It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. Charles Dickens
From one vantage point, these have been the best of times for the Abbott government: the Prime Minister delivering exactly what was promised at the G20 summit; signing a landmark trade deal with China; and elevating the relationship with India to a new trajectory of boundless promise.
It was Vladimir Putin who reflected the views of visiting heads of government when he lauded Abbott’s collaborative style, discipline and chairmanship of the Brisbane summit. And it was India’s Narendra Modi who simply dubbed him the “perfect host”.
In the Parliament, Abbott revealed a side of him we rarely see when introducing Modi. Reflecting on his three months as a student backpacking around India, and without so much a glance at his prepared text, he recited lines from a Gujarati poet about the father of the Indian nation, Gandhi.
To those who saw the concentration on foreign policy as a distraction from the main game, the Abbott message was one of reassurance: “The objective of all our international engagements is, yes, a better world, but particularly, a better Australia.”
So why, then, are the polls so dire? Why is the usual cheer squad so angst-ridden? Why do Victorian Coalition MPs, especially those holding marginal seats, fear an Abbott backlash will consign them to being part of the state’s first one-term government since 1955?
The answers were as much on show this week as the official banquets, signing ceremonies and cuddly koala photo opportunities for foreign leaders. The first was Abbott’s failure to anticipate the importance and urgency his guests placed on the issue of climate change and other concerns.
It showed in the discordantly parochial opening statement to the leaders’ retreat on Saturday when, after Barack Obama’s rallying cry to young Australians to make their voices heard, Abbott “kicked off” proceedings by reporting how he had axed the carbon tax.
It showed when, in the same sentence, he told G20 leaders how his government had “stopped the boats”. Only the previous day, Turkey’s Prime Minister had explained to a Brisbane audience why his country had opened its borders to some 1.8 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. “We cannot close our borders because they are our relatives, our neighbours, but before everything they are human beings,” remarked Ahmet Davutoglu.
While some commentators branded Obama’s focus on climate change impolite, and others an act of bastardry, Abbott finally seemed to get the tone right on the issue after one-on-one talks with his French counterpart on Wednesday.
Abbott’s commitment to a “strong and effective” agreement in Paris next year on carbon emissions cuts vied for attention with Communication Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement that funding to the ABC and SBS would be cut by more than $300 million over five years. It fell to Turnbull and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to explain how this sat with Abbott’s election-eve promise of “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”.
Turnbull’s argument was essentially the same as Labor’s explanation for Julia Gillard’s “no carbon tax” edict on the eve of the 2010 election – that the words had to be seen in the context of previous statements that were more equivocal and qualified. Both he and Treasurer Joe Hockey had indicated on several occasions that, if circumstances necessitated across-the-board cuts, then the ABC and SBS could not be exempt, Turnbull explained.
But this was just like Labor spinners arguing that Gillard’s “no carbon tax” pledge had to be heard in the context of Labor’s consistent support for pricing carbon to tackle climate change. Both arguments fail what Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones this week dubbed the “pub test”.
The main focus of Jones’ rage was what he considered a one-sided China trade deal, but he summed up the concern of listeners in broader terms: “We don’t believe the people who are elected to represent us are speaking our language”.
On the ABC cuts, Cormann was even less convincing than Turnbull. Asked by the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann what judgments he thought the Australian people would make, “when the night before the election the Prime Minister says there’ll be no cuts to the ABC and SBS and then there are cuts afterwards”, Cormann said flatly: “Well, they’re not cuts.”
Cormann was being interviewed in response to the third sign of a government in trouble: the coup that saw a breakaway Senate group (branding itself the Coalition of Common Sense) demolish the Government’s changes to Labor’s financial advice laws. The changes were adopted with the support of Palmer United Party senators in July, but two senators who backed the deal, Jackie Lambie and Ricky Muir, are now convinced the changes are grossly inadequate to protect consumers. Once again, the government found itself on the wrong side of an argument about fairness.
Finally, there was Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that asylum seekers who registered in Indonesia after July 1 will no longer be eligible for resettlement in Australia, and that the few refugees who will be taken (who registered before the cut-off) face a “much longer wait”.
Much can be said about the unfairness of the decision, particularly to the 1000 unaccompanied children in Indonesia, whose prospects of reunion with family members in Australia or resettlement elsewhere have been drastically diminished. But just as troubling is the way it was announced, with Morrison saying the Indonesian government had been “briefed” on the decision which was “designed to reduce the burden, created by people smugglers, of asylum seekers entering Indonesia”. Here, once again, was Australia deciding what was best for Indonesia and setting back any prospect of a genuine regional framework to deal with asylum issues. The contrast with the focus on collaboration in Brisbane could hardly have been more stark.
With the exception of boats, where the hard-line approach is still a vote winner, the common denominator is a government that has failed to take the people with it or be seen as acting in their interests. No wonder some federal Coalition MPs are worried that they, too, could be out of office after just one term.
Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age