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100 days in government

As the Abbott government marks its 100th day milestone, the road has been an unquestionably bumpy one so far. Fairfax's Michael Gordon and Tony Wright reflect on the highlights and lowlights.

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Tony Abbott glimpsed the danger of breaking election promises during last month's school-funding debacle, but says he has learnt his lesson.

The admission came in a frank interview in his Parliament House suite, marking 100 days since the September 7 election.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with his First 100 Days of Government booklet in his Prime Ministerial suite at Parliament House Canberra on 13 December 2013. Photo: Andrew Meares

Tony Abbott did it his way, and would barely have changed a thing. Photo: Andrew Meares

Even at 7.30am, it was already his third appointment for the day and followed a 5am run with Queensland Premier Campbell Newman - one of eight state and territory leaders in town for Mr Abbott's first Council of Australian Governments meeting.

Citing the ferocious voter response to Education Minister Christopher Pyne's attempt to abandon the Gonski school-funding model, Mr Abbott in effect admitted the government would have been wrong to wriggle out of a promise to match Labor's school-funding package on a technicality.

''The lesson that I have well and truly learnt from that is that we do have to precisely honour our commitments - and that's the spirit of the commitments, not just the letter of the commitments,'' he said.

Illustration: Ron Tandberg.

Illustration: Ron Tandberg.

The concession represented a marked softening of his inflammatory declaration at the height of the furore that he would honour only his election promises, and would not be held to promises people thought he made.

Mr Abbott argued that his government had performed strongly and had met all the marks within its power.

The interview came at the end of the final week of Parliament for 2013, a week in which the government attracted fierce criticism for being seen to taunt Holden to close its doors in 2017 at the cost of thousands of jobs.

But Mr Abbott was unapologetic, declaring that the remaining car manufacturer, Toyota, would not receive extra taxpayer support to remain in Australia, despite fears it could yet follow Holden out the door.

He said he expected the Japanese car maker, which employs about 4200 Australians, would stay because, unlike Holden, it had a strong export business.

But he stressed that Canberra would not be going beyond the assistance already set out in the Automotive Transformation Scheme, and he dismissed calls for an increase to safeguard jobs as ''not the right way to go''.

He said: ''The lesson of the motor industry is that once you start subsidising businesses, you get yourself onto a treadmill that's very difficult to get off.''

Mr Abbott said he wanted Australia to continue making cars, but he added, ''if the price of keeping the car industry is unacceptably high, well, you just have to accept that these are the trade-offs that life sometimes involves''.

He said the decision by General Motors to pull out of Australia in 2017 merely reinforced the importance of driving down the tax and regulatory burden for business, and of driving productivity up. ''On all three, the government is on the side of the angels,'' he said.

Despite several opinion polls showing voters walking away from the party they elected just three months ago, Mr Abbott said he was ''very pleased'' with the Coalition's early performance.

He rejected criticism that his administration had been slow to manage problems, arguing it was ''better to get the decision as right as it can be than to rush into something you might subsequently regret''.

''I am utterly unpersuaded that we could have done anything differently for a substantially better outcome,'' he said just minutes before hosting the premiers' meeting.

''I'm very satisfied that the government has precisely delivered on our commitments over the first 100 days, and we've kept almost precisely to the timetable.''

Some of his most blunt language was reserved for China - which he accused of upsetting the regional balance - and for Jakarta - in the wake of the spying scandal - directing the pointed message that Indonesia's best friend was Australia.

He said Australia wanted to have the best possible relations with Beijing but if it acted ''high-handedly'', as it had by declaring an expanded air-defence zone incorporating disputed territory, Australia would speak up.

''China should not have acted unilaterally,'' he said.

On Indonesia, he said Australia was determined to be an even better friend, but there were ''certain fundamentals that we will assert, even if that causes difficulties … and you know, border protection is just non-negotiable.''