Abbott's secret Fightback plan

In Tony Abbott’s campaign launch speech yesterday, there were a few 'we understands', such as the old: "we understand that government doesn’t create wealth, people do; and that no country has ever taxed its way to prosperity".

But the thing the Coalition understands most clearly is that it isn’t policy that wins elections, it’s politics. Also, as everyone knows, Oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them.

And the thing that sets this election apart from all the others is that it comes at the end of a rare period of minority government, for the first time since the election of 1943. Following the 2010 hung parliament election, the Opposition decided it could be asked to form government at any time, so it developed a complete set of plans for government at the beginning of the term rather than the end, as usual.

So you wouldn’t know it, but the Liberal National Party Coalition has for almost three years been sitting on a full, written plan for governing Australia. It is, by all accounts, one of the most detailed and exhaustive plans for government ever prepared by an opposition party.

But it has never been made public. That’s because the person charged with pulling it together from detailed discussions with shadow ministers as well a huge range of community leaders, has been Andrew Robb, the shadow finance minister, who was also responsible for Fightback! – the detailed policy that cost John Hewson the 'unlosable election' of 1993.

Robb became federal director of the Liberal Party in 1990; at the same time, John Hewson became leader of the Opposition. Together they put together the most detailed set of policies ever conceived by an opposition (topped only by the one put together by Robb and Tony Abbott in 2010-11, but not released).

The first Fightback! was released in November 1991, and included a 15 per cent GST, the abolition of awards, the abolition of bulk billing in Medicare except for veterans, war widows, pensioners, health card holders and the disabled, and replacing it with gap insurance for medical bills, a $13 billion personal income tax cut directed at middle and upper income earners, $10 billion in government spending cuts, abolition of state payroll taxes and the sale of a large number of government owned enterprises.

That was two years before the next election. A year later it was revised and relaunched with the removal of the GST on food and child care and the addition of a 'Rebuild Australia' fund for public works.

It is now Australian election folklore that the whole thing was a disaster that meant that Paul Keating did not lose the election and Hewson was replaced as leader by John Howard. It haunts and defines the Coalition, and especially Andrew Robb, to this day.

So when the Coalition 'won' (got the most seats in) the 2010 election but then lost the negotiations with the independents, and consequently wanted to be ready for government at any moment, the last thing they were going to do was release the plan they then prepared.

That determination has lasted for three years, including yesterday’s official campaign launch. Apart from a few long-standing slogan promises to “stop the boats” and “axe the (carbon) tax”, some previously announced totem ideas like paid parental leave, re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission and reducing the public service by 12,000 through natural attrition, and two new promises – $200 million for dementia research and $20,000 loans for apprentices – it was a launch speech that continued the theme that the election is about trust.

That is: elections are about politics, not policies, and oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

It seems likely that Robb will be minister for trade and investment in the Coalition government, and that Arthur Sinodinos will replace him in finance. That’s because the National Party leadership this time around has become more protectionist in outlook to fight the challenge from Bob Katter, so they can’t be given trade as usually happens in Coalition governments.

But that’s not important. What’s important, or at least interesting, is that Tony Abbott has his own Fightback! plan, put together by the same man who did it for John Hewson, but this time it’s a secret.

The only thing he has to do now is get through the next 12 days without saying too much more. 

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