News & Current Affairs
07 September 2014
by James Wight
A year in Abbottland
Twelve months into the Abbott government, its misdeeds could fill an entire book. But here I’ll attempt to summarize them, as it’s important we remember them all to maintain the rage. If you think this article is too long, blame Tony Abbott.
For 28 months, they promised to reveal all their policies and budget cuts ‘in good time before the next election’. In reality, they walked away from unwanted questions, hid major policies and cuts until 36 hours before the election, hid others until after the WA by-election, and continue to hide behind a series of reviews stacked with hand-picked ideologues who anyone can see will recommend a radical right-wing agenda.
They promised to govern for all Australians, and not pick winners. In reality, their every decision makes the rich richer, the privileged more privileged, and the powerful more powerful, while finding ever more humiliating ways to bully the poor, disadvantaged, and powerless. Abbott (along with his unprecedentedly powerful chief of staff Peta Credlin) has appointed a cabinet containing just one woman, no non-Christians, and no climate or science minister; surrounded himself with advisors who look, talk, and think like him (i.e. old, male, conservative, climate-change-denying business lobbyists); sacked public servants perceived as disloyal; abolished multiple expert advisory bodies; reinstated knights and dames; and failed to condemn extreme views expressed by colleagues and advisors.
They promised strong, stable, accountable government with a long-term vision for the future direction of the nation. In reality, they are not delivering this because their ideology is to palm off major decisions onto unelected corporate leaders ruthlessly pursuing short-term self-interest. The supposed wisdom of the market is disrupting, among other things, the formerly stable climate that has sustained humanity for millennia.
They promised to address climate change at no cost. In reality, they have approved, subsidized, and talked up relentless expansion of the fossil fuel mining industries driving the problem (including Clive Palmer’s mega coal mine); purged the words ‘climate change’ and ‘renewable energy’ from government communications; misquoted Wikipedia to deny the link between climate change and worsening extreme weather; attacked the Australian Research Council for funding too much climate science; abandoned the upper end of Australia’s emissions target range; snubbed then played an obstructive role at Warsaw climate talks; refused to contribute to a global climate fund; left climate off the agenda of the upcoming G20 conference; scrapped or scaled back their proposed climate programs; abolished most existing policies on climate, renewables, and energy efficiency (cutting total spending by three-quarters); and tried to abolish the few remaining ones (including the Renewable Energy Target, being reviewed by a panel stacked with deniers). These policies are to be replaced by paying polluting companies to do essentially nothing.
They promised household compensation without a carbon tax. In reality, they are trying to increase fuel tax for ordinary motorists while compensating mining companies and repealing the carbon price paid by polluting companies. (There is of course an environmental argument for raising fuel tax, but the inequity in Abbott’s strategy cannot be overlooked.)
They promised to improve the environment. In reality, they have slashed federal environmental programs; turned the Great Barrier Reef into a coal shipping lane; sought to revoke the World Heritage status of Tasmanian forests and claimed loggers are conservationists; suspended all new marine parks; presented redirected funds for tree-planting as new; delegated their environmental protection powers to the states; and granted themselves legal immunity from challenges to past environmental approvals.
They promised to look after rural communities, in particular, to protect agriculture by reining in coal seam gas (CSG). In reality, the Coalition is dominated by the Liberals (who have boasted about hoodwinking the Nationals); their policy is to extract every molecule of gas and they’ve attacked NSW’s CSG restrictions; and they are ignoring the climate crisis threatening the very existence of agriculture and rural towns.
They promised to protect Australia's sovereignty. In reality, they are agreeing to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in free trade negotiations, giving multinational corporations the power to sue a government for any policy that hurts their profits. This will have a gagging effect on the ability of governments to introduce laws to hold corporations accountable. They continue to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which involves ISDS.
They promised to liberate us from big government, and no mandatory data retention. In reality, only corporations and other elites will be freed from regulations which hold them accountable to the voting public, while women are held back, minorities and disadvantaged groups punished, and asylum seekers imprisoned with no right to know why. They’ve stymied the ACT’s marriage equality laws. They’ve cut funding to the Human Rights Commission and appointed as ‘freedom commissioner’ an ideologue who advocated shutting down the Occupy protests and believes corporations have human rights. They’ve withdrawn a grant to the Jewish Holocaust Centre, among others, that they see as pork-barrelling to minority groups. They’ve abolished an advisory body on corporate crime, cut funding to the corporate regulator, and watered down consumer protections on financial advice amid a banking scandal. They’ve abolished the independent monitor of anti-terrorism laws. They’ve announced draconian security policies which would remove a sunset clause on police powers to detain and search people, make it easier to arrest suspects without a warrant, ban Australians from visiting certain countries, allow ASIO to suspend passports, and remove the presumption of innocence for terrorist offences. They’ve defended spying on behalf of fossil fuel companies, and they want the power to routinely spy on every Australian online, a policy even they can’t explain — supposedly to prevent terrorism and crime when it’s difficult not to conclude the government represents a more present threat.
They promised to increase free speech (especially for criticism of powerful people), protect media and political freedoms, and support public broadcasters. In reality, they’ve attempted to promote free speech only for racists; cut funding for research they don’t like; cut funding to anybody who supports a divestment campaign against Israeli apartheid; appointed a blatantly biased Speaker; negotiated draconian copyright laws in TPP talks; secretively courted supposedly independent commentators at parties; intimidated the ABC for reporting allegations against them; cut funding for ABC, SBS, and community radio (and launched a further ‘efficiency study’ into the ABC by a former head of Seven); put right-wing ideologues in charge of public broadcaster appointments; banned Community Legal Centres from advocating policy changes; cut legal aid for Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers, and environmentalists (as demanded by the mining lobby); cancelled all funding to international NGOs; defunded artists who refused sponsorship from a company owning refugee detention centres; defunded the Refugee Council because of its advocacy; forbidden public servants to criticise the government online; demanded a refugee activist remove from their Facebook page a photo of protesters blockading a bus transferring asylum seekers; removed the tax-exempt status of environment groups; replaced secular social workers with chaplains in schools; and established a national curriculum inquiry by two ideologues advocating right-wing propaganda be taught in schools. They are investigating trade unions (a rare voice opposing the present economic system) while ignoring corruption in more powerful institutions; they will reinstate a commission with draconian powers to investigate building unions; they propose to outlaw environmental boycotts; they’ve backed Queensland laws banning G20 protests; and their state-level colleagues are passing draconian anti-protest laws designed to silence political opponents.
They promised transparent government. In reality, they have attempted to shut down the flow of information by axing the Climate Commission; renaming coal seam gas to ‘natural gas’; barring Indonesian journalists from a press conference; requiring ministers to seek approval from the PM’s office before giving interviews (with calls frequently going unanswered); refusing FoI requests for incoming government briefs; claiming Abbott was ‘too flat out’ to talk to the media; deleting pre-election speeches from their website; announcing major environment-destroying policies over the Xmas break; defying a Senate order to release the TPP text; taking down a government website on nutrition; refusing to explain its claim that Edward Snowden has endangered Australian lives; allowing the infant formula industry to oversee its own honesty in advertising; misrepresenting a media release as a ‘Treasury analysis’; refusing to release a budget audit (by a leading business lobbyist) during a by-election; blocking Senate scrutiny of new government surveillance powers; criminalizing whistleblowing; and gagging the media on allegations that senior Australian bankers bribed government officials. On ‘Repeal Day’, they removed 10,000 regulations in one fell swoop without time to review the implications of the changes. They’ve admitted they want sport on the front page.
They promised to save the lives of asylum seekers, and not detain children. In reality, they instructed the Navy not to respond to distress calls, leading to a boatful of people drowning at sea. They’ve employed unlicensed guards; threatened to report gay asylum seekers to PNG police; denied facial reconstruction surgery for gunshot wounds; and scrapped an advisory group on asylum seeker health. Several asylum seekers allege their hands were deliberately burned while in a boat being towed back to Indonesia by the Australian Navy. One person has been killed and seventy-seven injured on Manus Island. They have now been detaining children for a year (and pregnant women), separated a newborn baby from his mother, and sent unaccompanied minors to Nauru. They revoked the community detention status of two children and kidnapped them from school, frightening other children at the same school into running away. They’ve attempted to reintroduce temporary visas meaning genuine refugees won’t be permanently settled in Australia, and eventually gave the Immigration Minister discretion to deny permanent residence based on secret conditions with no right of appeal. They try to coerce asylum seekers into ‘voluntarily’ going home, want to send them home if there’s only a 49% chance they’ll be tortured, have sent some back to war-torn Iraq, handed others (after superficially screening them by teleconference) over to Sri Lanka where they are likely to be tortured, and are negotiating to send detainees to Cambodia which is known for human rights abuses. These policies breach the UN refugee convention.
There is considerable overlap between the broken promises on transparency and saving asylum seekers, with Abbott and Scott Morrison denying media access to immigration detention centres, instructing asylum seekers not to talk to visitors, hiding information about boat arrivals (and justifying this by comparing them to a military enemy), fleeing reporters asking questions about the drowning incident, instructing public servants to incorrectly call them ‘illegals’, defying a Senate order to release documents on the issue, stopping media briefings on boats, refusing to place any credence in the burns allegations because Australian naval officers are above suspicion, making false claims about events on Manus Island, and agreeing with PNG to shut down an investigation into human rights abuses there. They denied the existence of an entire boatful of asylum seekers before detaining them at sea for a month then trafficking them to Nauru — and we would never have known about it if the refugees hadn’t contacted the media. Details are now finally beginning to come out at a Human Rights Commission inquiry, where it’s been revealed that the treatment of detainees is ‘torture’, staff call the detainees ‘clients’ to dehumanise them, guards have sexually abused child detainees, medication was confiscated from a 3-year-old epileptic girl, a psychiatrist was told to suppress evidence of detained children showing mental health issues, children are self-harming and attempting suicide, and generally the place is even worse than where the refugees came from. That shouldn’t be surprising because the entire purpose of the policy is to crush their hope.
They promised a foreign policy based on advancing freedom, decency, and poverty reduction rather than just security and economics. In reality, despite one commendable UN resolution on MH17, let’s not forget some of their less humane foreign policy decisions. They have apologised for (in opposition) having rightly criticized Indonesia, Malaysia, and PNG for human rights abuses; refused to help West Papuan activists against Indonesia’s abuses; banned a Malaysian democracy activist from visiting Australia; were slow to advocate for Australians jailed overseas; condoned torture and war crimes in Sri Lanka because otherwise would mean admitting people fleeing the country are legitimate refugees; gave the Sri Lankan government navy patrol boats to block said refugees; sent border protection vessels into Indonesian waters; authorised raids on an East Timor lawyer possessing evidence of Australian spying; opposed a UN resolution for an inquiry into Sri Lankan war crimes; defeated a UN move to ban use of nuclear weapons; raised the possibility of allowing Chinese troops to train in Australia; praised the ‘skill and honour’ of Japanese WW2 soldiers; and claimed Australia’s involvement in WW1 was in ‘a good cause’. They have cut $8 billion from foreign aid and removed poverty reduction from Australia’s foreign policy goals.
They promised to end class war. In reality, their policies are redistributing wealth upwards.
They promised to improve our country by growing its economy, creating a land of opportunity that would allow everyone to get ahead. In reality, the social health of developed countries like Australia is impaired less by poverty than by the economic, social, and political inequalities (not to mention environmental crises) promoted by an unrestrained market. The Liberals aim to remove all restraints from the free market system that tends to entrench these problems.
They promised to protect and create jobs by fighting restrictions on mining, supporting manufacturing industries, and promoting free trade. In reality, unemployment has grown to its highest level in 12 years; they are sacking government employees; they are allowing employers to hire an unlimited number of foreign workers; they dared a company to leave Australia; they are killing the renewable energy industry; and they are sitting back and watching the death of Australian manufacturing, caused partly by the mining boom and free trade which they continue to promote.
They promised to protect workers’ pay and conditions. In reality, they have reduced the wages of aged care and childcare workers and low-paid cleaners, have advised Fair Work Australia to cut penalty rates, will pay Green Army employees half the minimum wage and exempt them from work safety laws, have defunded Ethical Clothing Australia, have proposed to exclude the Northern Territory from labour laws, and are bullying companies (by threatening to withdraw industry subsidies) into cutting wages and blaming the carbon tax for job losses. They are forcing under-30s to wait up to six months before getting the unliveable unemployment benefit, then apply for 40 jobs a month to be eligible for benefits for six months, then repeat the cycle until they get a job. Yet, they are simultaneously cutting programs that would have helped people find work, implying they are trying to drive up demand for jobs so that people will settle for lower wages.
They promised to cut wasteful spending to reduce out-of-control debt and deficit. In reality, Australia’s national debt is smaller than that of most countries, and Hockey’s budget is neoliberalism masquerading as fiscal responsibility: it doesn’t significantly improve the fiscal position, it just transfers wealth from poor individuals to rich corporations. It pays for corporate tax cuts, fossil fuel subsidies, roads, fighter planes, and refurbishing the PM’s house through new taxes and spending cuts that hurt the poor, the unemployed, young people, university students, schools, families, women, domestic violence victims, the sick, the disabled, pensioners, charities, small businesses, emerging and struggling industries, public broadcasters, public servants (thousands of whom lost their jobs), local councils, Indigenous Australians, poorer countries, scientists whose research would advance human knowledge, and the environment which sustains us all. Despite increasing defence spending, it cuts soldiers’ wages by $20,000, and cuts welfare for orphans of soldiers. The only costs for politicians and high-income earners are blatantly tokenistic and temporary.
They promised to not cut education or health funding. In reality, they’ve made massive cuts including the Gonski schools program and National Disability Insurance Scheme. Their budget starves state governments of schools and hospitals funding to force the issue of delegating those responsibilities to them; increases student debt by deregulating university fees and lowers the income threshold for repayment; cuts numerous educational programs (though they somehow found money for more school chaplains, ignoring a contrary High Court decision); introduces co-payments for GP visits, emergency department treatments, diagnostic tests, and prescription drugs; reduces Australia’s contribution to the World Health Organization; cuts preventative health measures (eg. anti-smoking campaigns); and cuts myriad health programs (including for mental health which we’ll probably need more than ever in Abbott’s Australia). And they’ve proposed giving control over GP treatments to private health insurance companies.
They promised to relieve the cost of living for ordinary Australians through tax cuts, no new taxes, and no cuts to pensions. In reality, their tax cuts favour big business (and they’ve watered down Labor’s planned crackdown on multinational tax dodging); they’ve cut a tax break for low-income superannuation; they’ve imposed fees on those who become bankrupt; they’ve scrapped the first home buyers scheme; and their budget introduced several regressive taxes and harsh cuts to welfare. The latter include increasing the retirement age, cutting retiree concessions, cutting various family benefits (illustrating the government’s disregard for unpaid work), suspending welfare payments for parents of truant children, restricting and constantly reviewing access to disability payments while cutting services for disabled people, cutting payments for dementia carers, and a web of technical changes to indexation and eligibility thresholds across all payments. Moreover, they’ve set up a welfare review that is not consulting with community groups, and has canvassed simplifying 75 payments into four and restricting what recipients can spend their money on.
Abbott promised to be a Prime Minister for Aboriginal affairs and spend his first week as PM in an Aboriginal community. In reality, he has gone nowhere near said community, consolidated 150 Indigenous programs into five, paid Indigenous staff in his office less than others doing the same job, and described Australia as ‘unsettled’ before the British arrived.
They promised paid parental leave. In reality, it is nowhere in sight.
They implied by their attacks on Labor that they would not misuse taxpayer money or protect corrupt individuals. In reality, they have been caught claiming expenses for attendance at weddings and suchlike; ministers are now allowed to hold shares in companies; and they’ve redirected funds from one Royal Commission on institutional child sexual abuse to another on home insulation. Abbott, in response to a report exposing the role of his friend Cardinal George Pell in covering up Catholic child rape, falsely claimed Pell was the first senior cleric to take the issue seriously.
They promised hope, reward, and opportunity. In reality, ‘opportunity’ was code for ‘if you’re unlucky you’re on your own’, ‘reward’ meant ‘we’ll feather your nest if you’re already doing well’, and ‘hope’ meant ‘dream on’.
They promised to govern competently. In reality, when occasionally diverted from their script by an intelligent questioner, their ministers reveal a laughable ignorance about even their own policies.
To add insult to injury, Abbott promised to be trustworthy and not talk down to voters but in reality has treated us with thinly disguised contempt. In opposition they blatantly misled us about their intentions, repeatedly assuring us there would be no surprises and no broken promises. Then in government they blindsided us with extreme right-wing policies, breaking too many promises to count. They have arrogantly insisted that they are the adults (particularly disturbing when you recall Abbott endorses smacking naughty children), and expect us all to support their government and everything it does because it represents ‘Team Australia’. They have taken our votes for granted, refusing to even acknowledge that 100,000 Australians marched against their government, and that Western Australia resoundingly rebuked them at a by-election. They have demanded the Senate rubber-stamp policies opposed by the majority of Australians. They feed us a never-ending stream of blatant lies and assume we are too stupid to notice.
Abbott is evidently following the Institute of Public Affairs’ blueprint to transform Australia in three years, like a right-wing Whitlam. Some educated guesses at what’s coming soon: abolition or sabotaging of the Renewable Energy Target; more cuts to the ABC; more welfare cuts; more regressive taxes, such as an increased Goods and Services Tax; more tax cuts and loopholes for the rich; more cuts to corporate regulations and the public service; more restrictions on workers’ rights; abolition of penalty rates; privatisation of public assets; school curricula promoting right-wing beliefs; delegation of more federal responsibilities to the states where Christian fundamentalists and other right-wing ideologues can push their agenda under the radar; and the implementation of as many IPA policies as possible.
When the next election rolls around, Abbott will do whatever it takes to try to lure us into voting him back in — but I reckon it won’t fool anyone. Abbott has shaken Australians out of our apathy; we have woken up to the fact that politicians are not acting in our interests. The rise of the internet means Australia can no longer be governed through the mushroom treatment, because we can all remind each other about the government’s litany of lies and bad behaviour.
The Abbott government represents an extreme version of the neoliberalism that has dominated politics for three decades, an ideology that when put into practice has been described as ‘totalitarian capitalism’. Its rhetoric about ‘individual freedom and free enterprise’ is acted on only when convenient to its true obsession — rewarding the ‘good people’ at the top of society and punishing the ‘bad people’ at the bottom. For all their talk about ‘progress’, they want to drag us back to the 19th century, before the welfare state.
If you’ve been reading this article and congratulating yourself that Abbott has yet to hurt or take rights away from you, how many more groups does he have to attack before you speak out against his government?