Things Get Messy When Popularity Trumps Policy

Hard to believe it, but the 2015 budget was delivered just three weeks ago.

Already the Abbott Government seems eager to move on.

Last week Tony Abbott announced the creation of a terror tsar, a new minister for counterterrorism, and a policy to strip Australian citizenship from dual nationals suspected of terrorist activities.

National security is important. And the Government has been telegraphing the citizenship changes for months. But the question is: why now? Why so soon?

The budget was delivered on Tuesday, May 12. National security week was launched on Monday, May 25. That’s 13 days. Really just 12, if you factor in the budget lockup and newspaper print deadlines.

This quick hop from economics to security is indicative of a broader problem with the Abbott Government’s populist push. It knows it doesn’t want to be unpopular. But it’s not sure what it wants to be popular about.

The 2015 budget is nothing like the political catastrophe that the 2014 budget was. If anything it has been well received. Everybody likes the accelerated depreciation changes for small business. The fiscal reckoning has been postponed, and nobody but sticklers, obsessives and economists could object to that.

So Labor has struggled to gain traction against the budget. That “fairness” thing, so potent last year, looks a bit sad when thrown at a budget specifically designed to avoid such attacks. It’s been widely observed that Abbott is doing better in part because Shorten looks played out.

National security week didn’t last long. The process was derailed by Joe Hockey’s Monday night Q&A blurt that he was open to exempting tampons from the GST, Bill Shorten’s announcement that he was going to introduce a gay marriage bill on Tuesday night, then the publication of incredibly detailed leaks out of cabinet about the citizenship stripping proposal.

Whatever momentum national security was to provide the Government was well and truly stalled by mid-week.

The Government has haplessly tried to put the gay marriage issue back in the box by saying that it is focused on getting the budget through Parliament. Marriage can wait. There are small business tax concessions to be passed. Yet this argument would be more convincing if the Government hadn’t already moved its attention from the budget to national security.

It’s very messy.

One of the conceits that the political class have is that they can host “public conversations” about the issues that matter to them; that the tone and topic of debate in the public sphere can be directed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Sometimes this does work, admittedly. Hockey did manage to genuinely spark a discussion about tax earlier this year with the release of the tax discussion paper. The discussion took a turn the Government was not necessarily pleased about. Every special interest group used the space to air their proposals for new taxes. Still, at least everybody was on-topic. More often the public isn’t interested in talking about what PMO is.

Very quickly the national security issue became less about the threat of terror and more about divisions within cabinet and shadows of the leadership question. The imminent legalisation of gay marriage had more public “cut through” than the creation of a terror tsar. Perhaps even more than it would have, had the Government been less reluctant to talk about Shorten’s proposal. Nothing is more interesting than division in the ranks.

Now the Government wants to have a “national conversation” about the meaning of citizenship in an age of terror. This does not promise to be a particularly enlightening conversation. Nor a fruitful one, as it looks to simply expose the wavering support within the Government and its backbench for the rule of law.

Last week wasn’t just a case study in how policy debate can go off the rails, but a more significant indication of the long term importance of the 2015 budget.

Budgets usually loom large in the Australian political calendar, but the 2014 budget was a vortex sucking in everything around it. This year’s budget is a bit of a return to form. Parliament and the public are much calmer.

Yet a forgettable budget is hardly what the times demand.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that capital investment in Australia fell in the March quarter by the largest amount since the Global Financial Crisis.

If this is a harbinger of things to come, Tony’s Tradies are going to need more than accelerated depreciation to ride out the storm.

Political historians will remember the 2014 budget for the heartache it gave the Government. But economic historians will remember this year’s budget for having reconciled the country to decades of debt and deficit.

Abbott’s eagerness to move on from economics to security is unfortunately more revealing about the future direction of this Government than anything his Treasurer released last month.