Abbott's in, now what?
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Abbott's in, now what?

The Coalition government has yet to display purpose.

What is the point of the Abbott government?

It offered itself as a way to make the unattractive Labor spectacle go away. It accomplished that. But what now?

The polls suggest that the electorate is asking the question; the government's public behaviour suggests it doesn't yet have an answer.

Appearing pointless and aimless, the Abbott government is in a weaker position in the polls than any new government in the 40 years of the Fairfax Nielsen poll.

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<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</i>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

And that was before Christopher Pyne nominated himself as the minister most likely to be demoted for incompetence.

In a government enjoying scant goodwill in general and even less in education in particular, Pyne has brought a storm of outrage on himself and his colleagues.

In the upper levels of the government, there is anger and despair at the self-inflicted injury that Pyne has delivered so blithely.

Honeymoon? What honeymoon?

"It's now clear that the government has lost support since the election," says the Fairfax pollster, Nielsen's John Stirton, looking across the results of the 17 surveys by all polling firms since the election.

"It's the first government to be this weak this early, ever," or, at least, since polling started.

This week's two major polls in particular, the Fairfax Nielsen poll and the Newspoll, have jolted the government. It plans to make Abbott more visible and more forceful as a result.

The Prime Minister deliberately rationed his public appearances in his first 10 weeks in office. This was partly because he was preoccupied with setting up government. Partly because he was reacting against Labor's irrepressible urge to inject itself into every day's news cycle.

Events have found the government flat-footed.

He now realises he might have overdone it.

"We will use the next three weeks to finish the year with a strong narrative," says a strategist, seeking to answer the questions "why we changed the government and why it works for me".

It will need to. Because the electorate is having trouble figuring out the answer by itself.

The government's poor polling is irrelevant to the outcome of an election nearly three years away. But it is a result that contains important political information for the government.

Abbott begins a term of Parliament with very little political capital. He can't afford to waste any on stupidities, political indulgences and blunders.

The Prime Minister has tough decisions ahead. If his government is to make any serious progress on its promise to "pay back the debt", for instance, it will need to make some unpopular cuts to spending in its first budget, due in May.

For this and other difficulties, he needs to be building political capital, not frittering it.

"It's a bit like a Fred Nile honeymoon - not terribly exciting," says Stirton.

A government strategist offers the insider explanation for the missing honeymoon: "They're not giving us a honeymoon because they gave it to us 2½ years ago."

How can that be?

"They left the Labor government just six months into its term" after the 2010 election, when Julia Gillard announced the carbon tax. "They had left and moved on. We had the win 2½ years early. They'd already factored in Abbott winning the election, they'd already factored in getting rid of the carbon tax."

This is an intriguing explanation. It could well be right. There are two other likely contributors.

It's also true that Abbott brought no personal boost to his party's standing; he's the first opposition leader in the history of the Fairfax Nielsen poll to win government with a negative approval rating.

And it's also true that the Coalition campaigned for an overwhelmingly negative mandate - "the election is a referendum on the carbon tax" Abbott told us - rather than a positive one.

The carbon tax is not yet gone, but Labor is gone, and its two warring leaders are gone, too.

And the carbon tax will very likely be gone the moment the new Senate is sworn in next July. Likewise the mining tax. So what else is there?

Rebecca Huntley, who researches public opinion at Ipsos, guesses two factors are at work, neither helpful to the Coalition: "Voters' expectations of the government are not being met, and their fears are being realised."

The expectation, she says, was that "the focus will be on the economy, we won't hear much about asylum seekers, and we won't feel that the government is out of control.

"But the main focus has been on international problems and on Gonski," shorthand for the new school funding policy to which the Coalition pledged itself before the election but is now abandoning.

And the fears? "Before the election there was a fear about how an Abbott government would be in foreign relations, and some of that fear is being realised," notably in the crisis in relations with Indonesia.

So it's more than just so-called messaging - it's also about substance.

The government's performance falls into two broad categories. One is its performance on its pre-existing agenda, its plan. The other is on its response to the unforseen.

At least insofar as the public can see, the government has been struggling with both.

Emerging events have found the government flat-footed and surprisingly clumsy, surprising because Abbott and his senior team have all worked in government before. They are not neophytes.

The first big one was the emergence of politicians' dodgy expenses claims. The second was the exposure of Australian spying on Indonesia's President, his wife and his senior ministers.

In both cases, Abbott had the same reflex response: to tough it out. In both he struck an uncompromising stance that allowed him no room for manoeuvre. He would not review the system of politicians' expenses. He would not give Indonesia's leader the explanation he sought.

In both cases, the pressure mounted. In both cases, the Prime Minister was forced to capitulate.

This pattern produces the worst of both worlds; his toughness is exposed to be phoney, his judgment shown to be wrong, and the damage is not stemmed early but protracted.

Why is the judgment of such an experienced team so flawed? It seems to be mainly Abbott's impulse to govern on his own terms, on his own agenda, and not to be swayed by events. But being "grown up" - the mantra of his promised political management style - is not about dominance; it's about judgment.

The third significant event was China's abrupt declaration last weekend that it would impose an air defence notification zone on a small group of islands in the East China Sea. These islands are the subject of a long-running and fast-escalating dispute between China and Japan.

Tokyo calls them the Senkaku, Beijing the Diaoyu islands. Australia, and most other regional powers, had urged both sides to avoid any sudden, unilateral moves that would destabilise the region.

In other words, Australia did not want to see a war break out between its two biggest trading partners. The US is pledged to defend Japan's interests in the islands if they were to come under attack.

So China's sudden announcement that any aircraft flying near the islands had to give prior notice to Beijing was very dangerous and destabilising. Its newly invented zone overlaps those of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Was the Abbott government right to urge China to cease and desist? The Abbott government would have been irresponsible if it had not. The US, Japan and South Korea, as well as Australia, have rejected Beijing's provocative move. The next step for the governments of the region is to quietly seek some circuit-breaking mechanism to prevent escalation.

The second significant category of Abbott government performance is its pre-existing plan.

In the public view, at least, this hasn't been going so well either. There is no impressive progress. That's not a serious problem; only the unreasonable would demand big change in just three months. But Pyne's mishandling of the school funding decision is a spectacular blunder.

He was supposed to announce that careful examination of the books showed that Labor had left a mess; that it had left behind a structure of gross inequity between the states; and that it had surreptitiously whipped away $1.2 billion in funding.

He was supposed to announce that the Abbott government would repair the inequity, restore $230 million of the funds that had gone missing, and consult with the states and the school systems to fix all the problems.

Instead, he managed to convey only that the government was cancelling its promise to deliver Labor's school funding plan.

The most devastating critique came from the NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli: "There's no doubt that what seems to be happening is that states that signed up [to Labor's Gonski plan] are being punished and the states that didn't are being rewarded," he told The Australian newspaper.

"They can punish me as much as they like but I'm not the one being punished. It's the million students in NSW, and I find that difficult as a human being. It's immoral."

He is accusing Pyne of playing a vindictive political game at the expense of school children. And that's from a Coalition member.

The Abbott government has been quietly putting in place processes for a substantial agenda of economic reform. But none of that is yet showing results. In the interim, the news is full of Abbott's poorly managed events and Pyne's broken promise.

His government wants Australians to go to their Boxing Day barbecues remarking on how the new government is in charge, and looking after things that matter to ordinary people. They have a lot of work to do.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.

Peter Hartcher is Political Editor and International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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