The Liberal Party Conundrum: Abbott must stay and go.

In a 7:30 interview on 4 December, Leigh Sales asked Tony Abbott if he would ‘contemplate stepping aside in order to give your party the best chance of holding on to power’. It was an extraordinary question to ask a new prime minister and one that reveals the changing nature of Australian politics. While the third year of a government’s term has traditionally been the time to woo the public, as Clive Palmer argued in his budget reply, modern politicians now seek re-election from day one. To that end, many Coalition MPs holding marginal seats are very nervous indeed.

Removing a first-term prime minster was once political hubris few pundits would bother contemplating. With Labor setting the precedent after dramatically dumping Kevin Rudd in 2010 and Julia Gillard in 2013, could the same fate await Abbott? Michelle Grattan has suggested that Abbott has 12 months to improve the government’s circumstances before serious questions are asked. A recent article in the Japan Times was more forthright, declaring, ‘Economy woes may mean Abbott won’t last full term’.

Being Prime Minister is not easy. As Stanley Melbourne Bruce famously put it, you need ‘a hide like a rhinoceros, an over-weening ambition, and a mighty good conceit of [yourself]’. Bruce certainly knew how tough the job could be. Together with John Howard, he is one of only two Australian Prime Minister to lose their own seat. And yet, even Bruce did not suffer as many difficulties so soon after forming government as Tony Abbott.

The Abbott government never had a honeymoon period. It rode the wave of Labor’s unpopularity and instability to office but Abbott never endeared himself to the Australian public. Pre-election polls strongly suggested that the electorate wanted Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader. Even before the politically disastrous May budget, a Nielsen poll suggested this was the least popular incoming government for four decades.

The government has not recovered from the backlash over its first budget. Indeed as Joe Hockey begins to consider his second budget the Liberals are still desperately trying to pass contentious elements of the first. Adding further misery, a Deloitte Access Economics study has suggested slow growth and a falling iron ore price will result in a $12.4b deficit in 2017-18 despite unpopular cuts and despite a promised surplus.

Abbott’s performance as Prime Minister has exacerbated matters further. His clumsy threat to ‘shirtfront’ Russian president Vladimir Putin and his attempts to remove climate change from the agenda just as the United States and China reached a historic deal on carbon emissions made him appear out of touch and ideological driven. Abbott’s performance as G20 host was derided in the LA Times and domestically he fell behind Bill Shorten as preferred Prime Minister.

Abbott was spectacularly successful as an opposition leader. He mercilessly reminded Julia Gillard of her perceived broken promise to not introduce a Carbon Tax. Launching his campaign in 2013 he promised that in government he would deliver no surprises and no excuses. ABC’s promise tracker currently states that 12 pre-election promises have now been broken.

Perhaps most damaging for Abbott is the election-eve interview at Penrith Stadium where he unequivocally promised there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS. When Malcolm Turnbull confirmed there would be cuts of 4.6 and 1.7 percent respectively, the initial response was to present them as ‘efficiency dividends’ rather than cuts.

For nearly two weeks Abbott denied that he was breaking a promise prompting his own backbench to plead with him to end the ‘verbal gymnastics’. He eventually conceded his pre-election words were ‘at odds’ with his subsequent actions. In the wake of the Victorian election which saw a first term Liberal government dumped from office, former premier Jeff Kennentt claimed Abbott’s unpopularity and poor decisions were a ‘major factor’.

The conundrum for the Liberal Party is that they cannot do the one thing they need to. Abbott only won the Liberal leadership by a single vote and there is no doubt if they were in opposition there would be a spill and he would be removed. Either Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the most popular cabinet member, or the ever articulate Malcolm Turnbull who was denied a chance to face the electorate by Abbott, would be the likely replacement.

The issue for the Liberals is that Abbott was too good in opposition. He relentlessly attacked Labor for breaking promises, allowing debt to spiral and being unstable. Having broken so many clear promises of his own and with the economic forecast being ‘deficits as far as the eye can see’, leadership and stability is the only thing the government has left. As Abbott told Sales when she questioned his own position, ‘one fundamental lesson of the last catastrophic government was that you don’t lightly change leaders’. If the Liberals were to dump Abbott as leader it would complete the trifecta of sins for which they punished Labor.

Abbott’s grip on power is precarious. Even the ultra-conservative commentators, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen, who famously dined with Abbott at Kirribilli House to celebrate his election victory, have been critical of his performance. With consistently poor polls and unpopular policies, it is hard to see Abbott surviving another election unless he can at least win back these three influential voices.

The choice facing the Liberal Party is not desirable. They can struggle along with Abbott and hope the sheer weight of history saves them. A federal government has not failed to secure a second term since James Scullin who was sworn in as the Great Depression hit. Then again, Australia has become more politically fickle and the long terms of Howard, Hawke/Keating and Fraser seem a lifetime ago. Were it not for the whims of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, Abbott would have been Prime Minster in 2010 with Labor only serving one term.

The Labor Party have now been in an election winning position for thirteen consecutive Newspolls. If the trend continues too far into the new year, the Liberals will have to remove Abbott. But that is the conundrum. If they do, they will lose the last political point they held over Labor and the ranks of the politically apathetic will swell further. It is hard to claim both major parties are not the same when they increasingly act that way.

Benjamin T. Jones is an Adjunct Fellow at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney. 

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Was 1788 Australia’s defining moment? How about 1973?

Tony Abbott has come out defending 26 January 1788 in two separate speeches. First he claimed Australia was “unsettled” before the British arrived. Next he described the arrival of the First Fleet as our “defining moment”. Was it really the moment that most defines us? What other candidates are there? This article explores Abbott’s comments, the ideology behind them and suggests 1973 what might the year that really defined modern Australia.

Read the full article for free at The Conversation: CLICK HERE.

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Are Australian Universities Marxist or Capitalist? Just ask a Casual.

Andrew Bolt and the hard right culture warriors love depicting Australian universities as the last refuge of Marxism. A quick look at how public universities are run reveals they are as capitalist in function as any other industry. In particular, the casualisation of the academic workforce revels a system that would have appalled Marx.

Read the full article for free HERE.

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Abbott, Obama and the new battle over climate agenda

Tony Abbott has finished his North American tour, meeting Barack Obama for the first time as prime minister. Predictably enough, the Murdoch press have described the meeting as a glowing success while Fairfax have highlighted the friction between the two leaders. Before the meeting took place, however, the first shots of a new climate change battle were already fired. The scientific debate over climate change has been largely settled. 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is driving warming trends. Despite infamously describing climate change as “absolute crap”, Tony Abbott now calls it a significant problem but “it’s not the only or even the most important problem the world faces”.

The new battle over climate change is as ideologically driven as the first one. Republicans in the United States and the Coalition in Australia have been sceptical of what they perceive to be radical environmentalism and the Green agenda. Conservative culture warrior Miranda Divine drew parallels between the Green movement and communism. Al Gore’s influential and divisive 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, noted that of all developed nations only the United States and Australia refused to ratify the 2001 Kyoto Protocol. This was a calculated ideological statement from George W. Bush and one John Howard was keen to support.

If Howard and Bush were in ideological harmony, Obama and Abbott are near polar opposites in many crucial regards. Obama is looking to take major action on climate change and hopes it will be part of a global trend. He has recently announced an ambitious emissions reduction target of 30 percent by 2030 noting that “science is science”. Abbott could not be more different. He is politically committed to removing the unpopular price on carbon introduced by Julia Gillard. His recent stop in Ottawa was highly strategic as he flagged his ongoing opposition to a carbon price.

Before meeting Obama, Abbott made a strategic stop in Ottawa to meet with fellow conservative, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While Harper won re-election in 2008 campaigning against a price on carbon, Abbott won power in 2013 with a promise to repeal the existing Carbon Tax. Abbott was glowing in his rhetoric, describing Harper as “the exemplar of a contemporary, centre-right prime minister”. Harper was similarly full of praise, congratulating Abbott for his tough stance against “the job-killing carbon tax”.

Obama appeared in the final episode of Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously arguing that climate change was a global problem requiring global solutions. He noted that beyond the immediate impact in the US, “these shifts can displace people — entire countries can be finding themselves unable to feed themselves and the potential incidence of conflict that arises out of that”. In contrast, Abbott and Harper have insisted that climate change is less important than job creation and the economy. Abbott insisted “we shouldn’t clobber the economy” with Harper agreeing, “No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth”.

Australia is the current chair of the G20 and will host a summit in Brisbane later in the year. Despite pressure from the US and Europe, Abbott has remained firm that climate change will not be on the official agenda. The global argument is crucial for Abbott as Australia is the only country in the world planning to remove, rather than implement, an emissions trading scheme. He claimed in Canada, “there is no sign – no sign – that trading schemes are increasingly being adopted. If anything trading schemes are being discarded, not adopted”.

While Obama and Abbott will meet as friends in Washington this week they are posturing in a high stakes political showdown. Obama has acknowledged that public opinion is key and wants to create the impression that the world is moving towards collective action and a carbon price. Abbott, whose political reputation is tied to opposing a carbon price, is desperate to undermine this impression. Together with Harper, he is seeking to form an alliance of commonwealth leaders, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand to oppose any tough international measures. Despite having conservative leaders, both nations have rejected the idea.

Of the two leaders, Obama has far less to lose. Having secured a second term, he is now thinking about his presidential legacy. As the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, he knows his reduction plan is historic and has the power to set a global trend.

Abbott, by contrast, is in his infancy as a world leader. Less than a year after his election, he is trailing badly in the polls and is struggling to sell a tough budget that included increased medical fees and reduced spending for health and education. Firm opposition to a carbon price was the stance that narrowly won him the leadership of his party in 2009 and the country in 2013. If he loses the domestic debate on pricing carbon it would be a political disaster.

The Australia-US alliance is important to Washington but absolutely crucial to Canberra. It has had bipartisan support in since World War II and is the sacred cow of Australian foreign policy. Obama and Abbott had a cordial meeting but one that lacked the genuine warmth of Obama and Gillard or Bush and Howard. Both were keen to emphasise the strength of the relationship but, despite the official niceties, the two men have already thrown the first punches in a divisive ideological battle with global ramifications. The battle over climate change being real may be over but a new front has clearly emerged. Is it important enough to warrant significant, global action?

Dr Benjamin T. Jones is a historian at the University of Western Sydney 

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A flag for all Australians

My latest article for The Conversation.

Australia has never had a truly national flag. While we currently fly one of our dominion status ensigns, we have never had the same debate when we abandoned God Save the Queen and embraced an anthem of our own.

As a practical people, often sneering towards symbolism, Australians drifted awkwardly and gradually from dominion to effective independence in the latter half of the 20th century with no clear cut date. We are yet to truly commemorate the end of old Australia and the beginning of new Australia.

A new flag is needed but we must understand our transformative history to appreciate why.

Read the full article for free HERE.

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And yet another royal visit

Another royal visit is upon us and the media is in its customary spin cycle. There will be wall to wall coverage of Will and Kate shaking hands with politicians, waving at the small crowd of royal watchers and giving dull and predictable speeches about the mutual love and respect Britain and Australia have for one another. The odd article or sound bite will be given to a token republican trying to spoil the party by pointing out the sheer lunacy of it all. In this case Australian Republican Movement national director, David Morris wrote an excellent piece for the Herald. And then we are back to normal. Gushing colonials eager to name another road or hospital after our British betters.

I don’t want to be a Grinch. If Australia was an independent republic and people wanted to fawn over the royals and follow every minute detail of their celebrity lives, I would be all for it. People love gossip and celebrity culture and making heroes out of people who can kick a ball well, sing a song or in this case live in a castle and help charity (by turning up at expensive dinners and such). It’s all fine with me. Some Americans are equally interested in royal events and sit glued to the screen watching the pomp and ceremony of births, deaths and marriages. We are a free country and people can obsess about whatever they like.

All I’ve ever wanted is my nation to have the honour and dignity it deserves with a constitution that enshrines equality and allows any of our children to rise to the top rather than the colonial document we currently have that actively discriminates against our own citizens. British royals are always welcome in Australia but like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie who visited in January, they should pay their own way, not take from our tax payers. Visiting royals should be welcomed as guests not as our superiors and in this case future sovereigns.

The whole point of Project Republic was to remind Australians  that the job is not yet done. It is easy to wave a flag and claim to love your country, but real patriotism involves hard work. Sometimes it requires sacrifice. If you truly love Australia and believe this is an exceptional country, every bit the equal  of countries around the world, then you must raise your voice and demand a constitution worthy of a free people. A constitution that does not rely on a foreign country for leadership (even symbolic leadership) but that has faith and confidence in itself. If you believe any Australian child should be able to become our head of state rather than only the children of the British royal family, then join our cause. If you want to live in a nation that does not bend the knee to any other then get active. If you want our prime minister to pledge allegiance to the Australian people not the British Queen, then embrace the republican cause.

During this royal tour, I encourage anyone who loves Australia and wants to see it thrive and given the respect it deserves to buy a copy of Project Republic. Familiarise yourself with the arguments. Educate yourself about what our constitution currently says and what it should say. Only a groundswell of grass roots momentum will motivate our polls driven politicians to action. Let us send them a message that this is our country and we want to be free. We want a constitution that respects democracy and egalitarianism not one governed by elitism and birthright. Until the day comes when an Indigenous person, a recent migrant or a white Australian can all aim to be our head of state, the fight must go on. Our constitution must be for us not against us. Until then, it is broken – let’s fix it!

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Can’t teachers be trusted to dress themselves?

This is my latest article published in The Conversation.

Do the clothes make the teacher? This certainly appears to be the attitude of NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli who released details of a new dress code starting in term two for the state’s 70,000 teachers.

While much in the report is little more than common sense, there is a strange inconsistency in a government that wants to give more power to principles yet does not trust them to manage the dress standards of their staff. Whatever the intention, the decision is demeaning, laden with negative connotations about the profession and unnecessary micro-management with an undertone of sexism.

Read the full article for free here.

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Geert Wilders and the new Australian anti-Muslim political party

Based on the anti-Muslim principles of extreme right Dutch politician Geert wilders, the Australian Liberty Alliance will contest the next federal election. How will they fare? Is it important? Is there a risk that, even with modest electoral success, this party might legitimise Islamophobia and normalise far right rhetoric?

My new article in The Conversation looks at the new party and the politics of Islamophobia.

Read the full article for free HERE.

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Pyne’s Review Panel: Will it help improve teacher quality?

With the controversial appointment of Greg Craven to chair Christopher Pyne’s review education panel, the issue of teacher quality has again returned to the fore. If Craven recommends a neo-liberal teacher market, both the quality and the spirit of pedagogy will be compromised, reduced to the fluctuation of market forces.

The following is a short extract form my article on The Conversation website.

“The goal of the review board should be to attract the best and brightest into education and to secure the best possible outcome for Australian students. This can only happen if the prestige and respect once associated with teaching is restored along with the resources and support needed to achieve outstanding results.

An economic rationalist position that compromises academic rigour will never achieve this. If Craven’s panel follows base supply-and-demand principles and accepts even the most mediocre teaching candidates, then the derogatory maxim will be proved true: those who can’t do, teach.”

Read the full article for free here.

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Only a Republic Can Save Australia Day!

Australia is a fantastic place to live and it is only right that we have a national celebration every year. It is becoming increasing clear, however, that 26 January is unsustainable as the date of our national holiday. Rather than a unifying occasion, Australia Day is divided between those who believe it should be a day of pride and those who think it should be a day of solemn reflection

Every year many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians insist that 26 January is a day of mourning and sorrow. Just as it commemorates the arrival of the first British colonists, it also represents the beginning of Indigenous dispossession. The real irony is that historically, Australia Day has never really been about Australia but about Britishness. While other nations celebrate their day of independence, we celebrate the day the flag of a foreign country was planted on these shores.

Australia Day’s 1888 centenary was undoubtedly a celebration of Britishness. The imposing statue of Victoria near Hyde Park was unveiled and the Queen was cheered and toasted at banquets and celebration services all over Sydney. With Union Flags waving, food and tobacco was given to the poor as proud colonists sang God Save the Queen. When a radical politician asked if something should be done for the Aborigines, Sir Henry Parkes curtly replied, ‘and remind them that we have robbed them?’

A century later there was an even larger celebration but again it was celebration of Britishness and White Australia. The focal point of the 1988 bicentenary was not Australian achievements but the visit from Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales and our future king. While the media fawned over the visiting royals, this time Aboriginal voices could not be silenced. Some 40 000 protesters – the largest since the Vietnam moratorium – declared that Australia Day was to them, Invasion Day.

Australia is stuck now in an awkward stalemate where we have a national holiday that people feel increasingly uncomfortable about celebrating. This cultural unease came to the fore when retail giants Aldi and Big W decided to remove Australia Day shirts with the slogan “Australia: Est 1788”. There is a strange contradiction here. If the shirts are offensive then surely the official holiday commemorating 26 January 1788 is more so.

There have been many calls to change the date of Australia Day. Mick Dodson and Chris Bourke have been two of the most articulate voices for change. 26 January is an important date for Australia, they argue, but it is not right to celebrate a day that causes so much pain for so many. The problem, however, is when to change it to. The obvious choice would be the anniversary of Federation but falling on 1 January it is not practical.

The creation of an Australian republic holds the key to Australia Day. Commemorating the day we become a republic will allow us to celebrate everything that is laudable about our nation without the ghosts of colonisation and dispossession. Our history cannot be changed and we should honestly reflect on the mistakes of the past but our day of celebration should be a reminder of what we have achieved and what we can be proud of.

The creation and celebration of an Australian republic will allow us to begin a new national story, a story of inclusion and respect. The republic will unify all Australians because it will not favour or privilege one group over another. For Indigenous Australians, those of British heritage or immigrants from around the world, Republic Day includes all who call Australia home.

26 January will always have great significance but the creation of a free republic built on the principles or equality, inclusion and a fair go, would be something to be truly proud of. A nation honest enough to face its past wrongs but brave enough to stand on its own two feet, I’ll celebrate that any day of the year!

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