Greg Ansley: Oz PM struggles as economy dives

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Tony Abbott keeps blaming Labor for his troubles but the voters don’t believe him

The euphoria of Abbott's landslide last September rapidly disappeared. Photo / Getty Images
The euphoria of Abbott's landslide last September rapidly disappeared. Photo / Getty Images

Prime Minister Tony Abbott never said a truer word than his message to a joint party room meeting this week: Australians are becoming increasingly anxious as the May budget approaches.

The nation is beset by worries over job security, rising costs and declining services, constant talk of deep spending cuts, and fears for the Medicare free health system and school funding.

On Thursday, another blow fell. Qantas, the company that probably more than any other symbolises Australia's place in the world, spun into free-fall, sending another 5,000 workers to the nation's lengthening job queue.

Polls are tracking a darkening mood. The latest Roy Morgan confidence rating reached its lowest since Kevin Rudd ousted Julia Gillard as Labor Prime Minister in June last year, with 45 per cent of respondents believing Australia is heading in the wrong direction. Fewer than 38 per cent expressed optimism.

The euphoria of Abbott's landslide last September rapidly disappeared. By late last year the honeymoon was over.

With one brief reprieve early last month, the Government has since been trailing Labor in the two-party preferred vote that decides Australian elections. The most recent Newspoll survey put Labor ahead by 54-46 per cent. Opposition leader Bill Shorten is neck-and-neck with Abbott as preferred prime minister.

Morgan further shows that Labor is ahead in every state bar Western Australia and New South Wales.
Not all of this is Abbott's fault. The economy took a steep dive as he assumed office, shutting factories and shedding jobs as Australia was buffeted by foreign storms, a high dollar, falling revenues, the winding down of the mining construction boom, and the end of the highly subsidised car industry.
But a great deal does rest on Abbott's shoulders. The pugilistic approach of the Prime Minister and his senior ministers, their dire warnings that a new golden dawn can be reached only over a bed of hot coals, and the constant excuse of Labor's legacy has diminished faith and trust.

Abbott has yet to really make the leap from an Opposition mentality. Many of his problems may not be of his making, but as Prime Minister they are now his responsibility. Instead, he is giving Labor a clear run and ascendency by default.

The Government has bungled relations with Indonesia, its closest and most important neighbour. Jakarta has been outraged by Australia's public response to its spying activities, and the policy that turns refugee boats back into Indonesian waters.

And while polls show most Australians support a tough line against asylum seekers, the management of detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea has appalled the nation. The death of one Manus inmate and the injuring of scores more weighs heavily on the Government.
Even China, hardly known for its respect for human rights, took Abbott to task. More, China's Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said Australian counterpart Julie Bishop had "jeopardised bilateral mutual trust and affected the sound growth of bilateral relations", a stinging public rebuke that shook senior diplomats.

At home, the official unemployment rate is now 6 per cent, with another 875,000 searching for more work. Morgan, which uses broader measures, puts the jobless rate at more than 11 per cent and a record 2.5 million people either out of work or under-employed.

Unemployment among 15-24 year olds runs nationally at more than 12 per cent, reaching 20 per cent in some regions.

Company closures have heightened fears. The loss of more than 15,000 jobs from Qantas, the car industry, Rio Tinto, Alcoa, and Telstra have been announced in the past few months, with tens of thousands more at risk downstream industries.

The mining sector has already shed an estimated 16,000 jobs, with another 78,000 forecast to vanish in the next four years as construction winds down. Business investment, especially in mining and manufacturing, is rapidly contracting.

Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey continue to warn of even harder times ahead, promising a radical overhaul of the economy that will free businesses from over-regulation and high costs, raise productivity and create 1 million new jobs in the next five years.

Hockey says the "age of entitlement has ended", with individuals and companies left to sink or swim on their own. In the firing line are heath and education, the welfare system, industrial relations and the union movement.

This kind of talk makes Australians uneasy and is fertile ground for Labor. Even within the Government there are doubts, notably over Abbott's plans for a hugely generous A$5.5 billion ($5.87 billion) paid parental leave scheme that will significantly benefit wealthy families.

Some government senators are even considering crossing the floor to vote it down. Labor paints the scheme as a millionaire's plum, comparing it with Abbott's intention to drop federal contributions to superannuation for the nation's lowest paid workers.

Abbott has a hard road ahead.

- NZ Herald

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