Editorial Board

Reinvention Time for Australia’s Abbott

If ever was lost not won, it was the weekend’s vote in Australia. Exhausted by the Labor Party’s feuding, the country ditched Kevin Rudd’s government and elected the Liberal-National coalition led by Tony Abbott. The new prime minister, once seen as gaffe-prone and unelectable, has said he’ll grow into the role. He’d better, or it won’t be long before Australia regrets its choice.

To call the coalition’s platform weak would be generous. Mostly, it was empty -- and its few specific ideas were notable for being bad ones.

Abbott has promised to scrap Australia’s carbon-pricing program, rejecting the best approach to dealing with climate change. He’s also said he’ll scrap the mining tax, without saying what will replace it. And he’s promised six months’ paid maternity leave at taxpayers’ expense -- while calling himself a fiscal conservative.

In truth, Abbott campaigned as the worst sort of populist conservative, bolstering his stance with a pledge to get tough on asylum seekers. His coalition is offering no alternative to carbon pricing, but merely denounces it as an unpopular measure. The maternity-leave proposal is even more nakedly political. Julia Gillard, who ousted Rudd as prime minister in 2010 only to be replaced by Rudd in another Labor Party leadership contest in June, relentlessly attacked Abbott for his misogyny. To deflect this charge, Abbott committed himself to the costly new entitlement.

During the campaign, neither party had much to say about the real challenges facing the country -- namely, adapting more intelligently to Australia’s economic dependence on China and boosting the country’s productivity growth.

China’s long surge has been the key to Australia’s 22 uninterrupted years of economic growth. Booming exports of natural resources, especially coal, fueled the expanding economy, keeping employment high and throwing off tax revenue that let successive governments raise spending without borrowing. Thanks to China, Australia came through the global crash unscathed.

With China’s growth fading, Australia has to adjust -- and an uncharacteristically anxious country knows it. The fruits of the resources boom would have been better invested in a national fund to provide income in later years, but that wasn’t done. With the tax base under threat, other taxes and cuts in public spending will have to bear the burden. At the same time, employment and investment have to shift from mining into new high-productivity export businesses. Far from advancing such a program, Abbott’s proposals on carbon pricing and entitlements set things back.

Abbott is an easy man to underestimate: Rudd and Labor certainly made that mistake. The new prime minister is smart, and a serial self-reinventor: Rhodes scholar, priest-in-training, industrial manager, journalist, politician. In the past he’s been clumsy and belligerent. However irresponsible, though, his campaign was disciplined and effective, and his critics aren’t laughing now.

To be a good prime minister, Abbott will need to reinvent himself again -- drop the cheap populism, become the fiscal conservative he says he is, and lift his attention from short-term tactics to Australia’s real challenges.