Opinion

Tony Abbott’s ABF and excessive use of higher force

The last thing the prime minister wanted to talk about on the first day of the new financial year was the economy. Firmly on his agenda is the existential threat to Australia posed by a “death cult”, and boat people. Both politically more fertile ground than the ballooning debt and deficit he promised to fix but now doesn’t talk about much, if at all.

There in the Great Hall of the parliament, Tony Abbott called on a higher being to safeguard the nation. Sounding more like an American president, or even a preacher man, this was his parting salutation to the members of the shiny new Australian Border Force (ABF): “May God bless you. May God bless your work. May God bless the country you are helping to protect and prosper.” Believers may have been impressed. Australians, however, are sceptical of anything that smacks of Bible bashing. Especially if it has a whiff of opportunism about it.

One of the country’s respected economic commentators, Ross Gittins, is not impressed. Writing in the Fairfax papers, he sees the national security scare campaign as an attempt to hide an inconvenient truth: Abbott and his treasurer are making a hash of the economy. The evidence is compelling. Sure there are people in our midst who would do us harm, who despise who and what we are, but the threat they pose, statistically, is far less than any of us being involved in a road accident.

Abbott’s hyperbole reached a low point – or high point, depending on the view – in his response to last weekend’s three terror attacks overseas. Po-faced, he warned, “As far as the Daesh death cult is concerned, it is coming after us.” “Daesh” is the derogatory Arabic acronym given to Islamic State’s various iterations, IS, ISIL, ISIS. Instead of urging us to be alert but not alarmed, he was giving credibility to the outfit’s delusional claim it was winning everywhere. According to the author of the best-selling book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss, this rhetoric is counterproductive. Counterproductive if you actually want to defeat the extremists – but not if you want to appeal to that rawest of voters’ emotions, prejudice and fear.

The newly appointed border force supremo, Roman Quaedvlieg, stuck to the script. Resplendent in his new uniform, he gave resonance to the prime minister’s spiel: “Our utopia, our country, is under constant threat.” A more hysterical warning would not have been out of place as German bombs rained down on London during the Blitz. Nor would the draconian new powers vested in the ABF. Like our spy agencies, its operations will be shrouded in secrecy. Transparency and accountability are always casualties in war, sometimes justifiably. But this federal government is taking it to extremes, and we’re not even at war.

The Border Force Act is targeting doctors, nurses, teachers and aid workers employed in our detention centres. They face a two-year jail term if they disclose what is happening in these places. That prompted a passionate letter of defiance from more than 40 current and former workers on Manus Island and Nauru. One government adviser explained the need for the information blackout on “context”. The suggestion was that no matter how bad these Pacific gulags are, they are still much better than the conditions suffered by the Rohingyas in people smugglers’ camps.

Such speciousness only gives weight to suspicions that the secrecy is really to hide cruelty lest it swings public opinion. Asylum seekers must always be seen as threats, queue jumpers and illegals, and never as desperate human beings, men, women and children.

The protesting signatories see it very differently:

“We have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for the health of those for whom we have a duty of care, despite the threats of imprisonment, because standing by and watching substandard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable.”

Far from being dissuaded by these concerns, the government is looking forward to the Labor Party tearing itself apart over them at its national conference later this month. It keeps the headlines where Abbott wants them, and well away from his abandonment of real and promised economic reform. “It’s politics, stupid,” seems to be the new ruling principle.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the revelation that the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC) of cabinet, chaired by the prime minister, actively considered changes to superannuation tax arrangements before this year’s budget. Labor’s Chris Bowen, a former treasurer, says the department would not have sent four briefings to the ERC unless this was the case. At the time, Joe Hockey was signalling a disposition for changes. He was being urged to it by his own Commission of Audit, his own Financial System Inquiry, and the superannuation industry itself.

Abbott killed it stone dead after Labor announced it would concessionally tax interest earnings above $75,000. Hardly a sock-the-rich move, it would begin to address the huge cost to the budget of these concessions. Never mind the advice, for Abbott it was politics. The prime minister has now gone one step further. His promise not to look for equitable savings in this area is a “never ever”. Repeating the precedent of his election eve undertakings not to do something, he told reporters, “We have made a very clear decision that we aren’t ever going to increase the taxes on super.”

A government serious about repairing the budget would be looking for more than bracket creep to do the job – that is, inflation pushing wage and salary earners into higher tax brackets. In the meantime the budget deficit has doubled, unemployment is rising, productivity is falling and investment is patchy. Gittins has called out Abbott’s bluster in opposition, his claim the Liberals had good management in their DNA. “I thought he had a point,” Gittins writes, “but what we didn’t discover until too late was that he and his chosen treasurer just didn’t have that gene in their bodies.”

Abbott’s reform shyness is born of political weakness, a legacy of last year’s budget disaster and February’s leadership scare. He has been clawing his way back but his government is still languishing in the polls. Wrapping himself in a flag or 10, depending on the occasion, is only working to a point. This week’s consolidation of the past quarter’s Newspolls dramatically shows it would lose government in an election held now. A lot of the media focus is on Bill Shorten’s looming challenges in the unions royal commission and the ALP national conference. But the warrior prime minister is facing two big moments of truth in coming months.

The United States Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage as a human right has given new impetus to the push for recognition here. A Liberal backbench bill, seconded by Labor and supported by independents, will go into the parliament in August. That will trigger a debate in the Liberal and Nationals party rooms on a conscience vote. Abbott hasn’t changed his views, he says, although this week he refused three times to restate them. He is under pressure from his conservative allies not to allow a free vote, a position that is looking increasingly out of step with the broader community and as such could be politically damaging.

Not making our climate-change sceptic PM’s life any easier is a new alliance calling itself the Australian Climate Roundtable. What must have surprised, if not shocked, the naysayers in the Coalition was the membership of the group. Besides the usual environmentalist suspects, business is throwing its weight behind the need for real action to achieve the stated goal of avoiding a two-degrees Celsius rise in the earth’s atmosphere. The aluminium industry, one of the biggest users of electricity, says it’s time to set climate policy on a path that will efficiently reduce emissions while also enhancing economic prosperity and maintaining industry competitiveness.

The roundtable includes as a policy tool trade in emissions entitlements and the removal of carbon from the atmosphere – something Abbott has categorically ruled out. Anything that smacks of a carbon tax is anathema to him. It would show his “scrap the tax” as a pyrrhic victory. But when you have the Business Council of Australia, electricity generators, manufacturers and unions all signing up to policies that look beyond the next khaki election, it’s serious.

Adding to the pressure is the announcement from China, one of the world’s biggest emitters, that it is intent on cleaning up its act. Beijing has announced ambitious initial emission reduction targets for after 2020. Apart from praising coal as “good for humanity”, Abbott has had precious little to say on the subject. He’s been too busy scaring the nation with an overblown terror threat to spend any time addressing one the world’s scientists warn is real and increasingly urgent. Urgent, in the sense that a transition to a less carbon-intensive economy takes decades and has to begin now. In case Abbott hadn’t noticed, our future depends on it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2015 as "Excessive use of higher force". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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