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Issue #1612      September 25, 2013

Abbott comes out swinging

Prime Minister Abbott appears to be reliving his amateur boxing days. The bell has rung and, keen to put on a show for his well-heeled, mostly male supporters, Abbott has come out swinging. Clobbered in his opening round are government departments and agencies administering programs and commitments the Coalition doesn’t like, would rather leave to private enterprise or in other ways are way down the list of its priorities. Scrapped are ministerial portfolios dealing with disability reform, mental health and ageing, resources and energy, tourism, multicultural affairs, tertiary education, skills, science and research, international development, youth, climate change, housing and homelessness and the status of women. One new one was created – border protection.

The lack of women in the first Abbott cabinet speaks volumes. Only Julie Bishop got a senior guernsey; the prized one of Minister for Foreign Affairs reserved for those most loyal to the US alliance. Bronwyn Bishop will be the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. Aside from that, it’s dark suits and blue ties as far as the eye can see. The Prime Minister has even taken on the role of Minister for Women for himself along with Indigenous affairs. His first act in the latter capacity will be to slash funding for Indigenous legal services.

Abbott pulled out all the stops in the lead-up to the election to soften his very “blokey” image. He travelled with his daughters and made the most of them at every photo opportunity. His paid parental scheme, designed to encourage “women of calibre” to have children, will be a major splurge of taxpayer dollars in the cause of getting the otherwise “traditional” Coalition across the line at the recent federal poll.

Indicative of the Coalition’s real attitudes to women are the decisions to scrap the Labor government’s planned wage subsidies to 350,000 low-paid child care and aged care workers – most of them women. “Red tape” and union involvement in the relevant Enterprise Bargaining Agreements was the excuse given. Working class women must tighten their belts. Another message is being delivered loud and clear – unions have no role to play in the Abbott era workplace. This will be hammered over and over in the weeks and months to come.

Abbott knows he needs to keep his attitudes to climate change himself. He once famously let it slip that he thought the whole science was “crap”. He won’t have a Minister for Science to answer the embarrassing questions about Australia’s contribution to overcoming the climate emergency. He has shut down the Climate Change Commission and the Climate Change Authority. Abbott has said his government will be a practical, problem-solving one but scratch climate change from the list.

A “problem” Abbott is keen to tackle is that of asylum seekers. He will ban their access to legal aid making sure they are returned to danger quicker. Temporary Protection Visas, which used to keep refugees in a stressful and helpless legal limbo, are back. Plans to buy Indonesian fishing boats, deploy spies and “turn back the boats” are being developed to the disgust of the Indonesian government.

Nothing is going to be allowed to spoil this crowning glory of the new Abbott government. News of fresh boat arrivals will no longer be passed onto the media. It will be kept under wraps by a government waging war on vulnerable people seeking refuge in Australia. The project has even been given military branding. It started last week and is known as “Operation Sovereign Borders”, under a Lieutenant General.

The crudeness of the attacks on the public service has shocked many, though Howard’s election was accompanied by similar blood-letting. The sacking of department heads and the looming resignation of Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson underscores the political nature of the re-shuffling of departmental responsibilities and the further erosion of public service neutrality. Appointments to ambassadorial and High Court positions and to the board of the ABC have long been mired in political controversy but the Abbott approach has taken it to another level. It has all the hallmarks of US-style political appointment. Another layer of “Westminster” government respectability has finally been shed.

The entire board of the National Broadband Network has handed in their resignations to the new Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The company is set to be broken into two separate companies with far less ambitious aims than the NBN. It had responsibility for the national roll out of a high speed fibre optic broadband network. The Coalition’s patch-up copper and fibre alternative is to be imposed instead.

And it didn’t take long for the idea of an increase in the rate of the GST to hit the headlines. WA Premier Colin Barnett raised it first, in response to the worsening financial fortunes of his government. The demand has been met with official rejections so far but there is plenty of time to “reconsider” the position in light of the worsening economic climate. This has only been the first week and a bit of the Abbott government after all. Australian workers shouldn’t wait for the next round before they start organising the defence of gains made through long years of struggle and to turn around the offensive pursued by successive pro-monopoly governments.

Next article – Editorial – Words and deeds

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