It was advertised as the speech that would turn around his government’s plummeting popularity. Government backbencher Andrew Laming said it would be “bigger than Ben-Hur”. But Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s National Press Club address today was underwhelming compared to even my expectations. He didn’t really say much that was new. The future he outlined is the same tired vision that his Liberal Party (and to a lesser extent, Labor) have advocated for as long as I can remember.
The silliest thing he said was his justification for addressing the budget deficit: it would be “intergenerational theft” to leave future generations with a legacy of debt. Does he have no sense of irony? Intergenerational theft is exactly what Abbott’s government is doing on the far more important issue of climate change and the environment. It is my generation, babies being born today, and those who come after who will suffer the costs of the decisions made now. If they are going to insist on calling themselves the “adult government”, a slogan Abbott recycled yet again today, then it’s time they stopped flouting their responsibility to protect their children.
The mountain of evidence that anthropogenic global warming is a real and urgent problem continues to grow. 2014 was the hottest year on record globally (more on that tomorrow). Last week, the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology released the most comprehensive ever climate projections for Australia. They warn that Australia could warm up to 5.1°C by 2090 in the highest emissions scenario. Another study predicted an increase in “super La Ninas” meaning “more occurrences of devastating weather events, and more frequent swings of opposite extremes from one year to the next, with profound socio-economic consequences”. But of course no amount of evidence will ever change Abbott’s mind, because evidence means nothing to him; the only language he speaks is power.
Abbott mostly talked about creating a stronger economy, even saying “only this government has had the courage… to build a stronger and more prosperous economy” – as if no previous government ever prioritized a stronger economy. Never mind that the economy, as currently designed for endless material growth and profit over people, is an anachronism that no longer serves the needs of society. At the current level of economic development, national growth is no longer doing much to increase national wellbeing, rather it is feeding an endless cycle of status competition while depleting our resources and polluting our environment. In 2015 it makes little sense to see growth as the number one priority.
Abbott argued that building a stronger economy is “the fairest thing we can do” because “if the economy is stronger, everyone’s life is better” and “better paid workers will only come from more profitable employers”. He is wrong. Without a deliberate government effort to redistribute wealth downwards, the corporate drive for profit redistributes wealth upwards, as can be seen from the rise of income inequality over the last three decades within Australia and other developed countries. In his first 16 months of government Abbott has accelerated this upward redistribution: every one of his policies, except a handful of tokenistic measures, has hurt the poor and made the rich richer. And his talk about the need for a “reform agenda” in the new year is code for more neoliberal policies that will prioritize the profits of big business to an even greater degree.
Research shows that less equal economies are less pleasant societies. High economic inequality greatly exacerbates a broad variety of social problems, including narcissism, distrust of others, mental illness, low life expectancy, obesity, school bullying, teenage pregnancy, crime, and the harshness of prison systems. It also decreases social mobility – in other words, the American Dream is a myth. All this occurs because greater inequality means everyone is more concerned about getting ahead, so society degenerates into dog-eat-dog. This intensified status competition drives not only social dysfunction, but also ever-increasing material consumption and hence environmental damage. Abbott’s policies will make all these problems worse.
Abbott said he will lower taxes for small businesses, because they put their “economic life on the line” (strange that he is not so concerned about the economic lives of the unemployed and homeless) and because they represent “the new industries of tomorrow” (strange that he doesn’t apply this principle to renewable energy companies). He went on to say an upcoming review of the tax system will lead to lowering taxes generally. This will only worsen the budget deficit that Abbott claims to be so concerned about. The government should instead cut all fossil fuel subsidies, raise taxes on top incomes, and clean up the loopholes that are allowing the super-rich and big business to avoid paying their taxes.
Abbott hinted at a possibility of further anti-terrorist legislation, but did not give any detail. As always, I am suspicious of attempts to give the authorities more power. Abbott stressed how much we should fear Islamist terrorists and perhaps we should, but we should also be afraid of our government.
Paid parental leave will be replaced with a new childcare policy, also lacking in detail. Abbott says his aim is get more parents into the workforce so they “make a bigger economic contribution as well as a social contribution to our country” – as if raising the next generation were not a social contribution.
Abbott claimed the number of jobs are growing, but failed to mention the unemployment rate is at its highest in 12 years. This is a highly dishonest way of presenting the facts.
Abbott acknowledged the apparent defeat of (and definite landslide against) Queensland’s Liberal National government in last Saturday’s election, in which Premier Campbell Newman lost his seat. But Abbott did not concede any fault in the Newman government’s policies, which are similar to his own: aggressive promotion of coal mining, coal seam gas fracking, and fossil fuel exports through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area; massive cuts to government services and associated job losses; increasingly draconian police powers. Also similar is how Abbott and Newman hid the true extent of their agendas while in Opposition.
Although Abbott made several statements beginning with “I accept”, which were evidently intended to be concessions, he did not actually apologise for any of his government’s serious wrongdoings, some of I have chronicled in this video:
Instead he conceded things like:
- “I accept that I probably overdid it on awards.”
- “If you want to put in place difficult but necessary reform, you’ve got to explain it, you’ve got to justify it, and you’ve got to bring the people with you. Now I accept that we have done some of that ourselves over the last 12 months: we have attempted to put in place difficult and necessary reform.”
- “I accept that we’ve had a couple of months where, if journalists ring up and ask about individuals and personalities within the government, the correct answer – a great person doing a great job – has not been given. I accept all of that.”
- To his credit, he did come closer than ever before to admitting the fact, blatantly obvious to everyone else, that he has flouted a litany of promises: “I accept that there were some commitments that we gave in the campaign that we have not been able to keep.”
Far from apologizing, Abbott continues to boast about some of his terrible actions:
- Granting environmental approvals to over $1 trillion worth of new projects, the majority of them fossil fuel projects which should not be going ahead at a time when global warming is reaching tipping points.
- Repealing the carbon tax (along with almost every other climate policy), which means fossil fuel companies can pollute without any restraint.
- Repealing the mining tax, which means mining companies can exploit Australia’s finite resources without spreading the benefits to all Australians.
- Negotiating several new free trade agreements, which constrain the government’s ability to regulate corporate activity in the public interest.
- Stopping the boats, which is associated with a barbaric system of indefinite mandatory detention treating innocent asylum seekers like subhuman criminals.
However, Abbott generously conceded that he will no longer be personally in charge of knighthoods.
The newspapers are full of leadership speculation, and have largely interpreted today’s speech as Abbott’s coded plea to keep his job. But if the Liberal Party does choose a new leader, whether it’s Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison, or even the allegedly climate-friendly “moderate” Malcolm Turnbull, in all likelihood it will still be the same party with generally the same agenda. The Liberal Party is so extreme that even its so-called “moderates” are more right-wing than most Australians.
Far from being pivotal, today’s speech represents no significant change in the government’s direction. Knighthoods or no knighthoods, the Abbott government will continue, with every one of its actions, to make Australia a meaner, tougher, hotter place to live. The adult government remains hellbent on creating a worse world for its children.