Politicians lie, or at least that is the common belief about them. But it is part of political theater (the entertainment kind) when that belief is proven to be true, which is what Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is being accused of proving this week. Abbott is accused of breaking his election promise to not raise taxes by imposing what he calls a “deficit levy” on the Australian people. His defence of the new levy is that it is not a permanent tax increase and, therefore, does not violate his promise. No matter what the arguments may be, it definitely seems as though Tony Abbott, while he may not be outright lying, is tantalisingly close to stretching the definition of the word “promise” to its endpoint and is providing political observers with a fair amount of entertainment in the process.
It is not very often that politicians, who are not famous for their honesty, offer up an example of exactly how they play with the truth. Perhaps this is why Tony Abbott is making such big waves with his new levy. His reasoning is fascinating to watch. According to him, only a permanent increase in taxes would be a broken promise, but the levy he is proposing is a necessary, stop-gap measure to fix the budget problem that the previous government created. So, it is not his fault. It is the opposition party’s fault and he is the man to fix the issue by creating a new tax that also happens to be temporary.
This may actually be an okay line of thought, despite the common sense that revolts at its twists and turns. It is sometimes necessary in government to raise taxes to help the national budget. Taxes are how governments make their money, so it is reasonable to an extent to assume they would raise taxes when they need more money. That is not the real issue at stake. The problem is that Tony Abbott has backed himself into a rhetorical corner and almost everyone in Australia knows it. There are two issues that he has failed to adequately meet: his campaign promises and the trust of his own party.
Many Aussies, even those with only a marginal interest in politics, are taking notice of the fact that Abbott is not meeting his election promise. By definition, a temporary tax is still a tax and this one is new. So, according to the dictionary, Abbott has broken his promise. He could have argued that it is necessary and regrettable. He has already tried to saddle much of the blame on the previous government, which was under the Labor party. Their debt and deficit managerial skills and their monumental spending is the reason he is put in this position. From that angle, Abbott could have scored points on his opposition.
But he did not do that. Instead, he put more of the focus on himself by trying to both break his promise and keep it at the same time. As the leader of a national government, Abbott should know that the buck stops with him, unless he can shift blame on to a fall guy. Instead, the Aussie prime minister defended himself and, as many lawyers will say, defense seems to imply wrongdoing. Abbott’s primary failure on this tax issue is not breaking his promises. His failure is simply that he has not been a good enough politician to break his promise and get away with it.
The other issue for Tony Abbott is that he is swiftly losing the trust of his own party, which is only partially related to how much he is stretching the definition of “promise.” Anonymous members of parliament in his own party have been talking to the Australian press and their comments are far from complimentary. When Abbott announced his new deficit levy, some members of parliament said they heard about it in the news headlines, not from the prime minister himself. One anonymous Liberal politician called it “the biggest f-up” the party has had in quite awhile. Actually, it is not. Abbott did much the same thing when he announced that knights and dames would be brought back into vogue by his government. Apparently, the Liberal prime minister has a history of keeping his fellow party members, including the members of his ministerial cabinet, in the dark on his decisions. Knights and dames may be a relatively trivial decision, but new taxes are not and shutting out his primary advisors is not a good sign.
That is the most recent part of how Abbott is losing his support base. The other part is another one of his election promises which, apparently, members of the Liberal party thought would go away. The current prime minister talked a lot in his election about how a new paid parental leave scheme would help women. When a woman has a baby, his scheme would provide up to 75,000 dollars to the mother who was taking her leave. This idea, while it sounds nice, is not really necessary according to many people. In fact, it has been criticised as 75,000 dollars extra for rich people who have children and as unecessary. It is unpopular enough that members of Abbott’s party are blocking the legislation that would put it into effect.
Abbott is refusing to change his position on the paid parental leave scheme, however, saying instead that his party members will have to “evolve” their position, presumably enough to accept the scheme. One Nationals senator, however, publicly (meaning he was happy enough to put his name to the statement) said that it was an expensive idea that Australia simply could not afford. That is the criticism of many people who see a tax being imposed to pay for spending and not a cut of spending. While Abbott and his party are arguing over the evolution of ideas, one thing seems to be clear: the party that supports Tony Abbott is also one of the parties that is mad at him.
Some people like opera or broadway, but people who do not have the money for tickets to such shows have a free seat to political theater, which can be just as entertaining. Right now, Australia has a front row seat to one of the most interesting political kerfuffles of the moment. Unlike America where everyone is angry at each other, Australians are looking at their prime minister and feeling somewhat bemused. There is anger, of course, but overall Abbott’s audacity. Tony Abbott is attempting to stretch the definition of a promise with his new debt levy and his own party is starting to work against him. If he keeps them in the dark any more than he already has, the subsequent political uproar could be popcorn-poppingly exciting. And it is infinitely cheaper than going to the theater.
Opinion By Lydia Webb