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Friday, 14 November 2014

How a shirtfront became an own goal

How a shirtfront became an own goal

How a shirtfront became an own goal



Updated



The opportunity to rub shoulders with
global leaders usually gives the prime minister of the day a boost. Not
this time, writes Barrie Cassidy.
Only now are the
political negatives from Tony Abbott's threat to Vladimir Putin
blindingly obvious, and "shirking the shirtfront" as one television
newsreader put it, is only part of the problem.


For the past week,
the Prime Minister's appearance at APEC - and probably at the G20 in
Brisbane still to come - has been traduced and cheapened by a media
obsession with the undiplomatic overreach.


These opportunities to
rub shoulders with global leaders don't come along often. When they do,
they usually give the prime minister of the day a boost.


Not this time.

The
reporting, the photographs and especially the cartoons, have reduced
serious diplomacy to high farce. For that Abbott has to take a large
slice of the blame.


The hysterical reaction from parts of the
media to the presence of Russian ships in international waters off Papua
New Guinea only served to underscore how ridiculous the whole episode
has become.


This, they would have you believe, is all a result of
the Abbott threat. "The Reds are Coming", the Herald Sun announced,
presumably because the Russians want to show Australians just how
powerful they are.


How Abbott would now like to erase history and
start again, allowing himself to present as a mature leader nudging and
cajoling the world's most powerful towards important global solutions.


But
in the whole scheme of things, even if this passes as a momentary
blunder, there is a more worrying trend for the Coalition. There is
evidence that the shift from domestic to foreign policy, from the budget
to national security, will not be the permanent game changer the
government had hoped for.


Newspoll had the Coalition in front two
party preferred 51 per cent to 49 per cent just before the budget. After
that, the Coalition slumped to 47s, 46s and even 45s before the
emphasis on terrorism related issues brought them back to 49 per cent.


But since then - through October and early November - they have slumped again to 47s and 46s.

Tony
Abbott's approval rating has gone down the same path. In terms of
negative ratings - the approval rating minus the disapproval rating - he
started at -7, slumped to -30, and recovered to -11 only in recent
weeks to slip back to -15.


This has happened even though the
government got rid of the carbon and mining taxes, put its direct action
plan in place, cut some important budget deals, stopped the boats and
changed the conversation to national security.


If that won't do it, what will?

The
global challenges - and particularly the conflict in Iraq - should be a
plus, especially with the opposition offering bipartisan support. The
polls suggest the public is behind them. But research also exposes a
fear among many that the Australian commitment will inevitably grow and
that achievements will be few and far between. The request from the
United States this week for more help - and the immediate response from
the Iraqis that they don't need it - gave a sense of how quickly that
can go awry.


At home, there is a growing realisation that the
country does indeed have both a spending and a revenue problem, no
matter what Coalition frontbenchers said in opposition.


As
recently as April, this year, Tony Abbott re-iterated that Australia is
"dealing with a debt and deficit disaster". Yet in the first three
months of this financial year the net debt has increased from around
$200 billion to $220 billion. The deficit is on the same trajectory.
There are excuses. Commodity prices are falling and the Senate is
preventing the government from reversing some of Labor's spending
initiatives. But when a party speaks with such bravado and conviction in
opposition, excuses don't offer much shelter in government. Reality is
starting to bite.


Now the dramatic commitments from the United States and China on climate change has added fresh pressures.

Before
mid next year the Abbott government has to commit to targets out to
2025. According to the Climate Institute, to match what the United
States has done, Australia will have to reduce emissions not by 5 per
cent, but 30 per cent. Even if that was their inclination, how would
they do it? And at what cost? Abbott has already said that even if it
becomes clear the 5 per cent target cannot be reached by 2020, he won't
be allocating any more money.


On top of that, because of where China says it's heading, there is now a question mark over coal exports.

The
one breakthrough over coming days will be the trade deal with China.
But again trade deals are not created equal. There is give and take.
Until the details are released and digested, it's impossible to predict
how the public will respond.


Against that challenging background,
Tony Abbott could have done with a hassle-free APEC and G20 to build on
his status and credibility. An own goal robbed him of that.


Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of the ABC program Insiders. View his full profile here.




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