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.PT12M48S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2z9ey 620 349 December 12, 2013
Tony Abbott was typically generous. "We've made a strong start," he opined through successive early morning interviews.
Abbott is prey to a raft of situational factors of his own making
The end-to-end chats with the chief correspondents of all the major mastheads were designed to spruik the Government's achievements, approaching the otherwise meaningless 100-day mark.
The first ton: The polls already have the Opposition in front of the government. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
It's been a rough 'ton' beset by problems such as the MP's entitlements furore, the Indonesian spying allegations, the vetoed GrainCorp take-over, the education funding row, and big troubles for Holden and Qantas.
What Abbott's rave review lacked in objectivity, it made up for in enthusiasm.
Far more influential though will be the assessments of the financial markets, his parliamentary colleagues, and of course the voters.
Already, more people back the Opposition than the government. The last Newspoll and Fairfax Nielsen polls put two-party support for Labor at 52 per cent to the Coalition on 48.
It is still a long way to the next election and nobody believes that result would be replicated even if an election were held now.
But the sharp collapse in government enthusiasm is remarkable nonetheless - a reminder perhaps of the new volatility in politics as the big voting blocs of Labor and Liberal continue to fray.
These factors aside, Abbott is prey to a raft of situational factors of his own making.
First, there is his low popularity - he is the only prime minister in the contemporary era to be elected with a negative net approval rating.
Then there's the very live question of expectation management. Here, Abbott faces a deadly foe: an earlier version of himself, still strong in the voters' memories. Abbott the opposition leader, was the ultra-priest of political cut-through.
Complex policy challenges were reduced to cartoonically blunt goals such as stop-the-boats, axe-the-tax, end-the-waste, repay-the-debt, and balance-the-budget. Their strength was their simplicity, their memorability, their unadorned straight-forwardness.
Once in government however, those same qualities make the promises very difficult to resile from. In short, voters remember them.
It turns out, 'cut-through' cuts both ways.
Retro-fitting nuance into election slogans which had only masqueraded as policies, is seen for what it is - dissembling.
Witness the storm when Christopher Pyne claimed the government had not promised to keep Labor's Gonski school funding but rather just the school funding "envelope".
Voter reaction was scathing. Abbott was made to wear his election-eve declaration that he was on a unity ticket with Kevin Rudd on school funding, like a crown of thorns.
Retreat was inevitable. And costly.
Abbott to his credit, has since turned the failed deceit on schools into a kind of personal catharsis by reframing it as a prime ministerial lesson on the value of keeping your word - both in letter and in spirit.
Among the other explanations for the Government's surprisingly swift descent into unpopularity is the sense that the government is not what it said it would be. The Opposition has hammered this for all its worth but then, why not?
After all, Abbott came to power promising to restore trust, put the adults back in charge, run an open government, and end the inveterate profligacy of Labor.
Yet his response to problems as they have arisen has tended to assert the opposite. When the MP's entitlement stories emerged for example, Abbott refused to act. The promise of attacking dishonesty, of rooting out waste, of being open and accountable, evaporated. By his refusal to impose a new standard, Abbott sent the opposite message - that as Julia Gillard had with Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, Abbott would put his MPs ahead of voters, even if they were wrong.
Ditto for the alleged debt crisis. An Opposition waging a war on debt suddenly became a government looking to double the credit card limit. Of course it's not that simple, but when your entire policy fiscal policy was reduced to axe-the-tax, repay-the-debt, and end-the-waste, you can hardly cry foul when you are marked against such rudimentary benchmarks as well.
Abbott couldn't axe the taxes because he couldn't control the Senate - he knew that before the election. Now we find out he couldn't simply pay down the debt because it will keep growing even past this term. Again, he must have known this. And so it goes. And as for openness, his Border protection minister has been a monument to arrogance.
Going into 2014, the fortunes of the Abbott government will rest substantially on Treasurer Joe Hockey's ability to communicate a new more complicated message while stimulating a slowing economy. Abbott and his team have found out that governing is complex and that slogans might get you elected, but they are no substitute for policy.