Tony Abbott’s election strategy has been reduced to Iron man photo spreads. Union leader Paul Howse summed it up in the Herald Sun: “If anything, it highlights that Abbott is, frankly, a little bit weird, a little bit out of touch, and a little bit of a show pony… every time he pulls a fitness stunt he gets a bit of positive press, but when he opens his mouth about important things like health reform, the polls plummet.”
It has been a tough few weeks for the Opposition Leader. He’s fallen into all of Rudd’s traps around health reform, and has now been cornered into supporting it. This is not much of a stretch of his principles—the idea of a federal takeover was floated when Abbott was Health Minister under Howard—but signifies a retreat from his “oppose everything” mantra.
Abbott’s popularity has peaked. Analysis of recent polling reported in the Sydney Morning Herald shows Rudd is in position to win the next election with an increased majority. The truth is as Howse says—there is little support for what the archconservative Tony Abbott stands for.
His comment that he is “a little bit threatened” by gays was a dog-whistle for the right—but nobody responded. He is still widely caricatured for his appalling backward ideas about women. And wanting to bring back WorkChoices is not winning him many friends in the working class suburbs. He seems desperate to avoid discussion of his Howard-era politics.
The left can take confidence from this. There is a tendency to overstate the threat posed by Abbott—or to see the solution to Abbott as going quiet on Rudd’s policies. But it is Rudd who is opening up what space does exist for Abbott.
Rudd is constantly concerned to prove his conservative credentials. He has picked up on the public concern over our health system. But he tells us the problems there are about “efficiency”—and his reform package commits no new money to hospitals for another four years.
Jenny Macklin recently courted Abbott’s support for her new Intervention laws (see page 9), which will mean the spread of the welfare quarantine to more Aboriginal communities, and cement the Intervention policies indefinitely. The government’s own reports show that the Intervention has only worked to worsen living conditions in Aboriginal communities.
It is only around refugees that Abbott’s right-wing views are starting to get some traction. The finger of blame needs to be pointed at Rudd. Instead of defending the changes to refugee policy, the Labor government is constantly looking for ways to prove how tough they can be on asylum seekers (see page 8). Abbott used the arrival of the 100th boat under Rudd to claim the government had “lost control” of the borders. It was a trap Rudd laid for himself when he claimed in parliament last November that more boats had come under Howard.
Tellingly, Abbott cited Julia Gillard’s press releases when she was Shadow Minister for Immigration—that criticised Howard’s policies for being too soft and encouraging a flood of boats!
Gillard lashed out at the operators of Villawood detention centre where three Chinese detainees escaped, saying the private contractors are paid money “to make sure people who are in detention stay in detention”. Why three detainees would risk their lives to escape from the facility didn’t rate a mention.
Labor may have abolished the Pacific Solution, but the basic cruelty of Howard’s refugee policy remains.
The Immigration Department has also stepped up deportations. Three Tamils were recently sent home and another 38 may be returned soon. Some will surely face persecution upon return.
Despite the rhetoric about a flood of asylum seekers, there is no huge increase. 6170 applications were made last year—compared to 50,000 in the US and 42,000 in France. But Labor’s concern to meet Abbott’s right flank is risking the lives of asylum seekers.
Instead of delivering on people’s desire for change, Rudd has deferred to every whim of big business. This has meant the continuation of the bulk of Howard’s policies. If we are really going to defeat the ideas of Tony Abbott then we need to fight their manifestations in Rudd’s policies.
The unions in Western Australia have shown the way with their increasing willingness to use their industrial muscle to fight for pay and conditions (see page 23). The Electrical Trades Union has but a ban on its Northern Territory members participating in any work in the uranium industry—especially the proposed waste dump at Muckaty station. That should be a signal to the climate movement about what can be done to stop the construction of new coal-fired power stations.
Greek workers, too, continue to take to the streets in a collective roar of defiance, as their Labor-type party, PASOK, tries to force down living standards (see page 13). There are lessons for us to learn here if we want to force the Rudd government to deliver.