The Abbott government continues to lurch from one disaster to the next. The Canning by-election, due as we went to press, could be the final straw. Even a big swing against the Liberals will again put Abbott’s leadership on life support.
There is already speculation about dumping Joe Hockey as Treasurer—as if that will do anything about the main problem: Abbott.
The refugee crisis in Europe has produced a sea change in the public mood around refugees. For the first time since he came to office, Abbott’s anti-refugee attitudes have been under pressure. He was forced, after several days of begrudging opposition to raising the intake, to accept an extra 12,000 Syrian refugees.
There is a serious opportunity for the refugee campaign to take advantage of the public’s shift to press the demands to end the full suite of Abbott’s anti-refugee measures.
The government’s decision to pick a notoriously conservative judge to preside over their Royal Commission into trade unions has also come unstuck, after Dyson Heydon was caught out for agreeing to address an event organised by the Liberal Party.
The “Border Farce” in Melbourne was another spectacular display of over-reach. The announcement that Border Force officers would be roaming the streets, “speaking with any individual we cross paths with” to target visa overstayers met an immediate backlash. In a rapid victory for public pressure and protest, 150 people shut down a scheduled press conference and forced the canning of the operation within hours.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton claimed the idea had nothing to do with him. But the press release was run by his office on two occasions.
Once again Bill Shorten’s conservative instincts were on display as he backed the operation when questioned by a journalist, even trying to up the ante by calling for a blitz on 457 visa holders. Only once the scale of the public response became clear did Shorten change his tune.
Dutton came out blaming the media for waging a “jihad” on the government, saying there was a, “huge move by Fairfax at the moment to try and bring the Government down”, adding they were “being helped by the ABC”.
Dutton was widely ridiculed, but the episode underlined the government’s determination to whip up fear about national security. Dutton claimed the media was just venting its “frustration” over Operation Sovereign Borders and the way the government has “stopped the boats”.
Unless Abbott is challenged he will keep using scaremongering about refugees and terrorism to try to build support. Even as he announced the increase in Syrian refugees he was dog whistling about keeping out Muslim refugees. Now Abbott wants to bomb Syria so he can keep playing up the threat of Islamic State.
Tax cuts for the rich
The problems for the Australian economy are another headache for Abbott. There are now serious fears about recession. The jitters on the stockmarket reflect concern about growth in China, and the latest figures show the Australian economy is barely growing. Unemployment, at 6.3 per cent, is the highest since 2002.
But instead of doing anything to fund services or jobs, the Liberals want tax cuts for the big end of town. Treasurer Joe Hockey has declared the need to eliminate “high rates of tax, particularly at the top level”, noting his concern that “our top rate kicks in relatively quickly, at $180,000”.
Hockey wants to promise income tax cuts at the next election. But he can’t say how the government would pay for it, adding fuel to speculation about moves to increase the GST.
The unions have focused their opposition to Abbott on a door-knocking campaign in marginal seats, with a nationwide “door knock to knock off Abbott” on 12 and 13 September.
But a campaign just telling people to vote out Abbott does nothing to put pressure on Labor to deliver any alternative, or to build the unions’ ability to fight at a workplace level.
The unions should be calling demonstrations and strikes against Abbott’s agenda, and raising demands for Labor to reverse it.
CPSU members in the Federal Public Service are set to take a second day of united strike action on 15 September. This is the kind of action that can be a platform for demanding Labor reverse the cuts to jobs in the public sector, repair the damage done to services by Abbott’s cuts and improve wages.
So far the CPSU’s focus has been short half-day stoppages, as part of a campaign similarly focused on encouraging the public to vote Abbott out. A sustained campaign of strike action that disrupted the operations of government and key services would help build the confidence and workplace networks needed to defend workers’ conditions under either a Labor or Liberal government.
Demonstrations over refugees, calling for an end to offshore detention and Abbott’s full suite of anti-refugee policies, and against Abbott’s Islamophobic terrorism scare, will both put pressure on Abbott and raise demands for change. That is the kind of fightback we need around Medicare, services and jobs too.