CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
How prepared is the Coalition for government?
, April 27, 2013
The pressures are building on Tony Abbott both internally and externally as the prospect of the formation of a Coalition government within a few months starts to become more like a reality.
The polls are not moving and the long-awaited school education package, which really must be one of the last rolls of the dice for Julia Gillard, is running into serious headwinds from the states.
The May Budget is unlikely to have a lot of good news, which is the normal strategy in an election year; and the major initiatives, Gonski reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), are already out.
Internally, backbench MPs who can almost taste the prospect of being in government are getting impatient and agitating (largely via the media) for promotion and preferment.
In practice, this means ambitious young MPs trying to build up their own credentials in the public arena while using “friendly” journalists to tear down the reputations of members of Tony Abbott’s frontbench in order to make way for them instead.
Recently, for example, we have seen reports of shadow minister for families, housing and human services Kevin Andrews being described as ripe for the chop by some prominent political commentators.
There are several ambitious MPs itching to be promoted in Victoria, a state that has more than its fair share of up-and-comers, but Mr Abbott needs to be particularly wary of the blatant self-promoters.
And it is worth noting that the two up-and-coming MPs who are among the most deserving of promotion — Josh Frydenberg and Dan Teahan — have not been behind the media agitation.
The fact is that Andrews is the exact person who should remain on Abbott’s frontbench.
Andrews is experienced, has worked successfully under sustained pressure in government in some of the toughest portfolios, and shares a similar ideological wavelength to the Opposition leader.
Mr Abbott will need such allies in his Cabinet.
It makes practical sense too for Mr Abbott to resist the urgings for change before the next election because reshuffles by their nature cause instability and resentment.
Ideally, Mr Abbott should take into government the team that he has had with him as Opposition leader.
There will be casualties and resignations from the normal wear and tear of government. Some ministers will not be up to it, and some will make stupid mistakes.
Going on current trends the next government will not be a short-term government.
The Coalition has a wealth of talent at the moment, including new MPs who are coming into the Parliament. The pressure on ministers to perform will be enormous.
Externally, business and other groups are starting to think of an “Abbott Government” as a done deal and are recalibrating their assumptions about how differently life will be under a new regime and where to focus their lobbying efforts, while the media is critiquing policies and promises already made.
This means there is now a lot more focus on costings and whether Abbott’s economics team has the wherewithal to pare back government spending while delivering on its pledges.
A lot will become clearer after the May Budget, but there is every indication that an Abbott Government will be saddled with a sizeable new Budget deficit on top of the existing $165 billion debt the Labor government has already clocked up.
Gross debt stands at $267 billion and Australia’s debt ceiling is likely to be lifted in the May Budget to above $300 billion.
In these circumstances, Abbott and his shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey would be wise to hold the line on any new spending pledges.
Hockey has a massive job ahead of him and the temptation to match Labor promise for promise will be enormous.
Kevin Rudd went to the 2007 election pledging to be more fiscally prudent than John Howard and then ignored this when the global financial crisis arrived.
But Abbott and Hockey will have to do the same, and stick to it.
Already, the Opposition leader has succumbed to promising too much in his strategy of avoiding becoming the target.
But the Coalition is in such a strong position that it can go to the election playing its strongest suit — economic competence and fiscal responsibility.
Perhaps the strongest pressure on Mr Abbott will come from the media which will be looking for the slip-up and the choke in the final round.
Meanwhile, the Gillard government is crippled by division and internal hatred. Even many of the most respected people in the government don’t believe it is up to the job.
It is torn between those who want a class-war election and those who are utterly opposed to such a retrograde campaign.
All Mr Abbott and his leadership team have to do is display discipline, a unified front and believable policies — something which is much easier said than done.