fee. This one item alone costs taxpayers $73 million a year.

She is also proposing to allow chemists to discount PBS scripts by $1. This could save some patients $120 a year. What is infuriating chemists is that the dollar would come out of their pockets. That would be a cool $250 million less income for pharmacies.

Shadow health minister Catherine King is broadly supportive. She says it’s very sensible to constantly review the PBS. She even claims some of Ley’s prescriptions are a steal from Labor.

Looks as though chemists won’t be able to count on Labor in the senate to stop this shit storm happening.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Abbott’s axiom to grind".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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