Tony Abbott’s demise was cause for celebration for everyone opposed to his cuts, racism and bigotry.
Abbott was never a popular figure. His extreme right-wing actions in opposing same-sex marriage, reintroducing royal titles, open attacks on Muslim leaders and pandering to climate denial were all deeply out of step with popular attitudes.
Bumbling outbursts and bizarre acts like onion eating made him an object of ridicule. Facing annihilation at the next election, his own party decided he had to go.
But it was the sweeping cuts in his first budget that sealed his fate.
Abbott came to power on the back of disillusionment with a Labor government that had talked of change but delivered cuts and neo-liberalism. He only managed to win election by promising “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. All these promises were broken in his first budget.
The minute Abbott was elected the Liberal Party’s big business backers began pressing their demands. The blueprint for the budget was effectively outsourced to the Business Council of Australia through the Commission of Audit. This called for pushing down government spending so that taxes on corporations and the rich could be kept low.
There was a storm of protest at the scale of Abbott’s budget assault. The weekend after its release 10,000 joined the “March in May” in Sydney and 15,000 rallied in Melbourne at just four days’ notice. The unions organised further demonstrations, the largest of them June’s 20,000-strong strike rally in Melbourne. Construction workers shut down city building sites in defiance of threats from the building and construction commission. The AMWU brought 20 busloads of members.
Such was the anger that 47 per cent in one poll said they would support Labor and The Greens blocking the whole budget to force a fresh election. But neither party was prepared to do this, putting concerns to be “responsible” economic managers ahead of the chance to stop Abbott in his tracks. Some cuts, including to the ABC and SBS, the CSIRO, Aboriginal health and legal services and the sacking of 16,500 public servants, were allowed through.
In the end the Senate did block most of Abbott’s cuts, from the $7 GP fee to university fee deregulation and the attack on the unemployed. But it was the extent of public opposition and the wave of protests that pushed the cross-bench Senators to take a stand.
The unions, Labor and The Greens let the budget protests wind down. But Abbott’s hardline conservatism kept giving fresh fuel to protest. His dismissal of life on Aboriginal communities as a “lifestyle choice” earlier this year led to large protests led by Aboriginal activists around the country.
The week before his sacking, GetUp and the refugee rights movement called demonstrations of thousands as he refused to raise the refugee intake to allow in more Syrian refugees, and continued to point score by claiming that the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi justified his “stop the boats” policies. Abbott was forced to retreat and accept 12,000 additional Syrians.
Abbott’s first budget was a breath-taking act of over-reach, attacking pensioners, the unemployed, students and the sick all at once. There was a complete failure to convince the population that there was any “budget emergency” justifying these measures.
But Abbott’s deeper problem was the mood of disgust with mainstream politics and neo-liberalism. After more than three decades of attacks on workers’ living standards, even the word “reform” has become hated.
Public attitudes are a long way to the left of the major parties on economic issues. According to Essential polling, 80 per cent support penalty rates, 63 per cent support higher taxes on the wealthy and 64 per cent on big business. There is support for higher levels of spending on public services, not cuts.
Every recent government that has attempted “economic reform” has seen its popularity crumble. Julia Gillard’s carbon tax, designed as a pro-business mechanism for tackling climate change, was widely seen as an attack on the cost of living. Kevin Rudd saw his popularity tumble in 2010 after his promises of change and a break with John Howard’s policies were exposed as hot air.
The same problem now confronts Turnbull. Already he has indicated his desire to advance “economic reform”, toying with attacking penalty rates, increasing the GST and cutting spending. Abbott’s failed sales pitch was not the problem—it was his commitment to the neo-liberal program.
Abbott’s downfall after just two years in office shows that the turmoil in Australian politics is far from over. We have now had five Prime Ministers in just over five years. There is every reason to believe we can give Turnbull the same treatment.
By James Supple