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27 November 2014

Tony Abbott a backward-looking failure adrift on world stage, says Bill Shorten

Labor opposition leader issues a fiery denunciation of Australian prime minister and his government

Bill Shorten has launched a scathing critique of Tony Abbott, casting the Australian prime minister as a backward-looking failure at home and “adrift” on the world stage.

The opposition leader said the government had “no prospect” of getting its higher education changes through the Senate, had lost the argument for other contentious budget proposals, and should drop the measures before next month’s economic update.

In an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Shorten also accused Abbott of squandering “a once in a generation” foreign policy opportunity by using the G20 summit in Brisbane to pursue domestic political complaints rather than a future-focused vision.

Abbott returned fire during parliamentary question time, describing Shorten’s Labor team as “fiscal saboteurs” and the “worst lot of wreckers and vandals in Australian history”. Labor represented “a menace to our country’s future”, the prime minister said.

The political positioning comes as the government struggles to get billions of dollars of budget savings through a hostile Senate before parliament rises next week for the Christmas break.

Abbott specifically referenced his difficulties legislating a proposed $7 co-payment on GP visits and the deregulation of university fees in a speech to world leaders at the Australian-hosted G20 meeting the weekend before last.

Shorten said it was “a weird, cringe-worthy, ‘little Australia’ lecture to the global community” and called on the government to abandon both policies before the treasurer, Joe Hockey, delivers the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook next month.

“The G20 was an unqualified failure when it should have been an unqualified success,” Shorten said. “Imagine telling the prime minister of Turkey that you’ve got problems with a GP tax when they’ve got two million refugees.”

The opposition leader vowed to stand firm against the deregulation of university fees, saying he was “not for turning” and the government had failed to muster adequate crossbench support.

He said the university bill contained “short-sighted and unfair class war changes” and the proposed 20% cut to course funding would be “the greatest act of vandalism” to higher education. The government had “a snowflake’s chance in that hot place where bad people go” of increasing interest rates on student loans.

Shorten would not specifically commit a future Labor government to unwind the Coalition’s higher education changes. “There’s a big hypothetical in that – if the government gets their changes through. At this stage there is no prospect of that,” he said.

“We believe the best thing we can do for our universities is defeat these rotten changes and we start again the process, so we are not contemplating failure on our defence of higher education.”

Shorten, who has spent the past six months campaigning against Abbott and Hockey’s “rotten” and “unfair” first budget, said the government’s problem was not the sales job but the product.

The Labor leader used his speech to lay out some markers on the importance of confronting the long-term challenges of climate change and demographic shifts, saying Australia’s future depended on a highly skilled, highly educated workforce.

Australians were concerned about where the jobs of the future would come from, Shorten said, but the nation should aim to be an innovative “services hub in the Asian century” and a “clean energy powerhouse”.

In an apparent response to Abbott’s criticism of the opposition’s blocking tactics in the Senate, Shorten said the year had been “defined by force of Labor’s resistance” but next year he would shift focus to laying out policy ideas.

Shorten said he accepted that Labor had to rebuild public trust and develop a positive plan before the 2016 election.

“We will not ask the Australian people to vote for us just because we are not the Abbott government,” he said. “At the next election Labor will offer the nation more than a list of Tony Abbott’s lies.”

Shorten is yet to spell out a detailed alternative plan for repairing the budget. He said the budget faced “pressures” and the challenge was to ensure that revenue matched spending in the medium term while not forcing the bottom half of income earners to do the heavy lifting.

Shorten pointed the finger at the Coalition for worsening the deficit shortly after it came to office last year.

He said it was still “early days” for Labor in developing its economic policies for the 2016 election, but repeated his previous suggestions that the government should “dump its Rolls-Royce paid parental leave scheme”, pursue multinational tax evaders and rethink superannuation tax breaks for the wealthy.

Shorten said if the government was having budget problems it should “stop paying polluters to pollute and introduce a market-based system” to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Abbott did not confirm reports that he was planning to dump the yet-to-be-legislated GP co-payment, but said the government was “calmly and methodically addressing the problems that our nation faces”.

“The truth is Labor gave us a debt and deficit disaster, a fiscal deterioration unprecedented in our history,” the prime minister said during question time.

“Having created the problem, they are now trying to sabotage the solution … They are the greatest fiscal vandals in Australia’s history … They are a menace to our country’s future.”

The education minister, Christopher Pyne, said Shorten was “more concerned with cringe-worthy cliches and hysterical scare campaigns intended to turn people off university rather than engaging in a conversation about reform”.