Canberra: Tony Abbott was sworn in as Australia’s new prime minister on Wednesday and immediately ordered the scrapping of the nation’s carbon tax and the halting of asylum-seeker boats.
The 55-year-old conservative launched straight into work with a cabinet meeting after the ceremony at Government House in Canberra where his Liberal/National government officially brought six years of Labour rule to a close.
“Today is not just a ceremonial day, it’s an action day. The Australian people expect us to get straight down to business and that’s exactly what this government will do,” said, Abbott, a political hardman who has worked to soften his macho image in recent months.
In presenting his frontbench team to Governor-General Quentin Bryce, he added: “We will be a problem-solving government based on values not ideology.”
Abbott was elected on September 7 on a pledge to quickly scrap taxes on corporate pollution and mining profits imposed under Labour, as well as introducing a costly paid parental leave scheme and a vow to build new roads across the vast nation.
Top of his to-do list is axing the unpopular carbon tax, which charges the country’s biggest polluters for their emissions at a fixed price.
His government instead favours a “direct action” plan that includes an emissions reduction fund to pay companies to increase their energy efficiency, and money for schemes to replenish soil carbon and plant 20 million trees.
Abbott, who once said that evidence blaming mankind for climate change was “absolute c***”, said he would immediately instruct officials “to prepare the carbon tax repeal legislation”.
‘A message to the people-smugglers’
Another central plank of his election campaign was stopping asylum-seeker boats. His policy of using the navy to tow them back to Indonesia — their typical point of transit — came into effect on Wednesday, and could prove to be an early test of his mettle.
“It’s so important that we send a message to the people-smugglers that, from today, their business model is coming to an end,” Abbott said.
The military tow-back is part of Operation Sovereign Borders, which is widely expected to be led by Deputy Chief of Army Angus Campbell, a former special forces commander, reporting directly to new Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.
It includes a proposal to embed Australian police in Indonesia, buy up fishing boats to keep them out of people-smugglers’ hands, and pay locals for intelligence — plans that have received a cool reception in Jakarta.
Australia has struggled to manage the stream of asylum-seekers arriving on rickety, overloaded fishing boats with hundreds dying on the risky journey in recent years.
Counting of postal votes is still under way after the election, but the conservatives are on track to win 90 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives to Labour’s 55.
It gives Abbott a clear majority, although the makeup of the upper house of parliament is not yet apparent, with the likelihood that six to seven minor party candidates could secure seats to hold the balance of power — complicating the new government’s legislative push.
The new prime minister and his key ministers were sworn in by Bryce 11 days after Abbott’s overwhelming victory over Kevin Rudd and he wasted no time asserting his authority, axing three high-profile public service department heads and making two new appointments.
While Abbott has kept a low profile since the polls, he has been criticised for naming just one woman in his 19-person front-bench — Julie Bishop as foreign minister.
The previous Labour government had six women in cabinet.
He has also attracted criticism, including from his own party, for streamlining his ministry, with key portfolios such as water, climate change, science and aged care wrapped into other portfolios.
“I mean we’ve got a Minister for Sport for God’s sake, but we don’t have a Minister for Science,” said Liberal MP Dennis Jensen, comments seized on by Labour as a “sign of disunity” in the government.
Other ministers sworn in included Joe Hockey as treasurer, George Brandis as attorney-general, and Nationals leader Warren Truss as deputy prime minister.