Prime Minister Tony Abbott is already looking to be on shaky ground in government.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is already looking to be on shaky ground in government.

Three months after an election victory might seem a strange time to be talking about a malaise within the Liberal Party. But the three months of mishaps that followed Tony Abbott's swearing-in point to an underlying problem - the same problem that became clear after John Howard was elected prime minister in 1996. Howard and his colleagues were not forced to face up to their predicament because Australia was carried along by an international wave of economic growth and low interest rates that would last for 12 years. Abbott is unlikely to be so lucky.

What these governments have in common became clear during the campaigns the Liberal Party and its coalition partner fought to unseat Labor. In 1996, it was all about getting rid of Paul Keating and everything he represented as prime minister. The Liberal Party's own policies were low-key and largely innocuous. This year's strategy was uncannily similar, even if the Lodge had a different occupant.

What were Howard's plans for health, education or industrial relations in 1996? It was hard to tell. And Abbott's in 2013? Not much detail on health, a ''unity ticket'' on schools, no return to Work Choices. All we knew for sure was that, Senate willing, Labor's most contentious reforms would be ditched.

The problem didn't start with Howard. Malcolm Fraser's successful campaign in 1975 was every bit as negative. Whitlam had to go, and Labor's landmark policies - a long list, including Medibank (the forerunner of Medicare), the Schools Commission, regional development programs and a more independent foreign policy - were in the firing line. Fraser's memoir even records cabinet earnestly discussing how, without wasting too much stationery, it could reverse Whitlam's decision to re-label the federal government as the Australian government.

In 1996, Howard's new government seemed flat-footed and disoriented, as if the negativity of the campaign had been an end in itself. Once the potency of ''[Kim] Beazley's black hole'' began to wane, Howard began searching for a more positive issue to take to the next election - which turned out to be, of all things, the GST, although his embrace of gun control temporarily provided a similar anchor.

In Abbott's case, the early months have been characterised by confusion and controversy - most damagingly in relation to school funding, the response to the Indonesian spying leaks, and Scott Morrison's handling of boat arrivals. In each case a negative election campaign delivered a weak mandate to the incoming government. Enough voters were sick of Labor to switch their vote, but the result was scarcely a resounding expression of confidence in the Liberal-led Coalition.

The Gonski double-flip shows what negative campaigning means once a party is in government. In an area of public policy, education, which is taken very seriously by many voters, the Abbott ministry effectively has no policy.

Essentially, the same can be said about health, another policy area that figures in pre-election surveys of the top two or three issues in people's minds.

One possible explanation for this recurring problem is that in each case the Coalition happened to be faced with an opponent -Whitlam, Keating and Gillard/Rudd - who was so inviting a target for a negative campaign that no party could have resisted. That's certainly a factor. Labor's performance was undoubtedly the focus of all three elections, and not only because in each case it had made significant mistakes, forced and unforced. All three had introduced popular, big-ticket reforms - including universal health insurance, the superannuation guarantee and the disability insurance scheme - which they campaigned to defend.

But there is a more important reason why the Liberal Party takes government in this way, and the unravelling of the government's support after the 2004 election - the election that pitted Howard against Mark Latham - gives a clue as to what it is. Howard won that election on the theme of trust, playing very effectively on uncertainties about Latham's experience and character.

He said scarcely anything about industrial relations reform, which would be the most controversial theme of the next three years of government - not a word in his campaign launch speech or his Press Club address, and just a brief mention, in ninth place, on a list of small business policies in the party's election manifesto.

Another contentious feature of the 2004-07 parliament, the full privatisation of Telstra, was not mentioned anywhere in the policy announcements, and nor were the changes to media law and the disability benefit that the government initiated soon after the election.

That combination - a negative campaign and a failure to disclose the party's real aims - was bad not just for the quality of government but also for the Liberals themselves. With control of the Senate, Howard pursued a program that had no expressed backing from the electorate. Three years later, he was unceremoniously ejected from the Lodge. Since September's election, priorities that did not rate a mention during the election campaign are coming into focus.

Andrew Robb revealed that he plans to bargain away part of Australia's economic sovereignty by allowing overseas companies to sue the government over alleged breaches of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Labor's electoral law reforms, inspired by the High Court's rejection of Howard-era attempts to discourage young and mobile voters, are the target of a slow-burn campaign by the Special Minister of State and his allies. Joe Hockey - who had relentlessly targeted Labor's debt level - has left himself as much room as possible to spend the government's way out of trouble. And once the timing is right, the Gonski funding model will be watered down further or dumped.

Would the Liberals have polled any less strongly if they had been more frank about their plans? It is hard to be sure. But there is a longer-term price to be paid for becoming the party that routinely says one thing in opposition and does another in office. The vote on September 7 was a vote against Labor but not necessarily a vote against many features of its program.

It definitely was not a vote in favour of the kind of policy program that most members of Abbott's ministry would favour: much tougher workplace laws, dramatic cuts in ABC funding, more generous tax breaks for high earners, and a return to Howard-era policies on school funding, healthcare priorities and electoral laws.

Those policies might resonate within the Liberals' committed core, but they are out of step with majority opinion in the electorate. And that gap will only get worse as a wave of less conservative voters progressively replaces the older voters who Howard courted so successfully. This is the dilemma the Coalition faces.