by David Vallance, a student from Sydney, reading War Studies and History at the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Last week, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott managed to cling onto his leadership of the Liberal-National coalition government, with sixty-one party members voting for him and thirty-nine against. As an Australian myself, I can say from experience that Abbott’s prime ministership has not certainly not been an unqualified success. His approval rate that the moment is at at 24%, the third-lowest of any PM in Australian history His party’s grip on its state legislatures is also slipping, with Queensland, historically Australia’s most conservative state, at the time of writing poised to fall into the Labor hands. But what brought this about? How did the Coalition go from winning ninety seats to Labor’s fifty-five in the 2013 federal election to having a two-party preferred rating of only 42.5% to Labor’s 57.5%? The reasons are two-fold, in my opinion, but mainly hinge on the inability of this government to respect its electorate.
The vote itself was precipitated by both the predicted Liberal party loss of Queensland in the state election, as well as – and I say more importantly – Tony Abbott’s decision to knight Prince Phillip in the Order of Australia. Abbott’s politics have always been unabashedly conservative, however his reintroduction of knighthoods last year, “for pre-eminent Australians”, caused a large popular backlash. His knighthood for the prince has been so inflammatory as to revive the Republican debate in the Australia, bringing it back to the mainstream. However this backlash does not exist in a vacuum, but is just another manifestation of Abbott’s contempt for the opinions of Australia’s voting public.
This may be a slightly contentious opinion, but I think it is fair to say that the main reason, perhaps not for the Coalition’s victory in 2013 itself, but certainly its extent, was the fact that trust in the Labor party was at an all-time low thanks to its many leadership changes and lack of cohesion. During the election many of the people I talked to who were voting – unfortunately I was too young at the time – who were staunch Labor supporters were refusing to vote for them at all, saying that the party needed time out of government to sort itself out. This, coupled with an incredibly confusing ballot system, particularly for the upper house, is certainly a factor in the Coalition’s large victory.
It is also the reason why they are failing so miserably at governing at the moment. Though Abbott has fulfilled his election promises of stopping asylum seekers and of repealing Julia Gillard’s Carbon Tax, which is more than many politicians seem to be capable of, he appears to have taken his large majority victory as a mandate from the Australian people to project his own, highly politically and socially conservative policies on a nation that voted him in, essentially, on the lesser-of-two-evils ticket. Riding on the perceived popularity of the repeal of the carbon tax, Abbott has set a emissions target for 2020 which is one of the lowest of any developed country on earth: a measly 5%, where the US and EU are aiming for 20%.
The list of his policy gaffes are long: asylum seeker policies for one, which were forced by the Coalition onto the nation’s political agenda and adopted by both sides in 2013, are not only inhumane but do not accomplish what they avowed to – being processing visas and allowing people to enter the country. Former immigration minister Scott Morrison so tactfully referred to this as “processing” refugees. A riot over the awful conditions refugees are forced to live in took place at the Manus Island Detention Centre in PNG in 2014, in which over 70 people were injured and one man lost his life. In addition, 257 children are kept in these centres, with 119 at the Nauru centre alone. Of these, a recent study called “The Forgotten Children” has revealed that in 14 months from the start of 2013, there have been 128 incidences of self harm, 33 reports of sexual assault, and 27 cases of voluntary starvation. No amount of supposed border security is worth this; and let us remember that the lone wolf terror attack in Martin Place in December last year was mounted by an Australian citizen.
But it’s not only asylum seeker policy that is bringing down the Abbott government. Last year, the Coalition proposed reforms to higher education that would do away with the tried and tested Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), by cutting government funding to universities and allowing them to deregulate fees. Due to both an upper house were the Greens and the Labor party hold sway as well as massive student protests – in the first term of 2014 you couldn’t walk 100 metres at Sydney University without seeing a poster for “March in March”, or calling out Abbott and the education minister Chris Pyne – this legislation has not gone through. It has however, caused irreparable damage to the Coalition’s reputation, since when you have a treasurer talking about “the end of the age of entitlement” and cutting educational assistance, while he and many other senior ministers attended private, these men aren’t likely to endear themselves to the voting public.
And this is the very crux of the matter, the Abbott government seemed to think at the start of its term in office that it could govern with impunity and without responsibility to its electorate. Abbott claims to be acting in the best interests of the nation, and he has indeed secured some lucrative trade deals with Japan and China recently, but he blatantly ignores domestic issues, even one so simple as gay marriage. Abbott’s stance on this is entirely informed by his religious background, unashamedly so. When asked in an interview how he felt about gay people, Abbott responded, “errr… I probably feel a bit threatened”. I didn’t realise that one man’s outdated convictions on sexuality were still allowed to halt the social progress of an entire nation. Civil unions are treated as de facto, but much to my own shame, Australia still upholds a definition of marriage set out in an act of parliament form 1961, and amended in 2004!
Here we have the myriad reasons for Abbott’s decline both in public and party spheres. His laughably archaic stance on climate change, his draconian policy on asylum seekers, his backward thoughts on social equality, and of course his conservative ideas about Australia’s supposed place as a perpetual outpost of British monarchical power. I would be very surprised if Abbot were not to suffer another leadership challenge before the 2016 election, because that is what happens when you show only contempt for those who put you in power. He arrogantly stands on his walls, not realising that they are built on sand.
Financial Review (Australian)
Sydney Morning Herald
Department of Education and Training – Australian Government website
Commonwealth Law – Australian Government website
Channel 10 – 60 Minutes