Perhaps the biggest winner in the recent federal budget was Clive Palmer. The billionaire seems to be the sole agent able to tap in to the popular opposition to a budget maligned not only by the communities hit by cuts, but also by the technocrats and business lobbies that the Coalition might have relied on for support.
As flawed economically and politically as this budget has been, it would be a mistake to assume that the space Palmer has managed to occupy was created by this government alone. Incompetence has certainly helped but the government’s inability to sell the budget stems from the same pressures that saw a leader as unpopular as Tony Abbott able to lead the Coalition to victory, and, at a state level, two first-term premiers and a chief minister deposed by colleagues over the last year.
The government’s short-term problem is the budget, but longer term it is relevance.
A weak budget from a weak polity
If the point of democracy is to give expression to the will of the people, and the goal of leadership to bring the community along when making unpopular but ultimately wise decisions, then this budget has spectacularly failed on both counts.
The budget represents overreach from a government still coming to terms with its own unpopularity and struggling to assert authority. As other countries struggle in the aftermath of austerity economics, the Abbott government has embarked on dismantling the welfare state but without even a semblance of the technocratic cover provided elsewhere.
The budget represents a distinct break from the Coalition’s pre-election messaging. Far from ‘bringing down the debt’ and returning to an Arcadian fiscal conservatism, the budget actually pushes the return to structural surplus further out than Labor’s last budget. The government’s own budget papers show the Coalition to return the underlying cash balance (which removes volatility from the projections) to surplus beyond 2018–19, a point the Labor Government was on track to achieve in 2016–17.
You get a sense of just how much trouble this government is in when its usual cheerleaders have deserted them. The ratings agency Standard and Poors contradicted the government’s assertions of the urgency to rein in spending, saying a small change to the deficit would not affect our triple A rating. Jennifer Westacott, head of the Business Council of Australia, expressed concern that the budget was ‘falling too heavily on some families and young people trying to find work’.
John Hewson said the inequity of the budget, where the people at the bottom are losing up to 15 percent of their disposable incomes while those at the very top are losing less than one percent, ‘just screams at you’. Meanwhile the Coalition MPs and backbenchers are reading the polls and chattering to the press gallery.
Nonetheless, the problems for the political class did not start on budget night. This has been a slowly building story for the Coalition, but ever-present for the previous Labor government and punishing for state premiers.
With a lack of popular support, and without the technocratic support relied upon at the height of neoliberalism, the government appears unable to escape from a focus on relatively minor indiscretions. Hubris is not new from our political leaders, but the populations attention has been captured.
Beyond the budget
The dismantling of the budget emergency furphy has fallen on Clive Palmer. Only after Palmer’s forceful response in post budget interviews were Labor and the Greens able to cut through with the same messaging, in spite of facing the same argument of a budget emergency over the life of the last Government.
A large part of the reason for this is that many on the Left accept the existence of a budget emergency. Some advocates, in choosing to cautiously express their concerns about the brutal social spending cuts, have dangerously conceded that economic prudence is called for. This thinking is reflected in an online interactive page on the Guardian site calling on citizens to decide where they might make budget savings, an approach also taken by many policy advocates.
But the punters are not accepting the government’s tale. They are proving to be ahead of the commentariat and have tweaked to the ideological nature of the cuts. The real pushback to this Budget in the form of student protest and popular marches, and the LNPs further collapse in the polls has come from the political outsiders.
While the privileges enjoyed by politicians are neither exceptional nor novel, the government is now less able to shake the revelations about secret scholarships and phantom salaries for the Prime Minister’s daughter or Joe Hockey’s predilection for cigars. These stories have reinforced the idea that politicians live in a parallel world to the rest of us, and this is why they are now proving so disruptive.
Looking further back, the lack of authority was familiar to the Rudd-Gillard Labor governments, where it meant the leadership battles could carry on for so long without real resolution. Just as Gillard’s similarly dramatic decline in the polls cannot be conveniently explained away with the narrative that the nation experienced a bout of misogyny, we should not attribute this government’s political woes to gaffes from a ‘creep’ of a PM.
While it may be manifesting differently, what has happened to both major parties is a crisis of identity and a loss of their social base. This explains the political flux in which we find ourselves, and the rise of populism.
The inability of the major parties to find a social coalition big enough to provide the authority to govern has allowed the canny Clive Palmer to exploit the rejection of politics as usual. Sensing the popular mood, in his budget response Palmer has somehow combined traditionally left-wing issues with his business interests.
The Voice of the People is a property and mining speculator calling for free education and universal health care, casting himself as the defender of struggling pensioners and refusing to negotiate with the government because, as he explains, ‘we don’t like them’.
Out of touch and unloved
The Abbott government never had a honeymoon. The level and intensity of hatred directed at both Abbott and Hockey over recent months has garnered international attention, with the Washington Post describing Abbott as ‘one of the world’s most hated Prime Ministers’.
This followed the previous Labor government being unable to sell its economic credentials in spite of international applause for its handling of the global financial crisis.
This current political crisis has unveiled the limits of the state to affect a globalised economy. In this context, it’s easy to understand the public opinion that neither the Coalition nor the ALP is capable of acting in the interests of the people.
The rise of Clive Palmer as the main opponent of the political class is therefore not really the story of the canny billionaire willing to play the fool for votes. It is about the declining relevance of the two major parties.
In this context, those on the Left cheering on the possibility of a Turnbull/Palmer coup must realise that this would make no difference to the direction of the government, and move on to real politics.
The Greens have largely failed to identify and respond to this dynamic, preferring to attach themselves to political insiders just as such a strategy declines in relevance.
Australia, for a long time lauded for its political stability, is experiencing an erosion of our otherwise quite rusted on faith in the two-party system and in parliamentary democracy. Politics defined by Laborism and polar opposition to Laborism is no longer able to offer this stability. It is a crisis of democracy.
In coming years we should expect minority governments and fracturing political bases. In the longer term something new will emerge.
The result will be guided by those who are able to put aside the focus on political gossip masquerading as analysis and harness populism into new social coalitions. Nonetheless, unless they themselves can build authority and broad-based support, they will not escape the turmoil that we see today.
This may be delivered through the rump of the existing parties or the emergence of new players but we know this: a renegade billionaire talking about fairness and sounding like a socialist won’t be an enduring force. Social movements and civil society will provide a new stability, but the politics that define that stability, and the implications for the role of government, is now up for grabs.