Abbott’s first year: 6/10

September 9, 2014

I voted for the Abbott Coalition last year on September 7. At this stage, given that the alternative was a recycled Kevin Rudd leading a divided and dysfunctional government, my choice has been validated. Yet as was the case with many voters last year, the choice to go with Abbott was based more on the fact that he was not Labor, not because of any love for the man himself or the party he represents.

Abbott’s first year as Prime Minister has been far from a triumph, yet it has been far from disastrous either. There’s much visceral commentary out there, and many social media haters revel in hyberbole that labels our Prime Minister everything from a fascist, bigot, racist, homophobe, evil, monster – all of which undermines their criticism and reduces them to haters. I honestly believe that some people could be handed a bar of solid gold by Abbott and they will complain about the package that it came in.

So in this post I will seek to be balanced and objective – and I implore opponents of the government to do the same. Some people will read the title of this post and already prepare themselves to hate it – how dare you even suggest that ANYTHING this government does, ever, is even remotely good!!

So let’s assess how they’ve gone in the main policy areas of the economy, education, health, and foreign affairs.

The budget – 5/10

The budget itself wasn’t so much the problem, it was the way the government sold it, if ‘sold’ could even be the right word.The government botched the selling of the budget long before May this year. Joe Hockey’s rhetoric that the budget was in crisis was oversell, and it left the government open to criticism that it was engaging in hyperbole. Yet while the budget is not currently in crisis, it will be if there is not a dramatic restructure of Australia’s revenue base and the Commonwealth’s spending commitments.

I agree with the argument that Australia needs to rein in spending, yet Abbott and Hockey propelled themselves into a funk by trying to sell middle class entitlements like the Paid Parental Leave scheme while also attempting to spruik the benefits of a $7 co-payment to visit a GP. Why not ditch the PPL and invest more money into childcare? Why not ditch the $20 Billion medical research fund they created, and avoid the need for the $7 co-payment?

Hockey hit the final nail in the coffin when he made the ridiculous claim that ‘poor people don’t drive cars.’ It’s quite hard to sell a tough budget to the public when you come across as out of touch with said public.

The budget sell was unfortunate. It was not as ‘tough’ as the frantic commentary suggested, but the government did nothing to stop that perception.

In fact, in many areas such as social security, health and education, the government has increased spending over the next four years. Surprised? Google ABC’s fact checker if you don’t believe me.

If Australians want unmanageable debt from generation to generation, then sure, maintain business as usual. We must accept that change is necessary, and that our culture of government funded entitlement is not sustainable.

Yet even putting that point to one side, I cannot help but conclude that the government’s handling of the budget sell has gone from shaky, to bad, to awkward, to cringe worthy. Hockey can do better.

One might also be tempted to blame the government for the closure of manufacturing entities like Holden, yet the unfortunate reality of globalisation is that manufacturing in Australia is a thing of the past – and there’s only so much government support we can give it before we finally remove the drip.

Education – 5/10

Deregulating universities – tick. In a world of increasing mobility and with education being one of our most successful exports, why shouldn’t universities have the freedom to set their courses and fees as they see appropriate?

Yet increasing the interest students must pay on their HELP debt – not so good. Youth unemployment is currently around 15 percent, and many degree holders are struggling in a competitive market. Fixing the interest rate above the CPI will only add to that pressure.

As someone who carries his own student debt, I understand that the repayments (while they should definitely happen) are certainly a burden on the hip-pocket. Yet in my case, I’m comforted by the fact that my debt interest will only grow by the minimal CPI each financial year as I work to pay it off. I feel for future students who won’t have this certainty.

So why the 5 out of 10 then? Well, despite what many believe, the Abbott government has not cut education funding over the next three years. Also, their review of the national curriculum is welcomed, and I certainly agree with the early assessment that there needs to be a stronger focus on basic literacy and numeracy skills rather than postmodern fads like ‘intercultural understanding and perspective’.

Health – 4/10

Once again, the Abbott government is not cutting health funding, but increasing it – but perhaps not to the level promised by Labor (albeit by 2017-18). Yet what is concerning in this area is the fact that the government announced a $20 Billion medical research fund in the same budget that sort to slug taxpayers $7 for a visit to a GP.

Government funded research rarely produces anything of value, so why pour such a huge some of taxpayer money into a scheme with little clear objective? Wouldn’t it be better to inject that cash straight into the system and avoid the user-pays public system? Taxpayers already pay the medicare levy every financial year (no, healthcare is not free) so the co-payment is a tough sell.

Foreign affairs and immigration- 9/10

After a shaky start with our northern neighbours, Abbott has proved himself exemplary on the international stage. Julie Bishop has proven astute and authoritative as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the boats have stopped completely, as promised.

Australia led the international indignation against the MH17 shooting in Ukraine, and Abbott’s rhetoric towards Vladimir Putin pre-empted even the United States. Australia has enjoyed new free trade deals with Japan and India, and relations with Indonesia are on the mend after a difficult few years. The recent election of new Indonesian President, Jokowi, as he is commonly known, should provide a strong opportunity to re-engage with our closest neighbour.

Abbott has also, rightly and justifiably, provided astute leadership in the ongoing struggle against the worst cases of Islamic extremism exhibited by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The western world will continue to be appalled and confronted by the actions of religious fanatics who aim to spread their insidious dogma across the world, and we are best served by statesmen prepared to provide assertive rhetoric and decisive leadership.

The final assessment

In essence, the Abbott government promised to do four things: axe the carbon tax, axe the mining tax, stop the boats, and fix the budget. They have achieved three out of four, and had it not been for a botched sell of the budget and a difficult Senate, they would have been well on their way to meeting the fourth.

Regrettably, Abbott’s ministers have proved adept at mastering the political gaffe. Pyne, Hockey, Brandis and Abbott himself have found themselves in hot water for comments or gestures that could have been easily avoided – and these have damaged the government and confirmed the suspicions of many. Hockey’s poor people without cars, Brandis’s defence of bigots, Abbott’s unfortunate wink – not really useful when the critics were lining up one minute after election night.

Yet while some of his ministers have not always been reliable or charismatic, their performances have hardly been disastrous.

The key win for Abbott in his first year has been on the foreign policy front. Meanwhile, back home, many Australians are anxious about issues like childcare, job security, and the increasing cost of housing. Social issues like same-sex marriage will continue to fester in the background, and Abbott is yet to shake his negative perception among women. If the government wishes to achieve a second term, these battlelines lines must be fought and won – and none will be easy.

Yet while it’s fair and reasonable to critique the government after its first year in office, voters could rightly look to Labor and ask the question: Bill who?

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