The Abbott Government is about to learn that the hardest political manoeuvre is changing direction.
In their times, Kevin Rudd, John Howard and John Hewson tried this tricky exercise. Each fumbled.
Rudd shelved the emissions trading scheme in April 2010. This did nothing to restore his prestige. Rudd was shelved by his colleagues two months later.
Howard tried to adjust WorkChoices when it was clear that the policy lacked popular support. The new fairness test, introduced in May 2007, did not placate WorkChoices’ critics. Howard lost government and his seat.
Hewson released Fightback! in November 1991. Over the next year the Coalition bled support. Hewson tried to relaunch a softer version of the package in December 1992. It didn’t help.
But those leaders had it easy. The Abbott Government is likely going to have to pull this manoeuvre quite a number of times over the next few months.
The Medicare co-payment is going to have to be restructured and revised if it is going to pass the Senate. (Even that may not be enough. Clive Palmer yesterday announced he would vote against any co-payment, no matter how small.)
The mining tax will have to be decoupled from the measures it was supposed to fund – the schoolkids bonus, for instance.
The changes to welfare are unlikely to pass in their current form, so it’ll be back to the drawing board with those as well.
The Government hasn’t even begun the university fee deregulation debate, but when it starts it will be bruising.
And then there’s the paid parental leave scheme – not formally part of the 2014 budget but its generosity casts a shadow over every austerity measure. PPL is meant to be up and running next year.
What makes the Government’s problem even worse is that it’s trapped by both legislative forces and public opinion. Tony Abbott’s prime ministerial predecessors have only had to deal with one, rather than both.
Take Rudd’s emission’s trading scheme. The scheme wasn’t overwhelmingly popular, sure. But, in mid-2010, it was hardly a government-killer. Rudd’s real problem was legislative gridlock. His error wasn’t delaying the scheme – the parliament had already done the delaying for him – but taking responsibility for that delay.
Howard didn’t have an obstructive senate. In fact, he had the opposite problem – a compliant upper house that offered no check on his government’s longstanding urge to centralise labour market regulation.
And of course the unpopularity of Fightback! was fatally manifest long before Hewson had a chance to test it in parliament.
The bottom line for Abbott is this, and it’s dire: the Government is unable to legislate policies that voters don’t want anyway.
So it’s hard to see any alternative. The Government has to effect a policy reset – a mini budget. The budget needs to be redone and relaunched. Contentious policies have to be revised, and, critically, argued for on their own terms. If the Government wants to reform Medicare, then great: let’s hear the case for reform. We haven’t yet.
The longer the Government delays that reset, the more trouble the festering budget is likely to cause.
The protracted Senate negotiations are starting to manifest in discipline problems within the Coalition itself.
The canary in the coal mine here is the paid parental leave scheme.
Abbott’s Liberals were never strong supporters of PPL. The Nationals always hated it. But the longer the PPL scheme remains unlegislated, the more internal dissent is revealed.
There has been an uptick in anti-PPL sentiment over the last few weeks. Madonna King’s Joe Hockey biography – which revealed that Rupert Murdoch knew more details of the scheme than Abbott’s treasurer before it was launched – didn’t help.
Fairfax papers reported on the weekend that the only supporter of the scheme in cabinet is the Prime Minister himself.
Paid parental leave has, perhaps, been an exception for which disloyalty is excused. It was the subject of internal grumblings from the moment it was announced by Abbott.
Yet we discovered yesterday that the culture of dissent around PPL is spreading to other issues. Coalition backbenchers are now freely floating ideas about how to adjust the co-payment to make it more equitable and popular.
And more concerning still is the infighting revealed in this piece by Peter Hartcher – backbenchers and ministers lining up to apportion blame for the budget’s unpopularity. It is apparently easy to find Government members willing to anonymously rag on their colleagues.
Something needs to change. Some commentators have called for a reshuffle. There are, after all, a large number of young and talented politicians in the outer ministry and backbench, and a few too many Howard-era holdouts in the cabinet.
A reshuffle is a drastic thing, especially so early in a first term of government. Yet it wouldn’t fix the budget gridlock, or make the individual items in the budget more popular.
The problem, in the end, is that budget. And the only way to resolve it is to reset it.