Illustration: Michael Mucci
Tony Abbott has exhibited remarkable self-discipline throughout the election campaign. Labor has argued, unconvincingly it seems, that as soon as he is elected prime minister we will see the real Abbott springing out of the confines previously concealed by his ambition, the skills of his closest minders, and the mendacity of the media. Then, it is said, we will all regret what we have wrought.
But the Abbott plan leaves little space for the self-indulgence or exhibitionism of the ravening wolf said to lurk inside the grandmotherly garb. He has not wanted to be prime minister for a day, but for several terms. From day one his focus shifts to being re-elected. From the moment he is plonked in the Lodge or Kirribilli House, he will be thinking that he is a mere 1000 days away from the next gruelling election campaign. The stuff of that campaign, most probably, will be his words and actions in the meantime. He will be instantly regirding himself - or exercising self-control - to make sure that he does not stuff that up.
The pity could be that he may never relax that control, since it has seemed so central to his rather unlikely seizure of power. Unlike many conservative politicians, Abbott does not have a big personal agenda of things he wants to achieve, do or change in office. He wants general things (perhaps starting with continuation of the monarchy), vaguely limited government and so on, but the closest thing to a signature policy is his paid parental leave idea. Down the track the biggest pressure on him may be from politicians behind him, with much more ideological goals in mind. Goals he may well resist, either because he does not believe in them or because he fears that voters won't like them, or will regard them as some sort of repudiation of the implicit contract he has made with them.
Indeed Abbott may not even have the traditional year to put down some unpopular decisions, confident that their good effects will be obvious, or their bad effects forgotten, by the next election day. He might well feel compelled to be on an election footing all the time.
That's because there could be another election within a year - if the Labor Party and the Greens in the Senate combine to be beastly to him about an election he has belatedly claimed to be a referendum on carbon taxes - and implicitly on the merits of his ''direct action'' alternative. Bitter folk may well do so, if only by way of returning the compliment of the perpetual and undifferentiated opposition and obstruction of the past three years.
If the Senate rejects the legislation he will put up within his first 100 days of government - abolishing both the carbon and mining taxes - he has said he will call a double dissolution. Actually the Senate has to reject it twice with a three-month gap between rejections. This suggests that there could be no such dissolution before March, and, most likely - especially if the Senate engages in ordinary constitutionally permissible delay - not before July - when the composition of the senate has suddenly become different, even if not necessarily more friendly. Newly elected senators - they will mostly be Coalition folk - will not even have warmed to seats, or become used to the perks of their office - before they are thrown again on to the hustings and a crusade over who has the better policy to save the environment - a contest which may be different from the answer to the question of which party is best fit to run the country.
And who knows what the political environment will be like nearly a year hence - the more so if government has done some immediately unpopular things (which have had an adverse impact on the quality and quantity of public services enjoyed by ordinary voters), or has found it increasingly difficult to blame the Labor government for all economic or revenue shortfalls.
Among the ways the political environment will have changed will be that there will be neither a Rudd nor a Gillard calling the shots. By no means does this mean that the new leaders - a Bill Shorten say, or a Chris Bowen - will be on top of Tony Abbott in parliamentary or public debate. But it is very unlikely that either will be as eccentric, or as tin-eared, in their strategic or tactical judgments as their two immediate predecessors, or that they can be as readily tagged with all of the supposed sins of the previous government.
Abbott's critics are, right now, suggesting that he will find some excuse - such as an empty Treasury, or evidence of Labor (and implicitly bureaucratic) deceit about the state of the economy - to announce that his campaign promises are no longer operative, or have been divided, in the Howard 1996 manner, into core and non-core promises. We will then see drastic cuts to all areas of government expenditure, particularly to health and welfare, but also to the public administration. This will be the real Abbott.
Yet at the core of Abbott's success in bringing down Julia Gillard is the idea that she became a liar when she abandoned her promise that there would be no carbon tax. This, it is said, delegitimised her as a leader, and made her seem the usurper. Abbott cannot afford to be seen to be abandoning campaign promises, even bad ones that deserve to be junked.
One can expect that the prime minister's office will have a long list of every commitment made. They will be ticked off one by one, even after evidence emerges that the promises are no longer necessary, or are silly, or that the local voters in question did not live up to the deal (by voting for the local candidate on whose behalf the promises were made.) Even a much-depleted opposition can ransack past Abbott statements (and there are hundreds) about the wickedness and iniquity of breaking promises.
Much as it is supposed to be a virtue for politicians to honour promises, it is a great pity when they make a fetish about honouring them, right or wrong. Sometimes voters should earnestly hope that policies are reconsidered in the cold light of day, with the assistance of some expert and independent advice from the bureaucracy, or in competition with other demands on the public purse. Indeed there are policies on which Abbott has suddenly gone deliberately vague, with dropped timetables, or new let-outs, should it prove that the economy turns sour. His doing so now may reflect on his political credibility up until Saturday night, but he is being wise, if only because some are silly, or inappropriate responses to circumstances. Labor, by contrast, persisted with very silly promises - such as school laptop programs - even when it knew them to be a waste.
A by-now very confident Abbott has made a late foray into the culture wars, and made other little interventions able now to be described next week as having been approved by voters. But one can expect that he will be leery of claiming too wide a mandate from his landslide - if only because he does not want to be pushed and pulled, from his party's right, into actions he regards as politically dangerous from a re-election point of view. They will be arguing that power is to be used, and that Abbott should govern by their conviction rather than his instincts. As he fails to do so they will accuse him of lacking daring, and belief in himself. They might be right.
Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org