I do not like talking about personalities in politics. What is at stake is too important to be channelled through the fortunes of one man or woman. But the budget has got so bound up with the Prime Minister it is impossible to discuss it without measuring its fortunes against those of Tony Abbott. Some of the proposals are automatically seen through the prism of Abbott’s radicalism as he seeks radical solutions to radical problems. Since he is also a conservative who sees the virtue of principles like self-reliance, critics reject his reforms on the ground that they are throwbacks or old-fashioned, although in reality they invoke an era where people relied more on themselves and less on the government and were happier. On top of that, Abbott was such a ruthlessly effective leader of the opposition and his personal stamp is now on so much that the government does, that he is inevitably the personification of the budget: the Treasurer was its draftsman, but Abbott was its mastermind. Hence, it is Abbott’s budget.
Not surprising, then, that the Abbott haters have revenge as their motivation and personal abuse as their method of operation. I did not approve of the personal abuse of Julia Gillard, by the way, but I equally condemn the giant municipal painting in Prahran of Tony Abbott as the devil, complete with horns, roaring flames and a tail; they are equally distasteful. But for all of these reasons it is Abbott’s budget and, as the budget fares, so will the PM.
As we therefore have to talk about individuals and as the budget is personified in Abbott, where is he standing and how is he going? Well, he has taken up his position, armed himself, knows what he is fighting for and has already started taking blows. In fact, he is something of a modern day Horatio on the bridge fighting off, not just the Etruscans, but everything the enemy can throw at him, collecting the occasional wound, but probably winning through.
He has certainly had a lot thrown at him because those attacking him have so much to lose. Individuals have attacked him because, after years of throwing money at people, even the slightest saving provokes a hostile reaction. Hence the opposition to changes to pension and welfare entitlements when the changes are in reality quite mild and still leave the lucky recipients generously treated by the government.
The left-wing think tanks have attacked him so vociferously because he poses a threat to their ideal world, where people are dependent on the state, everything is ‘free’, the state will protect you from the ups and downs of normal life and if you do not have a problem when you start out, the state will certainly find one for you.
So the arrows have come thick and fast, labelled ‘medicare’, ‘pension age’, ‘foreign aid’, ‘ABC’, ‘family tax B’, ‘student loans’, ‘debt levy’ and so on. Each howl of protest is designed to kill off a reform, stop a modest reduction in wasteful spending and neuter any step towards stopping profligacy and extravagance. So each arrow or spear that gets through and wounds the defender is a great victory for the invaders.
But defending bridges is hard work, as Horatio found. You need this proven formula: the ability to repel every attack, a united team, no talk of negotiation and an ability to resist compromise and defend your own case by argument. The argument in the current case must make the point that the budget is not a scenario for the end of the world; it is not a bridge too far but probably a bridge not far enough. Even if all of the budget finds its way into legislation, we will still give the dole to anyone who wants it after half a gap-year holiday; we will still pay part of people’s household income by tax supplements; single mothers will still be encouraged to have more children on the state; we will still have the world’s most extravagant and recklessly generous health scheme; some people, sometimes, will have to pay $7 as a derisively low co-payment; we are still, apparently, going to start another scheme for disabilities which will outstrip the cost of Medicare when people realise how lavish it is; we will still have a largely free pharmaceutical scheme merrily dispensing drugs we do not need; we will still have two of the world’s most extensive and pervasive government broadcast and publishing networks; we will still control every form of human endeavour by three levels of government with overlapping labyrinthine bureaucracy and red tape; and will still have free tertiary education — no more machine cleaning for your modern students, as I had to do, but a user-friendly loan at low interest rates and leisurely repayments to tide them over between demonstrations and outings to Q&A.
The other side knows this is a crossroads moment; they know the budget measures have to pass for the good of the country, but they also know they have to be defeated to stop Abbott’s plans for a more self-reliant and responsible people and nation, and, hopefully, more economies. But I think young Horatio has their measure. And when he comes through, just as Horatio was fêted and thanked, so will Abbott. And his team.
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