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Issue #1644      June 25, 2014

Cracks appearing in coalition ranks

The federal conservative coalition is bedeviled by serious divisions, initially spurred by public unrest over foreign investment, the impact of the government’s proposed new trade deals and the government’s failure to protect Australian industry.

Amanda Vanstone ridiculed Abbott’s reintroduction of knights and dames saying, “Among my Liberal mates I can find none who think it other than weird.”

Unconcerned, in March PM Tony Abbott unilaterally reintroduced the titles of knights and dames as national honours. Former Howard cabinet ministers Peter Reith and Amanda Vanstone ridiculed the initiative, accusing Abbott of ignoring his colleagues and riding roughshod over objections.

Vanstone commented: “Among my Liberal mates I can find none who think it other than weird.” Liberal Senator Sue Bryce declared “… titles such as these smack of a colonial lack of confidence. I don’t believe they ever had a place in our culture and certainly not in 21st century Australia.”

By April one opinion poll had Labor earning more primary votes than the coalition. The Greens’ primary votes rose 5 points to 17 percent nationally, with a 15 point rise to 27 percent in Western Australia.

Nevertheless, Abbott’s supporters bitterly oppose any change in the coalition leadership. Recently the Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, who is not a member of Abbott’s ultra-reactionary faction, was castigated for having dined with independent MP, mining billionaire Clive Palmer, who nurses a deep antipathy for Abbott.

Sydney’s two most vitriolic “shock jocks”, Andrew Bolt and Allan Jones, then accused Turnbull of plotting to overthrow Abbott.

Bolt was recently convicted under the Racial Discrimination Act. The federal Attorney-General George Brandis is now attempting to modify the legislation so radio or TV personalities can use the language of bigotry without fear of prosecution.

However, Brandis encountered widespread public opposition. There is probably also opposition within conservative ranks to this move, and to the increase in university tuition fees, the reduced age pension indexation and other matters.

A house divided

Serious divisions within the government surfaced after the May federal budget.

The ANZUS alliance has been fiercely attacked by former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in his recent book Dangerous Ally. During a recent interview Defence Minister David Johnston admitted that the Alliance didn’t commit either nation to support the other in the event of armed conflict.

MP Michael Danby, former chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, demanded his resignation. But as Danby conceded grudgingly, Johnson’s statement was “technically” correct.

Danby implied that Johnson should have kept quiet because of possible US intervention against China in the South China Sea disputes. The possibility of the Abbott government committing Australia to an armed conflict with China should ring alarm bells across the nation, and is no doubt worrying coalition members.

The West Bank and Gaza, which Israel invaded during the 1967 six-day war, have been described by Attorney-General George Brandis as “disputed” territories, rather than occupied.

The new wording, which Abbott says is just a “terminological clarification”, effectively reduces the issue to a mere difference of opinion and has enraged the Palestinians, as well as Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran and the Arab countries, some of which have threatened to reject Australian wheat and livestock.

National Party members are very concerned. Brandis is now refusing to say whether the territories are either occupied or disputed!

The climate change policy revealed significant differences between US President Obama and Abbott, a tenacious supporter of fossil fuel industries. Former Liberal leader John Hewson condemned Abbott’s attempts to eliminate the publicly-owned and highly profitable Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which provides financial support for the potentially enormous renewable energy industry.

The high income deficit levy is opposed by Liberal/National Party Senator Ian Macdonald, who says it should apply to corporations as well as individuals. Macdonald has threatened to vote against it in parliament.

In an extraordinary Senate speech he contradicted Finance Minister Matthias Cormann, saying: “…the arguments you raise really do not make sense. … You could easily divert the $5 billion that will be raised from the top 3,000 companies to pay off Labor’s debt. That way we perhaps may not need a three-year temporary levy on other Australians.”

The paid parental leave scheme has been criticised by former Immigration Minister Peter Reith. One coalition MP described it as “overly generous”, “hard to justify in the current times” and “currently friendless”.

The scheme would deny benefits to women farmers and other stay-at-home mothers. The government has met the National Farmers Federation and the Country Women’s Association in an attempt to allay their concerns.

Abbott has reduced the benefit limit from $150,000 to $50,000. However, the scheme is still opposed by National Senators Ron Boswell and John Williams, Liberal Senator Cori Bernardi, and Senator Macdonald, who may cross the floor at voting time.

The scheme may be amended during cabinet discussions, but Abbott wants it to remain intact. The GP co-payment scheme is described by the Australian Medical Association, usually a staunch ally of the conservatives, as “unfair, unnecessary” and “poor health policy”.

The rise in fuel excise is causing deep resentment among farmers. Hockey has struggled unsuccessfully to reassure them they will benefit because the revenue will fund country road construction.

Queensland sugar sales will now be largely conducted by Singapore-based firm Wilmar, despite previous assurances they would be handled by collective marketing organisation QSL. According to National Senator Barry O’Sullivan the new arrangement will “damage or destroy” QSL, probably ruining hundreds of small-margin canegrowers.

The Abbott government could introduce a compulsory central selling system, but Nationals Deputy leader Barnaby Joyce, who opposes the company’s decision, admits it won’t. If the farmers go under, the Abbott gang won’t bat an eyelid.

Signs of the times

Many conservative MPs are questioning the government’s policies, which are threatening national institutions, basic human rights and future economic development.

And so is the public. Abbott could now announce a double dissolution because the bill to dump the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was twice rejected in the Senate. However, he knows that a federal election now would eliminate his regime.

Coalition MPs are desperately attempting to repair the collapse in their electoral support. Victorian government MPs asked Abbott to stay away during their November state elections, describing his presence as “toxic”.

A house divided against itself must fall. And in this case the sooner the better.

Next article – Health care for the privileged

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