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Sep 05 2013

Abbott’s last-minute policies reveal true colors

Throughout the Australian election campaign the Liberal/National Coalition and their leader Tony Abbott have blatantly evaded any scrutiny, either on their budgetary plans or, more importantly, the details of their climate policy. Abbott has been saying for two years “we’ll announce our full fiscal position in good time before the election”. Today, having waited until almost the last minute of the election campaign, the Coalition finally announced their costings and some new policies.

At today’s press conference, reporters commented on how nervous Liberals Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey looked. Perhaps that’s because today’s announcements are the beginning of the revelation of the Liberals’ true colors, which will become far more apparent after the election.

Today’s announcement still leaves much to be desired. The “costings” the Liberals announced today are simply a table of numbers with no information on the assumptions those numbers are based on. They have not been verified by any official body, merely three supposed experts. We essentially just have to take the Liberals’ word for it. When questioned on ABC Radio National, Hockey was unable to explain the assumptions behind his costings. In contrast, the Greens’ policies have been fully costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, and all the assumptions they are based on have been made available for public scrutiny.

The Liberals have allowed no verification at all of the costings of three major policies: the climate change Direct Action Plan, broadband policy, and asylum seeker policy. They claim this is because these policies are “bulletproof”. If they are really bulletproof, why not have those costings verified?

They also still haven’t released an updated policy document for the Direct Action Plan. (See here for my explanation of 13 problems with the Direct Action Plan. Particularly relevant here is that all independent analyses say it cannot possibly meet its emissions target on its limited budget.) And as Greens leader Christine Milne said today, how can we have a referendum on climate policy when the Liberals haven’t released their climate policy?

Crucial details of the Direct Action Plan were not announced until Monday, including that companies’ emissions baselines would be based on historical emissions intensity (emissions per economic output) instead of absolute emissions; that it would not spend any more money than budgeted regardless of whether it meets its target; and that Abbott still denies the science of climate change.

Not satisfied with cutting existing climate policies, the Liberals have announced cuts to their own promised climate policies. The Liberals have delayed the commencement of their Emissions Reduction Fund by one year. That means it will be reviewed before it even starts. They have also halved funding for their Million Solar Rooves program, redirected funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to pay for the other half, and cancelled their “clean energy hubs” and “geothermal and tidal towns” programs.

Today’s announcement included $9 billion worth of new cuts over the forward estimates (ie. next four fiscal years). The biggest cut is $4.5 billion to foreign aid. Robb claims the Australian economy is not strong enough to support aid spending (can you believe he said that?). I’m sure starving Africans will understand how hard done by we Australians are.

The Liberals would also cut the $2.4 Regional Infrastructure Fund – if I’m not mistaken those funds would have gone to rail projects.

The funds cut from foreign aid and rail will be used to fund new roads.

They would cut $900 million in research grants which they believe to be “futile”, including research into art about climate change. It does not bode well that decisions about which research is worthwhile be made by politicians. A government that cuts research spending is cutting out its brain.

They would rephase $650 million of Murray-Darling water buybacks.

They would save $400 million through a 0.25% increase to the existing “efficiency dividend” (ie. cutting government jobs).

They would suspend funding for the Connecting Renewables program “until committed demand is identified”.

They claim the government will receive an extra $1 billion in revenue due to the supposed economic benefit of removing the carbon tax. (As Christine Milne pointed out, what about the impact of climate-change-driven extreme weather on government revenue?). They claim another $1 billion will be saved by stopping the boats.

The Liberals would also cut legal aid for Aboriginal Australians, superannuation for low-income earners, and university funding. They would abandon Labor plans to increase staff-to-child ratios in childcare and wages in aged care.

After six years attacking Labor’s budget deficits, the Liberals have backed away from promising a surplus. It is not clear whether they still see it as a matter of urgency to get back to surplus. Nevertheless, we can probably expect substantial budget cuts to result from their “audit of commission” after the election. Abbott today said nothing would be excluded from this budget audit, contradicting his earlier statement that core policies would be exempted.

If a newly-elected Abbott government is anything like the newly-elected Howard and Newman governments, these cuts will be massive, break election promises, and hurt the majority of Australians in the interests of big business and free market ideologues.

The Liberals also announced they would introduce an opt-out internet filter for adult content, despite Liberal communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull having said at the 2010 election that Labor’s then-policy of an internet filter was “dead, buried, and cremated”. So much as for opposing censorship. Just hours after announcing the 2013 policy, Turnbull retracted it, claiming the document was “poorly worded” (in reality it was worded very clearly) and the party does not support an opt-out internet filter, despite Turnbull having earlier defended the policy on Triple J Hack. Bizarrely, Turnbull now claims he had only just read his own policy before doing the interview. Yet the author of the policy, Liberal MP Paul Fletcher, had confirmed the policy to ZDNet.

The only conclusion I can draw is that the internet censorship policy wasn’t supposed to be released until after the election, and will be back after the election. What other policies aren’t being released until after the election, and will the Liberals use their internet filter to prevent Australians from seeing them?

The Liberals have also recently released their energy policy document. It does not mention climate change or solar energy at all, and its only mention of renewable energy is that the Liberals will establish an inquiry into the health effects of wind farms, and real-time monitoring of wind farm “noise emissions”. As summarized by Renew Economy, the Liberals would fast-track coal mines, promote coal seam gas development with a “use it or lose it” policy on offshore oil and gas fields, restore the profitability of coal-fired power stations, investigate thorium as a potential future energy source, delegate environmental protection powers to state governments, and cut “red and green tape” deemed “unworkable” by an audit of all regulations.

The Liberals have also released a Great Barrier Reef policy which fails to mention the impact of mining, and a Tasmania policy which includes reversing the World Heritage listing of Tasmanian forests.

This last point is not a last-minute announcement but it is little known and of high importance: the Liberals would consider investor-state dispute settlement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, which would give multinational corporations the power to sue a government for any policy that hurts their profits.

I apologize if this blog post seems rushed or contains inaccuracies – it’s the Coalition’s fault for holding back major policy announcements until there is insufficient time for in-depth analysis. If you’d like to see for yourself, the Coalition’s full table of costings can be read here, and their full set of policy documents is here.

This post may be updated if I learn of further last-minute policy announcements.

By hiding major policies until just two days before the election, continuing to present an incomplete set of policies and costings today, and potentially hiding some ugly surprises until after the election, the Coalition have insulted our intelligence and thumbed their nose at our democratic right to know what they stand for. Therefore they deserve our contempt, not our votes.

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