Image for Abbott fiddles as the nation burns

When the News Corp National Economics Editor Jessica Irvine writes that “Australia is sleep walking its way toward economic demise”, readers should be afraid ... very afraid.

More importantly, federal parliamentarians should take notice and act immediately to reverse this slide towards a ‘banana republic’ ( Here ).

Irvine’s prognosis vindicates my previous Observations, including notably Leading the Australian economy to the Abbott-oir ( Here ) and No soft landing with Captain Abbott ( Here ).

I take no joy in ‘vindication’ and instead would prefer to see the government steering the economy towards wealth and jobs creation, with a particular emphasis on a small business and investment-led recovery.

The Abbott government allowed the economy to drift well before the ill-conceived Federal Budget that has been very poorly sold to Australians and to Federal Parliament. None other than NAB Chairman Michael Chaney warned the government in December 2013 that “patchy business confidence in the absence of clear policy from Canberra…[is] conspiring for the Australian economy to continue its downward slide.”

This is reinforced by the newly-appointed NAB Chief Executive, Andrew Thorburn, who said on his first day on the job that “businesses are holding back on big investments needed to bolster the economy because of the uncertainty created by the federal budget impasse” (SMH, NAB chief Andrew Thorburn says budget impasse holding up business, 1 August 2014, Here).

Last week a further 400 workers were made redundant with the closure of the Alcoa’s Point Henry aluminium smelter near Geelong, a town that is already set to lose 350 workers with Ford Australia’s closure. Since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis in December 2008, when the national unemployment rate was 4.5 per cent, the rate has now increased to 6 per cent, equivalent to 741,700 unemployed (ABS: 6202.0 – Labour Force, Australia Jun 2014). This means 243,600 have joined the ranks of the unemployed since the GFC. And with the foreshadowed closures of GMH and Toyota over the next two years, more are set to join the ranks of the unemployed. We urgently need a jobs-creating budget, not a “back in the black” budget.

“Hockey’s budget proposed $37 billion worth of budget repair – pending cuts and tax hikes – over four years, but $24.5 billion worth of that is facing defeat in the Senate. That is, two-thirds of the government’s proposed fiscal fix is in dire danger.” ( Read more: Here ).

Nearly three months after Treasurer Joe Hockey delivered the budget, only two elements (repeal of the carbon tax and future of financial advice - FOFA) that have little consequence on the budget repair, have passed the Australian Parliament.

Indeed, Hockey chose to take a holiday to Fiji in the first half of July instead of burning the midnight oil to implement and bed down the budget he created. ‘‘You can’t declare a budget emergency and then go on holiday in Fiji,’’ says a disgruntled Liberal MP. Hockey should have been knocking heads together, not knocking off, he chides. ‘‘Announcing the budget is not the point; legislating the budget is the point.’’ ( Read more: Here ).

Perhaps Hockey’s sense of entitlement to a vacation is more important than the national interest?

Prime Minister Abbott also appears to disown the budget by focusing government resources on foreign distractions like the MH17 disaster instead of assiduously negotiating the budget through parliament. Abbott justified axing the yearly $212 bonus welfare payments to the children of injured and dead Australian war veterans amounting to a paltry $260,000 a year. Only a future Senate Estimates committee will reveal whether the true cost of mounting an expensive (certainly more than $260,000) and risky operation to retrieve human remains and personal effects in a combat zone in the Urals qualifies as being in the national interest.

Proof of the “don’t mention the budget” stance is that the Abbott government has submitted very few Budget Bills through the Parliament because it knows most would not pass in the Senate. 

Our Prime Minister, still in ‘Leader of the Opposition’ mode, continues to be unwilling to negotiate with the Opposition for passage of the majority of his budget, preferring to deal with the cross-benches on the more symbolic peripheral elements.

A ‘lame emu’ government currently resides in Canberra.

I chose the national emblem over duck because it is related to the ostrich that is known for sticking its head in the sand, something the Abbott government excels at, given its obsession of seeking to balance the $300 billion budget at the expense of our $1.5 trillion economy, that is now drifting in tandem with the political deadlock over the budget. 

The only solution to break this deadlock is to produce a mini-budget to replace the current clunker.

And, as suggested by prominent business leaders, for Abbott to provide leadership on a clear vision and roadmap for Australia’s economy into the future, steering away from today’s moribund two-speed economy.

Sadly we currently have a lame Opposition that promises not to force a double dissolution on what they call an “unfair budget”. At the cost of the national interest, the Federal ALP would rather let the crippled Abbott government drift in order to restock its own electoral appeal. The performance of the Opposition in Question Time since 13 May has been dismal and ineffectual. We need to move on from the “unfair budget” mantra.

Indeed, Clive Palmer has been the only one calling the shots in our nation’s capital.

The Abbott government would not have been able to repeal the carbon tax or pass FOFA without support from the Palmer United Party.

If Tony Abbott continues to fiddle, there will come a time when HE Sir Peter Cosgrove, the Governor-General, may have to intervene.

Before it gets to that, someone in the Federal Liberal Party will have to shake Abbott from his sleep walking.

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Phil na Champassak owns The Madsen Boutique Hotel in Penguin and is a founding board member of the Cradle Coast Innovation Inc fostering enterprise facilitation. He is also a board member of the Cradle Coast Tourism Executive, the regional tourism organisation for NW Tasmania. Formerly a diplomat and DFAT policy analyst, Phil has worked on trade, aid, public diplomacy, consular, international security, and bilateral relations with PNG, the US, and NZ, and was most recently DFAT State Director for Tasmania. Prior to that Phil worked for the UN Development Programme in New York, West Africa and PNG. Phil also served as election monitor to the first elections in Cambodia (1992) and South Africa (1994) and was a peace monitor in Bougainville (2002). He has contributed to publications on human rights, election monitoring, and UN issues. Awarded in 2003 a Australian Service Medal. Phil was a guest of ABC Radio Richard Fidler’s ‘Conversations’ in November 2013.

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