Editorial: One year on, and Tony Abbott yet to justify trust voters put in him


The Abbott Government has been in power for a year. It has its achievements and its abject failures, but even its friends would admit that it has yet to do enough to deserve re-election. Labor, the party it trounced a year ago yesterday, has made the most of public disappointment and, according to the opinion polls, leads the coalition. But, just as Abbott's victory last year involved a popular decision to wave goodbye to Labor, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard rather more than an enthusiastic embrace of Abbott, Labor's popularity owes more to shortcomings of Abbott than a sign that the electorate has yet judged Labor again fit to lead, under Bill Shorten. Most likely there will be two more years before the next election, and both parties, and each leader, has a good deal of ground to make up before he could approach it with confidence.

Abbott has honoured several core promises. He has stopped the boats. The carbon tax has been abolished. Whether time will show either policy, or the means of its implementation, to have been wise is open to doubt, but voters encouraged to put great faith in adherence to election promises will give him credit. But he has broken or failed with other promises, express or implied, and generally failed to live up to expectations. He promised to repair the Budget, and to reduce debts and deficits, but his Budget has proven very unpopular, and is still only limping, piecemeal through Parliament. This is due to inept preparation and salesmanship, but also a widespread perception that the Budget was unfair in distributing most of the hurt on the poorer part of the population. The result has hurt Abbott and any sense that he is calmly in charge, and caused confidence in the economic team, particularly Joe Hockey, to collapse.

The public will wear belt-tightening and efforts to cut costs, but not if they think that the burdens are being distributed unfairly. That perception is aggravated by broken promises on health and schools, by proposals for a Medicare co-payment, lower future aged pensions, harsh changes to unemployment rules, and the greater costs for higher education. The case for such changes has been weakened by ideological extravagances and self-indulgences, including knighthoods, public funding for marriage counselling, commissioning of royal commission for partisan purposes, and the appointment of party cronies and people of fixed opinions to conduct supposedly independent inquiries. That government has had the time and the energy for such matters even as it has seriously stripped foreign aid, science expenditure, and indigenous programs  suggests an awry set of priorities.

The most disappointing aspect of the first year of government might also be regarded as one of broken promise. Abbott promised a government of grown-ups, professional decision making and of no surprises. But not only has the leadership been often pedestrian, with the prime minister himself, as much as some members of his team, seeming ill briefed and unaware of major issues, or oblivious to public opinion (not least about political rorting of the public purse), but also seeming, sometimes, to ignore Cabinet processes, or making up policy on the run.

Some senior ministers, particularly Christopher Pyne and George Brandis have made mistakes that have embarrassed the government even more than themselves. Some others, including, importantly, the Minister for Defence, David John, and the Minister for Social Security, Kevin Andrews, have been pedestrian and lacklustre. Abbott's failure to rearrange his team, and, in the process, to incorporate more women, more young and ambitious players, and some place for science policy and practice, is mystifying.  

Abbott has seemed somewhat more confident and in charge of his brief over international affairs, including the response to MH17, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Lebanon, and civil war in Ukraine. It is, however, difficult to resist the feeling that his reach into such areas, given the solid performance of his deputy and Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has been in an attempt to disguise his, and his government's, lack of control over the economy and uncertain hand at the domestic tiller. There's a lot of work to be done yet.