Tony Abbott is now in the most difficult period of his first prime ministership, and hasn't much time, or luck, to spare. He has misjudged the electoral mood in what he has said or done so far. A man who skilfully made the last election a referendum on Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard seems unable to prevent the next election's being a referendum on himself. Even worse is an increasingly settled perception that his character, personality and record are not such that he would deserve to win any such beauty contest.
His barnacle-clearing and shuffling of his cabinet has not given him a fresh start and new directions, because he has continually denied any wrong turnings or misunderstandings of the electorate. At best he has admitted that he cannot make some things happen, while leaving the impression that he would like to. When John Howard dumped policies they were dead.
Abbott faces Bill Shorten, at this stage still an essentially colourless politician without charisma, identification with values or principles or capacity to articulate ideals or to stir the public passions. Abbott has tried to portray him as weak, spineless and disloyal, a creature of the Labor machine, and a creature of the union hierarchies. Voters may agree, but, it seems, would rather him than Abbott.
Shorten's Labor is popular in the polls not because of anything Shorten has actually said, done or stood for, but because he is not Abbott. Most people have few hopes and expectations about Shorten as prime minister, or a Labor government, but, for the moment at least, it might be enough for Shorten to promise a change from - more than a respite from - Tony Abbott.
Shorten has been promising something rather more this year than the persistent (but effective) oppositionism that has helped put Abbott's capacities in such a cruel spotlight (and, casually, reiterated Abbott's shameless hypocrisy in complaining of opposition negativity). This is the mid-cycle stage where an opposition party moves beyond mere attack and criticism to showing its ideas, policies, approaches, preferences and inclinations - and to reinforce perceived strengths, not least in the health, education and social welfare arena. At this stage, it's rather more for conveying impressions than for specifics promises. Labor does not yet want to promote sharply defined policies and programs that can be dissected by the government, with affordability and priority themselves made the issue.
One can simply say, for example, that Labor will abolish Medicare co-payments.
Abbott and the media will no doubt demand detail, costings, specification, and clear promises in every area of policy, as well as alternative budget bottom lines. Shorten can probably resist this, as Abbott did, at least until late in the election campaign.
Maddeningly for Abbott, the opposition has far more flexibility than he about what its policies and promises will be. The chaos of Gillard and Rudd has faded, for many, into ancient history, the more quickly given that the Abbott government has not proven to be, as it promised, one of the adults back in charge, but one as inept in formulating and selling policy, and in delivering outcomes. It's a process helped by the withdrawal of many Gillard and Rudd Labor figures from modern politics.
Indeed, even some of those who found the last government to be a nightmare may think it at least had some noble intentions. Abbott is preaching a certain economistic prudence, restraint and house-keeping message, but it is hardly in the language of altruism, aspiration or capacity to make voters feel good about themselves.
The fact that state-level polling suggests that Labor regimes resoundingly dismissed by the electorate are back in contention again underlines the risk of mere negative campaigning, as it were against the Gillard government, or mere claims to superior competence, or integrity.
Abbott has yet to define a forward-looking message of what re-election is "for". Labor will be trying, from Abbott's point of view, to verbal him by pointing to what he has tried, unmandated, to do in government. Voting for Abbott, Labor will presumably say, will lead to:
- further reduction of public spending and delivery of services to Australians;
- higher charges for health care, including, now, the claim that further cuts are necessary to fund the development of disability services;
- higher charges, and higher fees, for university education;
- effective cuts to public school funding, including effective abandonment of Gonski principles;
- effectively lower aged-pensions, later retirement, and reduced superannuation on retirement;
- reduced welfare benefits for about 40 per cent of the population, and long wait before access to the dole;
- reduced funding to the states for hospitals, schools and public infrastructure.
No doubt Labor will also rehearse the likelihood of an increased GST rate, with fewer exemptions (perhaps with the complicity of state Labor premiers), inequitably and unfair compensation packages weighed towards Hockey's "lifters" and away from "leaners", and a return of Workchoices. Workchoices may have been dead buried and cremated at the past two elections, but revived campaigns, among some Liberal ideologues, for individual work contracts, and the abolition of penalty rates may see the job insecurity of voters again becoming a major election issue. This insecurity was a major factor in the 2007 election when the economy was booming; it may well be more potent as the economy is in the doldrums.
Labor can be expected to say that it is against any such reduction in funding and services and to be able to successfully resist claims that it show how it will fund maintaining present services. It will be, after all, simply defending the status quo. Its claim that all of these, and other unmandated, "threats" from a Liberal government will be persuasive given that they were contained in the first, failed, Hockey Budget, and if in part deferred, delayed, or scraped off off as barnacles, not disavowed by Abbott.
It is hard to see the items as vote winners for Abbott. It is not easy even to see them as "reforms", or as part of an unfortunate, but necessary, bit of belt tightening, whether rendered necessary because of past Labor profligacy or present economic circumstances. The difficulty is not merely a consequence of failure to sell an austerity message, the repudiation of explicit promises, or the ineptness of Abbott, Joe Hockey, Mathias Cormann, Christopher Pyne and Peter Dutton in selling messages. It is, or could be if Labor can get its act together, the incapacity of government to explain how the cheque book remains open when it comes to business tax concessions, infrastructure boondoggles, Anzac celebrations and concentration camp policies.
Abbott's achievements - of "stopping the boats" and abolishing carbon and mining taxes - and the government's frustrated attempts to reduce spending, cut debt and deficits are somewhat nebulous as positives. They were not originally intended to be, so much as negatives about Labor. Nor is there much traction from whatever the government is doing on national security, on terrorism or in committing our armed forces to further doomed foolish and dangerous missions.
In the middle of his term, Abbott badly needs, but does not yet have, a positive achievement, an aspiration, or a policy by which his government will be remembered or defined a few years hence. Voters need a reason to vote for him again; as things stand, they have looked him over and, it seems, found him significantly wanting, in promise as much as delivery. It would take a miracle for Abbott to be able to make the next election about Shorten rather than himself.