CANBERRA OBSERVED: by our national correspondentNews Weekly
Australia's year of the three prime ministers
, December 21, 2013
This year will go down in Australian political history as the year of three prime ministers as voters witnessed the divergent trajectories of three leaders and different styles of governing.
To gauge the rarity of this event, you need to go back to the war years for the only other time the political stars have aligned in this way: 1939 (Joseph Lyons, Earle Page, Robert Menzies), 1941 (Menzies, Arthur Fadden, John Curtin), and 1945 (Curtin, Frank Forde, Ben Chifley).
Former prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd have exited the political stage. Both did so soon after their respective defeats and are now working hard to assert their rival versions of events so that Labor history will depict one of their stories in the best light.
Tony Abbott is still in the early, uncertain stages of a new government, and it is too early to give an assessment of his contribution.
However, the uncertainty and instability of such dramatic changes are even greater today than in the war years because of the gradual but relentless centralisation of power inside the prime minister’s office.
It is likely that neither Rudd nor Gillard will come out of the recent Labor experiment well, because their legacies are so tarnished by the turmoil from their very public but hidden feud.
Julia Gillard can take pride in being Australia’s first female prime minister, but she achieved this by tearing down a popular first-term prime minister. She faced too much resistance from both the Coalition and her enemies in the Labor Party to be truly effective.
Gillard’s decision to side with the Greens, after the narrowest of election results in 2010, was a monumental error of judgment that tarnished her one term in office and further diminished her legitimacy.
Gillard’s legacy was diminished by her attributing her critics’ motives to misogyny and sexism.
Kevin Rudd made a comeback hoping to recapture some of the shine and excitement of his 2007 change-of-government election campaign. But the public had grown sceptical of Rudd’s grandiose promises and his inconsistent and sometimes erratic behaviour. As a consequence, the electorate was no longer listening.
For his part, Rudd can boast that he helped muffle Australia from the worst effects of the global financial crisis (GFC), while Gillard can claim she secured a new form of government welfare in the form of a national scheme for people with disabilities.
As for Tony Abbott, it is early days, but the new government’s performance has been tentative, at times scrappy, but without any serious calamities.
Abbott’s fervent wish to be seen to be a competent and methodical prime minister has permeated the thinking inside his ministerial team, but it has also been the cause of some missteps. The “L plates” are clearly still on some ministers.
Abbott wants to be seen as a solid, consistent and responsible prime minister in contrast to his predecessors.
However, he is naïve if he thinks he will get kudos for this alone.
First of all, there are sections of the political class and the media that are still resentful towards Abbott for single-handedly destroying the Greens-Labor confederacy, and will pounce on any mistake or loose word, no matter how trivial.
Second, the Labor opposition actually needs to prove that Abbott is just the same as them, just as fickle, untrustworthy and generally incompetent in order to legitimise their own woeful period in office.
But, most important, such is the disillusionment among voters with politicians in general, that the Abbott government will not get respect until it earns it. This will take time and delivery on some fundamental promises, including abolishing the carbon tax and stopping illegal immigrant boats to Australia’s north.
Abbott, a former journalist himself, was masterful in using the media to prosecute the foibles of the Rudd and Gillard governments, but has eschewed the “24-hour news cycle” in favour of only announcing something when it happens.
The Labor Party is using this vacuum to amplify the hiccups and mistakes of a new government.
Entrenched government spending and welfare programs and a debt that will be around possibly for decades, due to the previous government’s profligacy, also hamstring Abbott.
Over time Abbott will find his feet and regain his confidence. He is also likely to turn his sights on the Labor Party, and he is more than capable of inflicting serious damage with the resources of government behind him.
More important, Abbott will have to articulate his vision for the country, in what is likely to be post-boom times, and carry the people with him.