Australia’s conservative leader, Tony Abbott, was swept into office in national elections recently as voters punished the outgoing Labour government for six years of turbulent rule and for failing to maximize the benefits of a now fading mining boom. Abbott, a former boxer, Rhodes scholar and trainee priest, promised to restore political stability, cut taxes and crack down on asylum seekers arriving. Following the election Abbot said, “From today I declare that Australia is under new management and Australia is once more open for business.” He promised to form a government that is competent, trustworthy and would deliver on its promises.
However, over the last fifty days there are the emerging trends of an authoritarian style government, which is contrary to voter’s expectations. The previous labour government had let down Australians by its continued infighting and dissension, which resulted in the unceremonious exit of the Prime Minister Julia Gillard. In fact, the government and Abbott are deeply indebted to two powerful individuals, Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart. The debt owed by the new Federal government and prime minister to Murdoch in particular is extraordinary and is most likely to be paid through the sale of NBN and possibly, the privatisation or abolition of ABC. Rinehart’s rewards are the repeal of the MRRT, the “liberalisation” of 457 visas to enable the employment of ever-cheaper labour in her mines, an approach to exploration and mining in national parks and fracking for natural gas.
Since its inception the new government has taken several unpopular steps which cast a cloud over the fate of democracy and consensus politics. Abolished is the Climate Commission and sacked are three departmental heads, which adversely impacts climate programs. Sacked is the NBN Board in order to reward to Murdoch for his extensive help during the elections. Announced is the privatisation of Medibank Private.
The head of a major business union has been appointed to chair the Commission of Audit which also includes Amanda Vanstone. Tony Shepherd also chairs a company that has substantial contracts with the Commonwealth. A judicial enquiry into the Rudd government’s home insulation scheme has been announced which is a bid to trap him. Disaster relief payments have been cut in the middle of major bushfires in New South Wales. The government denies that there is any connection between bushfires and climate change. Draft legislation to repeal the MRRT which also (among other things) repeals the school kids’ bonus and the low-income tax superannuation contribution-geothermal exploration provisions have been enacted.
Further, the government is proposing, increased demonization of asylum seekers arriving by boat by requiring the Immigration Department and detention centre staff to call them “illegal arrivals” and “detainees,” which absolves the government from humanitarian and social liability. The militarisation of border protection is a means of curbing the free flow of information from all sources in the world. Finally the government is attempting to restrict information about the arrival of asylum seekers, and their movement to and from various places of detention.
By and large these measures are an attempt to curb the freedom of expression. Shutting down sources of information from bodies like the Climate Commission, or real time reports of boat arrivals keeps Australians in the dark and ultimately silences dissent. How long will it be before there is federal legislation similar to that released by the Queensland Attorney-General, Bleijie? Legislation that has the potential to control what people wear, what music they listen to, maybe even what books they read and films they see? How long will it be before all Australian courts are effectively controlled by the government – threatening the independence of the judiciary?
Prime Minister Abbott has made it clear time and time again that he will not brook questions, he will not brook debate, he will not brook even dissent. He is, as Jeff Sparrow points out, a cultural warrior par excellence who wishes to establish cultural regimentation in Australia. He has no compunction about establishing the slush fund, “Australians for Honest Politics” that resulted in the jailing of Pauline Hanson. Is it beyond the bounds of possibility to suggest that he might act in a similar way towards anyone who dissents, disagrees, or differs?
Under this scenario, despite Abbot’s convincing victory, much of the attention is now focused on the Senate where the Greens, the independents and fringe parties might still hold the balance of power and frustrate Abbot’s harsh and unpopular legislative agenda.