“A cause worth fighting for is worth fighting for to the end.
This quote from former US president Grover Cleveland might have been Tony Abbott’s mantra. But it’s gone by the wayside in recent months.
Having argued against taxpayer handouts for the car industry, the government this week announced it wouldn’t be going ahead with its proposed cut to a key funding program.
Asked to justify the cut before the September 2013 election, Abbott said: “No adult prime minister in the heat of an election campaign, in panic over polls, charges down the street waving a blank cheque after anyone.”
Elected to government, he insisted there would be no more money available and in his first budget the cut was put in writing.
But Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane revealed this week he had been working on the back down since August last year – just three months after the budget was handed down.
Abbott said the decision was necessary because without the money, Holden, Ford and Toyota could have closed their doors earlier than originally planned.
Auto workers hailed the decision, but questioned why the government hadn’t made it earlier and – indeed – why the car industry was allowed to die after the 2013 election.
A further example of the policy confusion emerged this week when Treasurer Joe Hockey floated the idea of superannuation savings being made accessible for house deposits and student debts.
The thought bubble came the day Hockey was arguing the ageing population was putting pressure on pensions.
Abbott described it as a “perfectly good and respectable idea”, which he had previously put to John Hewson when advising the former Liberal leader.
Malcolm Turnbull, the undeclared Liberal leadership contender, described it as a “thoroughly bad idea”.
“That’s not what the superannuation system is designed to achieve,” he said, adding the short supply of land and new homes was the biggest problem in terms of housing affordability.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten put it in the context of the coalition sticking by its plan to leave the superannuation guarantee rate at 9.5 per cent until June 30, 2021, after which it wouldn’t hit 12 per cent until 2025.
Shorten contrasted it with Labor’s plan to gradually raise it from this year until it hits 12 per cent in 2019.
A further issue arose when Abbott talked about indigenous people living in remote areas as a “lifestyle” choice.
It appeared to fly in the face of the prime minister taking all of the government’s indigenous functions into his department as well as committing to working out of a remote community for one week a year.
The underlying message appeared to be the government would rather not spend money on remote Australia, where many Aboriginal people have either lived for generations or been forcibly removed to in the 1950s and `60s.
Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos said it was a question of balancing respect for indigenous culture with “the question about cost of providing services and whether location gets in the way of people having the right lifetime opportunities”.
Indigenous leader Noel Pearson put it this way: “I just cannot see how people from these remote communities are going to find the place on the fringes of the country towns and in the suburbs that doesn’t involve part two of life in the underclass.”
He said the policy thought bubble was a “disgraceful turn of events”.
Heading into the last fortnight of parliament before the federal budget, confusion also reigns around two other policy issues – the future of Medicare and university funding.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne has given away hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget in an effort to win the support of Senate cross benchers for deregulation.
But he is far from guaranteed the bill will pass and does not have a plan B for the sector.
Health Minister Sussan Ley is hanging on to the prospect of a “price signal” for doctor visits, despite Abbott declaring the co-payment “dead, buried and cremated”.
Abbott shouldn’t be surprised at the polls, which this week showed the coalition trailing Labor by an average 46-54 in two party terms.
Few voters understand what causes he is still willing to fight for.