by Malcolm Mackerras

With every political commentator seeing the need to comment on the first three months of the Abbott government I think I too should have my say. In my opinion the Abbott government has made one good decision, one bad decision and several which are neither good nor bad but are defensible. The good decision was to close the manufacture of Holden cars from 2017. The bad decision was to prevent Grain Corp from being taken over by the American company Archer Daniels Midland.
 
Before we proceed on a subject such as this we should ask ourselves this important question: what exactly did the Australian people do when they cast their votes at the general election on September 7? The answer I give is that they filled in two ballot papers, one for the House of Representatives and one for the Senate. Both election results are easy to explain.
 
For the House of Representatives the Australian people were immediately given that for which they had voted. The Abbott government was sworn in on September 18 (exactly three months ago) and the 44th Parliament first met on November 12. That date was determined by the Abbott government itself. It could have met earlier. The House of Representatives result is very easy to explain. The Liberal-National Coalition received 45.6 per cent of the primary vote and 53.5 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. With those votes the Coalition won 60 per cent of the seats, 90 out of 150.
 
Given that the system of single-member constituencies is, by its nature, landslide-prone one could say that such a win was a landslide. If one is prepared to say that every second Australian federal election produces a landslide then one could say that Abbott did, indeed, win a landslide victory. However, if one wishes to define that word more rigorously one would agree with me that only six of our 44 general elections were landslides, in 1917, 1929, 1931, 1943, 1966 and 1975. On that reasoning the Howard government in 2007 and the Rudd government in 2013 went down to what I call “a respectable loss”.
 
The Senate election is slightly more difficult to explain and I go into more detail later. I say that the Australian people will get the Senate they voted for in July next year. In the meantime I describe it as a woeful result for Abbott. However, it was even more woeful for Labor. Consequently my description is this: voters in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia tore up the present Labor-Greens majority by defeating a Labor senator in each state and giving each seat to a Senate candidate from the right of politics who in no case was a Coalition candidate.
 
Abbott’s three months have proceeded almost exactly as I expected. I say “almost exactly” because one development surprised me. It also pleased me. Actually, for one reason or another, every development has pleased me but I choose to explain them in the order of the three which pleased me the most.
 
I was pleased, and surprised, that the Senate agreed to abolish the debt ceiling. Given the good record on debt and deficit of every previous federal Coalition government it seemed to me pretty outrageous to ask the current Coalition government to be subjected to a debt ceiling. However, I did not expect the final decision. I expected that Labor and the Greens would stick together and force a debt ceiling of $400 billion. Joe Hockey refused to take my advice (which was to accept the $400 billion ceiling) and he is to be commended for refusing to take my advice. The Greens are also to be commended for proposing the way forward.
 
I am pleased (and NOT surprised) that Labor and the Greens took my advice on the repeal legislation of the Abbott government. While Abbott has a mandate to repeal both the carbon tax and the mining tax the mandate in question is nothing more than the right to present legislation to that effect. He has no right to bully senators into voting for what they think is bad policy. Nor do I think the bleatings of the hapless Greg Hunt are doing Abbott any good. My advice to Labor and the Greens has always been to fight repeal to the very last ditch. I also advise them to fight to the very last ditch against the introduction of temporary protection visas. The fact that Abbott and Scott Morrison have repeatedly promised them means nothing. They are the very definition of bad policy. In the case of TPVs, by the way, I think Abbott and Morrison will eventually give in – and look very foolish in the process. There is no evidence that Clive Palmer agrees with the Abbott-Morrison line. I do, however, believe that Palmer and his senators will eventually vote for the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes.
 
My third case of pleasure derives from the fact that I live in Canberra. As readers would know the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory recently passed the Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act 2013. On December 12 the High Court handed down a splendid unanimous decision holding that this piece of legislation is inconsistent with the federal Marriage Act 1961 and, therefore, has no effect. However, the Court did something more. Unusually it set itself the task of being an advisory jurisdiction. Consequently we now know that the word “Marriage” in section 51 (xxi) of the Constitution does not mean “Christian marriage”, even though that is what it meant to the Founding Fathers. In other words the federal parliament may, at any time, legislate for same-sex marriage. My prediction is that it will do so in its first term when Abbott is no longer a member.
 
I wrote above that “the Senate election is slightly more difficult to explain” than that for the lower house. Here I refer to Western Australia where I am sure there will be a fresh half-Senate election, probably on April 12, 2014. On September 7 three Liberals (David Johnston, Michaelia Cash and Linda Reynolds) were clearly elected. Labor was also entitled to one senator, Joe Bullock. What was not determined was who the fifth and sixth senator should be. In the case of the second senator from the left the first count saw Labor’s Louise Pratt defeat Scott Ludlam of the Greens while the second count reversed that result. I believe the fresh election will see both senators re-elected together with the three Liberals. In other words the people of Western Australia will decide, on further thought, not to join the people of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia in tearing up the present Labor-Greens Senate majority.
 
I wrote above of the Senate vote on September 7 as “a woeful result for Abbott”. Apart from the fact that the Coalition’s Senate vote has consistently fallen since 2004 (when it was 45.1 per cent) I compare Abbott’s Senate percentage with those of earlier post-war prime ministers at his first election win: Bob Menzies (Liberal) in 1949 50.4, Malcolm Fraser (Liberal) in 1975 51.7, Bob Hawke (Labor) in 1983 45.5, John Howard (Liberal) in 1996 an even 44, Kevin Rudd (Labor) in 2007 40.3  and Abbott (Liberal) in 2013 a mere 37.7 per cent. That was the worst ever Senate vote for an incoming government. Finally, in case you wondered why I did not mention Gough Whitlam in the previous sentence, the 1972 election was for the House of Representatives only.