CANBERRA OBSERVED by national correspondentNews Weekly
Is time running out for Tony Abbott?
, January 31, 2015
Tony Abbott has perhaps six months at the outside to set his government on a new and steadier political course or steel himself for the prospect of an ignominious defeat at the 2016 poll with a possible leadership challenge in the interim adding to the mix.
The full extent of the damage caused by the first Hockey/Abbott Budget only began to dawn on the Abbott leadership group late last year as polls consistently showed that the unpopularity of the new government was both deep and entrenched in the electorate.
Any rallies in the polls as a result of Mr Abbott’s strong responses to terrorist events and calamities overseas were quickly shown to be only temporary, as a sullen electorate promptly resumed its apparent deep dissatisfaction with the government.
So at the end of the year Mr Abbott moved belatedly to “reset” the government, including making some changes to his frontbench.
In reality, the government has not recovered from last year’s shock Budget that foreshadowed across-the-board cuts and eligibility changes to health, welfare and family payments, pensions and education, but which were mostly never delivered because of the opposition parties in the Senate — Labor, the Greens, the Palmer United Party (PUP) and independents.
Indeed, there are now murmurings about apportioning responsibility as to who was the actual architect of the Budget strategy: was it largely the Treasurer’s blueprint or was it the design of the Prime Minister who chaired all the Expenditure Review Committee meetings?
The irony that the government is being rejected by voters for policies it is unable to implement is no solace to anyone. The electorate appeared to have made up its mind that the new government had made a shock (and perhaps unnecessary) attack on government payments and welfare conditions, despite having repeatedly promised the electorate that it would be (unlike the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor rabble) a government of “no surprises, no excuses”.
“We will be a consultative, collegial government. No surprises, no excuses. That’s what you will get under the Coalition,” Mr Abbott told ABC television’s 7:30 Report in July of 2013. The phrase was used repeatedly during the 2013 campaign and in his election night victory speech as the likely watchword of Mr Abbott’s government.
To date there has not been a satisfactory explanation for the difference between what was said pre-election and what was done post-election.
In truth, there are a number of genuine excuses that could be made for the Abbott government, including the Labor and the Greens parties irresponsible and sometimes outrageous blocking tactics in the Senate in refusing to co-operate to help repair the problems they caused; the difficulties of dealing with a Palmer United Party that lacks any policy consistency; an economy that is coming off the boil after an unprecedented mining boom; and the usual difficulties any government faces when it attempts to wind back benefits.
Furthermore, there have been a number of political breakthroughs, which have for a variety of reasons not resulted in voter endorsement for the government.
They include significant trade agreements with China, South Korea and Japan; the dismantling of the carbon and mining taxes; a go-ahead for a second Sydney airport (something that has eluded government for decades); and resounding success in stopping asylum-seeker boats.
It could also be pleaded that all new governments (even the good ones) make mistakes in the early stages of their administration. Modern government is bewilderingly complex, is heavily scrutinised by mainstream and now amateur social media agitators, and any policies to reform, say, health and welfare, are thwarted at every turn by vested interest groups.
On the other hand, all governments are saddled with challenges, hurdles and roadblocks. It is up to the government of the day to “manage” the politics and explain its agenda to the people.
The Abbott government had a plan to take a meat-cleaver to the vast Budget deficit it inherited from Labor; but, in an extraordinary strategy gap, it had no Plan B when it could not pass the Budget. It has also failed to communicate as effectively as it should have done.
Mr Abbott is now receiving advice from every political commentator, friend and foe alike, that he needs to be “more inclusive”, “more mainstream”, etc. Others say he needs to be more himself and to run with his political instincts. In some ways he has been too cautious, too careful not to offend. But time is running out.
Getting the economy “right” and returning the Budget to surplus are vital; but the reality is that Australia is a minnow in the world and vulnerable to the economic health of its key trading partners, particularly China, Japan and the United States.
If the international economy grows more unstable through 2015 and beyond, the Abbott government will have a whole new set of problems to deal with which will dwarf its current budget difficulties.
Mr Abbott is showing signs of learning from his mistakes, and adapting his strategy. But, with goodwill disappearing, the success or otherwise of his forthcoming second Budget could well determine the length of his term as prime minister.