Making Australia Right – Tony Abbott

Many of the people who normally support Coalition governments aren’t happy. They are publishing their own ways to “make Australia right” because, they think, the government is not up to it. It’s a heartfelt plea from people who think that Labor is moving to the green left and that the Coalition has become Labor lite.

A sense of disappointment and disillusionment pervades these essays: disappointment with the Abbott government – despite the boats being stopped, the carbon tax being scrapped, the FTAs being finalised, business welfare being stopped, and budget repair getting well underway; and perhaps even despair about the Turnbull government; but what saves it from being a curmudgeon’s lament is the palpable sense, in every contribution, that our party and our country can be better.

Too many, the government has done much wrong; and what it’s done right hasn’t been right enough. These criticisms aren’t always fair. Still, unless we heed the message from people who think that we have let them down, a book like this can become the thinking person’s justification for voting One Nation. After all, the Making Australia Right authors are not the only ones who are disappointed and disillusioned.

At last year’s election, 24 per cent voted for minor parties and independents, 5 per cent spoiled their ballot papers and 9 per cent didn’t even turn up to vote. That’s nearly 40 per cent of the electorate that couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either of the two parties that have governed us for 100 years. And it’s worse now. In Queensland, polls have the Coalition vote 8 percentage points down since the election and One Nation 12 percentage points up.

It’s easy enough to see why. We have the world’s biggest reserves of energy – yet we have some of world’s highest power prices. We have land in abundance – yet Sydney’s house prices are close to Hong Kong’s. We have among the-world’s highest labour costs and heaviest regulatory burdens. Of course, we’re agile and we’re innovative and we’re the world’s most successful immigrant society – but Kazakhstan, apparently, now outranks us in education achievement and we’re no longer the place where everyone wants to invest.

It’s true that to be an Australian – almost any Australian – is to have won the lottery of life but it won’t stay that way unless we lift our game. And yes, there’s an opposition in denial about the problems it created when in office; there’s a populist senate; there’s a media that often mistakes insider gossip for serious journalism; and there’s a public that demands to enjoy things today but to put off paying for them. Still, the government’s job is to face up to these challenges and to overcome them. It’s harder than ever but it still has to be done.

So here’s the big question: what should a sensible centre-right government be doing now? All the contributors to Making Australia Right have useful things to say but perhaps the best description of the centre-right’s dilemma comes from Gary Johns who says:

“The Right believes in less taxation and less government interference in people’s lives: in short, liberty. But in a world where more Australians vote for their money than work for it, and the constituency beholden to government for benefits and jobs is expanding, the constituency for winning votes with tax cuts and de-regulation is diminishing”.

“Selling stringency and insecurity” says Johns, “is not going to win elections”. Rather, he says, “the Right have to advance a cultural debate in conjunction with the economic one. The Right have to promote a discussion that has, at worst, no cost to the budget and builds a constituency. It is not a case of ‘bread and circuses’, of creating diversions, but of the necessity to build a constituency that trusts government to be less intrusive. It is a necessity (in order) to overcome the shameless bribery that that all politicians indulge in, but especially the left”.

Johns says – and as a former Labor minister he should know what the left is up to – that “the pathway to a liberal society will be…to win constituencies without bribing them”. Yet, he says, “to achieve a…society…that is more liberal and governed by contract rather than by ideology will take a cultural revolution”.

In the long run, we do indeed need a conservative version of the left’s “long march through the institutions”. We do need to make it respectable again to be liberal on economic questions and conservative on social ones. In the short run, though, we have to win the next election. That means finding policy that’s philosophically acceptable, economically responsible and politically saleable.

One of the most timely and important essays is Alan Moran’s on energy policy. He methodically exposes the disastrous muddle successive governments have created. We are sleepwalking towards what the head of Bluescope said this week was an energy policy “catastrophe”.

My government reduced the renewable energy target from 28 per cent to 23 per cent. It wasn’t enough but it was a step in the right direction and it was the best we could get through the senate at the time. Now, almost two years on, people are starting to wake up to our danger: due to the 24 hour state-wide blackout in South Australia – where traffic lights went out, cash registers didn’t work, people were trapped in lifts and patients were sent home from hospital; and the power failures in other states, like the one that badly damaged the Alcoa smelter and jeopardised 10,000 jobs.

I’m all in favour of renewables, provided they’re economic and provided they don’t jeopardise security of supply; but, at the moment, we have a policy-driven disaster because you just can’t rely on renewable power. In the absence of better storage, the renewable energy target should be called the intermittent energy target or the unreliable energy target because when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, the power won’t flow.

But it’s not Labor’s even more disastrous 50 per cent renewable target that’s caused the problem – it’s the existing renewable target which the government has no plans to change. Indeed, under the government’s plans, wind generation is supposed to double in the next three years at a capital cost to you the consumer of $10 billion.

The government is now talking about using the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to subsidise a new coal-fired power station; creating, if you like, a base-load target to supplement the renewable target. We subsidise wind to make coal uneconomic so now we are proposing to subsidise coal to keep the lights on. Go figure. Wouldn’t it be better to abolish subsidies for new renewable generation and let ordinary market forces do the rest?

Of course, that would trigger the mother-of-all-brawls in the senate, but what better way to let voters know that the Coalition wants your power bill down, while Labor wants it up? The likelihood of defeat in the senate never stopped the Howard government trying to change the unfair dismissal laws. Over forty times we tried and failed and each attempt meant that we burnished our small business credentials and Labor damaged theirs.

We’ve got to face up to the damage being done by green schemes that seemed like a good idea at the time – and we’ve also got to face up to the damage that the senate is doing; how it’s making good government in this country almost impossible. The senate sabotage of the 2014 budget was blamed on poor salesmanship but my successor’s difficulties with far less sweeping measures show that the problem is less the salesman than the system.

It’s almost impossible for the government of the day to have a senate majority in its own right because it’s almost impossible to get the 57 per cent of the vote needed to win four senators out of six in any state. This doesn’t matter much for governments that want higher spending, more regulation and heavier taxes (at least on the so-called rich); the senate will always vote for those. But it matters a great deal for governments that want the reverse.

The cross bench is good at grievance but it’s never going to take responsibility for cutting spending, upsetting lobby groups, and reducing taxes on businesses and high income earners. That’s why the senate has changed from a house of review to a house of rejection. The result is gridlock, not government, and – for our country’s sake – it can’t go on.

John Howard recognised this back in 2003. A government policy paper recommended changing section 57 of the constitution to allow legislation that’s been rejected twice in the senate three months apart to go to a joint sitting without the need for a double dissolution election. The government didn’t proceed with this reform because it fluked four out of six senators in Queensland in 2004 and, for one term, more-or-less controlled the senate. But it’s now high time to reconsider the Howard proposal.

The government should consider taking this reform to the people simultaneously with the next election. Let’s make the next election about government versus gridlock. That way, if it’s carried, the government will be able to reduce spending, as well as to raise it; to cut taxes, as well as to increase them; and to limit the size of government, as well as to boost it.

That way, the next election will be about the kind of country that we want: one where the government tells you what it’s going to do and does it; or tells you what it’s going to do but doesn’t because the senate won’t let it.

The next election is winnable. If we stop pandering to climate change theology and freeze the RET, we can take the pressure off power prices.

If we end the “big is best” thinking of the federal Treasury, and scaled back immigration (at least until housing starts and infrastructure have caught up), we can take the pressure off home prices.

If we take our own rhetoric about budget repair seriously and avoid all new spending and cut out all frivolous spending, we will start to get the deficit down.

If we refuse to be the ATM for the states, there might be finally be some micro-economic reform of our public education and public health systems.

If we stop funding the Human Rights Commission and leave protecting our liberties to the parliament, the courts and a free press where they belong, we might start to look like the defenders of western civilisation that we aspire to be.

And of course, we have to keep committed to secure borders, not give up on free trade agreements that give our exporters a fair go, and ensure that our armed forces are about protecting the country not just creating jobs in Adelaide.

In short, why not say to the people of Australia: we’ll cut the RET, to help with your power bills; we’ll cut immigration, to make housing more affordable; we’ll scrap the Human Rights Commission, to stop official bullying; we’ll stop all new spending, to end ripping off our grandkids; and we’ll reform the senate to have government, not gridlock?

Our challenge is to be worth voting for. It’s to win back the people who are giving up on us like the Making Australia Right authors. It won’t be easy but it must be possible or our country is doomed to a Shorten government that will make a bad situation immeasurably worse.

In or out of government, political parties need a purpose. Our politics can’t be just a contest of toxic egos or someone’s vanity project. What is worth striving for; how can we make a difference; and what must change if Australians individually and collectively are to come closer to our best selves? That’s the challenge that our side of politics needs to ponder.

The Hon Tony Abbott MP is the Member for Warringah and the former Prime Minister. This paper was originally delivered to the launch of Making Australia Right (Connor Court, 2017)