Abbott Popularity Slips as Australia Policy Challenges Arise

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s popularity has slipped as the government lags on its promise to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat, with parliament resuming for the first time since the September election.

Satisfaction with Abbott has fallen to 45 percent from 47 percent, with dissatisfaction rising four percentage points to 38 percent, according to a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper today. His Liberal-National coalition leads 53 percent to Labor’s 47 percent on the two-party preferred measure, in line with the election result.

Abbott is vowing to repeal Labor’s carbon-price mechanism and resources profits tax, and lift the debt ceiling of the world’s 12th-largest economy by 67 percent to A$500 billion ($468 billion). As lawmakers meet in Canberra, his agenda has been clouded by weaker economic growth forecasts, confusion over the make-up of the Senate and tensions with Indonesia, which last week refused to process asylum seekers bound for Australia.

“The challenges for the new government are already pretty clear and defined,” said Zareh Ghazarian, a political analyst and lecturer at Melbourne’s Monash University. “Abbott went to the electorate vowing sound economic management and to implement his core promises, so he will need to be seen to be making progress in those areas quite quickly.”

Slowing Growth

Abbott, 56, won power on a platform to better manage the $1.5 trillion economy, after six years of Labor rule marred by internal party infighting and policy back flips. Australia next year will see below-trend growth and rising unemployment as resource investment drops and renewed currency strength drags on the economy, the central bank said on Nov. 8.

Some of Abbott’s main legislation may be stalled until at least the middle of next year. While his coalition has a majority in the lower house, it doesn’t control the Senate, which has the power to block laws.

Since declaring the nation was again “open for business” in his victory speech on Sept. 7, Abbott has said he aims to complete free-trade deals within 12 months with nations such as China, Japan, India and Indonesia. Relations with the latter have taken a turn for the worse after the Sydney Morning Herald reported the government used embassies in locations such as Jakarta to conduct electronic spying on Asian governments.

Indonesian hackers crashed the website of Australia’s intelligence agency, the paper reported on its website Nov. 11, having launched cyber attacks last week on a hospital, charities and small businesses.

Indonesian Refusal

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison yesterday confirmed Australia’s northern neighbor had rebuffed attempts to return to Indonesia two vessels carrying asylum seekers, calling the refusal “very frustrating.” Under the previous Labor government’s watch, Australia experienced a surge in asylum seekers from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, ferried by Indonesian people smugglers on unseaworthy fishing vessels.

“The boats are stopping,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra today, saying the arrival of vessels in the new government’s first two months was 75 percent lower than in the previous administration’s final two months. “There’s still a long, long way to go.”

Abbott has vowed to abolish the carbon pricing mechanism established by then-Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, saying it has driven up energy prices and deterred investment. Labor leader Bill Shorten has said his party will seek to amend Abbott’s repeal bill to be introduced in the lower house tomorrow in order to keep a market-based emissions-trading system.

Debt Ceiling

The government also wants to repeal Labor’s 30 percent tax on iron ore and coal profits, and pass laws to raise the A$300 million debt ceiling, which is set to be reached next month. Labor would laws that raise the ceiling to A$400 billion, not A$500 billion as the government proposes, Shorten said today.

“They won the election, that’s fair,” Shorten told reporters in Canberra today. “What they didn’t win in the election was the right to run up debt like a drunken sailor. We’ve offered a sensible compromise.”

New senators who won a spot in the upper house won’t take their place until July 1, leaving the Greens currently holding the balance of power in the chamber.

New Senate

The final make-up of the new Senate is in doubt after initial counting pointed to the balance of power being held by small, right-leaning parties, including mining magnate Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party. While the Australian Electoral Commission has declared the Senate result for Western Australia, some candidates have vowed to appeal the result in the High Court after a recount revealed 1,375 ballots had been lost.

Following today’s ceremonies initiating the new parliament, Australia’s 44th, both houses will sit this week. The lower House of Representatives sits Nov. 18-21, before both houses convene for the year’s final sittings on Dec. 2-5 and Dec. 9-12. The government has said it will release its Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, expected to show the budget position has deteriorated since the election, before Christmas.

Bronwyn Bishop, 71, a minister under former Prime Minister John Howard, was today elected speaker of the lower house.

Today’s Newspoll, conducted Nov. 8-10 among 1,140 voters and with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, shows Abbott leads Shorten as preferred prime minister, 46 percent to 30 percent. The two-party preferred measure is designed to gauge which party is likely to form a government at the next election, due in 2016.

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