Pollies ready for bloody battle

Welcome to another bloody election year. And yes, it will be a bloody election.

Tony Abbott knows he is on a hiding to nothing and will fight it the way he won his boxing blue at Oxford, a way that had a journalist report: “No-style Abbott’s a real smasher… he has no defence when going forward.”

He has already signalled that he is going to make border security an election issue; this, of course, is code for race. Abbott, like his mentor John Howard, will not hesitate to appeal to the worst instincts of Australians if he believes there are votes to be won.

What makes his opportunism even worse than Howard’s is that Abbott himself is not racist; unlike Howard he is comfortable associating with all creeds and colours and is an enthusiastic convert to multiculturalism. But desperate elections require desperate measures, and Abbott has shown throughout his career that he is ever ready to embrace the Jesuitical teaching that the end can sometimes justify the means.

He will need all the distractions he can get, because his position on climate change – Kevin Rudd’s chosen battlefield – is pathetically vulnerable.

When Abbott unexpectedly became leader of the Liberal Party his supporters insisted that one of his first jobs was to tell the voters a story; and he did. The problem was that the story was a barefaced lie.

It consisted of the assertion that Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme was a great big tax on everything, and that he could deliver the same cuts at no cost to anybody. Rudd’s ETS is in fact not a tax, but a market-based solution of the kind free enterprise parties such as the Liberals are supposed to applaud. The idea is that the polluters have to pay for their permits to pollute. They will of course pass the extra cost on to consumers, but the government will use the money raised by the sale of permits to compensate those worst affected.

Competition between the suppliers will force them to look for cleaner alternatives, which will eventually become economically viable, making everyone a winner.

This, at least, is the theory, and Abbott has not attempted to refute it; his only response has been to say that an ETS is a great big tax on everything, which it clearly isn’t; indeed, Treasury modelling suggests it will have far less impact than the introduction of the GST, which Abbott praises as a great economic reform. His own approach to the problem of reducing carbon emissions (he now accepts that they are a problem, despite not long ago calling the science of climate change “crap”) is through what he calls “direct action”.

This apparently involves government regulation over the supply and consumption of energy, anathema to Liberal philosophy and more importantly to Liberal voters, and/or subsidising alternative energy sources and the elimination of carbon from the process, a solution previously derided by the Liberals as a Greenie fantasy. But whether the idea is practical or not, it would be expensive; indeed public and private economists calculate that the cost would be roughly double that of an ETS, to deliver less than half the reduction in emissions.

Moreover, the government would not have the income generated by the sale of permits to pay for it; the scheme would have to be funded entirely from consolidated revenue, and paid for, presumably, by a great big tax on everything. As a strategist on climate change, Abbott makes General Custer look like Alexander the Great.

The other key battleground during the campaign will, as usual, be the economy; and here again Abbott is on shaky ground.

He is trying to appeal to the Howard-Costello legacy of economic management, but the hard fact is that Howard and Costello have both gone in somewhat humiliating circumstances and their replacements hardly seem up to it.

Abbott’s own economic expertise is, if the above policy is any guide, close to zilch.

His shadow treasurer Joe Hockey has no real track record other than to insist that if tax cuts are on the agenda they should go to individuals rather than companies, an about face on Liberal policy hardly likely to appeal to the party’s most important donors.

And then there is Barnaby Joyce overseeing the vital and wide-ranging Finance portfolio and already proving that he can piss in the cabinet tent just as effectively from inside it as he did from outside it. By contrast Rudd can point to the proven reliability and steadiness of Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner, and to Australia’s success in weathering the Global Financial Crisis through swift and decisive action that has since been endorsed by the vast majority of economic authorities, both national and international.

Labor can justly declare that it has reclaimed the title of superior economic manager, and unless things go drastically wrong in the next few months, Abbott’s talk of debt and deficit will most likely be dismissed as carping and whingeing by a largely relieved electorate.

This is not to say that Rudd is a shoo-in; the halo has slipped a bit in the last few months, and the idea that he is a timid leader who would rather talk than act to deliver real reforms is starting to gain some traction. But it can hardly be denied that he is starting from a long way in front, or that the government over the last two years has been a model of stability compared to the alternative, whoever has been leading it.

To unsettle it, Abbott will have to fight hard and dirty, and the preliminary signs are that he is ready and willing to do both.

Like I said, another bloody election.

And then there is Barnaby Joyce overseeing the vital and wide-ranging Finance portfolio and already proving that he can piss in the cabinet tent just as effectively from inside it as he did from outside it.

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