Tony Abbott has a plan for Australia. We have his own word for this. By contrast, he says that Labor has abandoned any plan, sense of direction or policy coherence, and is focused simply on survival - more indeed on the survival of Julia Gillard than government itself.
He, or the actions of Gillard herself, or the critics within her party, may well have convinced most of the electorate that Labor does not deserve re-election on its merits. But many voters still have little idea of what the Abbott plan is, or how the world will be a better, or even different, place after the middle of September. What little they do know amounts to little more than slogans and collections of field-tested ''strong'' and ''warm'' adjectives, almost all in the comparative rather than the superlative form.
Here's a collection from but three sentences of Tony Abbott's introduction to ''Our plan: Real solutions for all Australians'':
Great potential, stronger Australia, stronger economy, stronger communities, cleaner environment, stronger borders, more modern infrastructure, more productive and diverse economy, lower taxes, higher wages, better services, modernised economy, right policies, competitive manufacturing, dynamic services, growing knowledge economy, strong vibrant small business sector, stronger jobs growth.
I think I am in favour of all of these virile, manly, positive and comforting things, though it is by no means obvious to me that any encapsulate the difference between Liberal and Labor policies. Or even that Labor, however woeful its performance, must be automatically assumed to be in favour of things that are weaker, smaller, lesser, dirtier, less modern or productive, or more unreal.
Gillard indeed has her own rhetoric devices - and equally unconvincing comparative adjectives - to symbolise all of the supposed weaknesses of Coalition policy, in a manner equally devoid either of policy implication or even indication of priorities.
Nor is one much helped by Liberal pamphlets proclaiming that ''we will deliver a strong, prosperous economy, and a safe secure Australia''.
There's a slightly sharper focus with promises about getting ''the budget back under control, cutting waste and starting to reduce debt'', building more infrastructure with an emphasis on gridlocked roads, promising better health and education by focusing on local control of facilities and better co-operation with the states, and by helping ''families get ahead by freeing them from the burdens of the carbon tax - to protect Australian jobs and reduce cost of living pressures, especially rising electricity and gas prices''. Only the confirmed promise of removing the carbon tax is able to be put up as a performance indicator, and the electorate is no wiser about the what, the more, the how and the how much. One can expect a new avalanche of spin from a new prime minister.
Neither these headline policies, nor detail released so far, indicate what Abbott will be telling his ministers, and what his ministers will be telling department secretaries, on September 20. The bureaucracy will be looking for clear guidance about where the brakes are to be applied, where it is steady as one goes, and when there is scope for a push on the accelerator.
There should be no great change with most government activity, at least until cabinet expenditure review committees get to work. At least 90 per cent of federal health expenditure is not controversial; much the same could be said of education, defence, foreign affairs, agriculture, trade, social security, community welfare, Centrelink, treasury, finance, and prime minister and cabinet-style functions. Ministers will want to announce new initiatives to show that a new team is in charge, to rename and slightly rejig many essentially uncontroversial Labor programs so that they can claim that they are now Abbott government initiatives. A good example might be with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, soon to be more identified with Abbott than Bill Shorten.
Likewise Abbott will ceremoniously slash and burn some key programs which became (rightly or wrongly) symbols of Labor incompetence, corruption, politicisation, or proof of Labor's wicked socialist tendencies.
Abbott will want be seen to be acting quickly on his new (or renewed old) approach in repelling refugees, and promises to abolish carbon tax and mining resource rent taxes, restructuring of the national broadband network, and prudent and virtuous efforts to attack deficits and government debt. Powerful ministers - such as Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb - will be determined (if needs be with the help of external critics such as Peter Costello, Peter Reith and bodies such as the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies) to keep Abbott's nose to the grindstone about budget management - the more so because the big end of town does not trust Abbott on economic matters.
Yet he will also be itching to get going on some programs able to give some impression of a refreshing, responsible government opening the windows, getting things moving again, sparking business and consumer confidence, letting the electorate throw away its dreary Labor shackles. He will be keen to show that he means business on vague plans about new policies and enthusiasms in Aboriginal affairs, with maternity leave, and an even more coercive labour market approach. All the more importantly, given that he will be struggling to find proofs that health or education schemes are new, or changing anything much - difficult enough in any circumstances, given the primary role of the states.
As it happens, both health and education have become more decentralised in recent years, so any change will not necessarily reflect new policies. Labor has a big array of infrastructure programs, and has been pruning government expenditure, and looking (if unsuccessfully) for budget balance over the past three years. It seems hard to imagine that voters expect much better, or more efficient, from Abbott.
Abbott and his would-be ministers are experienced, familiar with most of the players in a largely unspoiled public service, and know how things work. Neither Rudd nor Gillard really changed much about Howard-era programs or methods of working, so that only a little tweaking can restore the gear to neutral.
Abbott is rightly accused of being light on policy detail, and even lighter on his costings. He will steadfastly deny a secret industrial relations agenda, and mean it, even if, later, he will come under pressure from colleagues to move on the subject. Nor, probably, are there secret, unpleasant surprises, planned - even if voters should fear, as ever, that Abbott may do something erratic. Yet he may well get away with few firm commitments, if only because the signs are that the public has lost confidence in the government, and would take almost anything else. The view of party disunity, incompetence, corruption and want of any sense of direction may represent, in part at least, either misperception or miscommunication, but it is difficult to see much improvement in immediate prospect, whether from the words or deeds or reactions to events of the leader, or from her team. Abbott does not want to be the issue, and his plan is little more than an uncontroversial statement of good intentions. If he wants any contrast with Labor, it will be with images of Gillard and her government in the foreground, not the background.
Jack Waterford is editor-at-large at the The Canberra Times.