The end of the year can’t come soon enough for Tony Abbott. And it’s got nothing to do with the call of Christmas and lazy summer holidays. It’s hard to imagine an Australian Prime Minister who’s had a worse first full year in office. But Abbott is unlikely to be too fervent in wishing for the onset of the new year, because 2015 promises more of the same.
If Abbott is to have a happy new year – or at least a happier one – he will need to have heeded the lessons of this one first.
There’s precious little sign of that, despite his weekend announcement that the government will restructure the much criticised and until now sacrosanct paid parental leave scheme in favour of more money being spent on childcare. Given the absence of detail it smacks more of an 11th hour bid to calm his restless backbench over the Christmas break than deliberate policy crafting.
When a government has had such a bad year as this one it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when things started to turn toxic, but it’s hard to go past the Brisbane G20 leaders’ summit on November 15-16. What should have been a triumph for Abbott, an opportunity to recast his troubled government, was a humiliating fiasco.
Abbott’s empty boasts of “shirt-fronting” Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 set the scene for an embarrassing anti-climax. Far from confronting Putin for Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysian MH17 over Ukraine, the two leaders ended up having their photos taken cuddling koalas.
Nor did it help that Abbott’s opening address at the summit was a less than statesmanlike laundry list of domestic political difficulties faced by his government. For good measure, Abbott was outplayed and outmanoeuvred on his insistence that climate change play no part in the summit, most notably by Australia’s best buddy on the world stage, US President Barack Obama.
The barnacle-infested Abbott government has been in a state of perpetual crisis since the disastrous G20.
Victoria’s election on November 29 – in which new Labor Premier Daniel Andrews won comfortably against Denis Napthine’s Coalition government – intensified the political pressure on the Abbott government.
It was yet another black mark against the Abbott government, but there was something far more menacing about Labor’s win in Victoria: it was the first time since 1955 that a one-term government had been shown the door by voters.
Voter are angry and less forgiving
This was a serious psychological blow to the unpopular Abbott government which had taken heart from the conventional wisdom of modern Australian politics that even faltering first-term governments are given a second term to find their feet.
Labor’s win in Victoria after just one term in opposition represents more than a psychological setback for Abbott. It confirms what has been evident for some time: today’s voters are angry and less forgiving of governments they don’t like. Bear in mind that federal Labor only narrowly avoided being a one-term government in 2010, with Julia Gillard returned as a minority prime minister.
Whatever hope Abbott and his nervous backbench pinned to the mantra that one-term governments don’t lose elections ended with the Victorian election.
On that very day, Phillip Coorey in the Australian Financial Review, usually friendly turf for the conservatives, offered this barnacle-raising summation of the government’s woes:
“For the Abbott government the culprit is the May budget, a document so laden with broken promises, surprises and excuses and, crucially, perceived as unfair, it has sent the government reeling in the polls and crippled its credibility. The impact has been more marked because, in opposition, Abbott had campaigned on trust more than anything else. … He left his government no wriggle room.”
Abbott knows that he is unpopular and that his government is vulnerable. Well, he does and he doesn’t. Abbott’s December 1 “mea culpa” press conference in Canberra was more revealing of the PM’s tin ear than his humility.
This press conference was an attempt to “reboot” after a particularly damaging week bordering on high farce, dominated by yet another broken promise, the ABC funding cuts, and the government’s tortured sophistry variously aimed at explaining, depending on the day, that no such promise was made, that the substance of the promise was misunderstood, or that the cuts weren’t cuts at all. (Finance Minister Mathias Cormann stated outright that there no cuts; and Abbott initially insisted that they were not cuts but an “efficiency dividend”.)
Defending the $254 million cut, Abbott even had the hide to declare in Parliament: “This is a government which has fundamentally kept faith…with the Australian people.”
Even the Weekend Australian, on the eve of the December 1 press conference, could take no more. It editorialised: “Stop the silly slogans, start fixing a damaged budget”. The leading article went on to describe the government as “hesitant, tongue-tied and confused”.
A ‘ragged week’ is a long time in politics
The increasingly demoralised government backbench would have been hoping for the best from the December 1 press conference. Unfortunately, Abbott’s best was more of the same. The Prime Minister conceded it had been a “ragged week” – a new entrant to the Australian political lexicon. But he also stressed: “It’s been a year when this government has demonstrated guts, commitment and strength of character on a whole host of issues.” He might have added “chutzpah”.
Abbott appeared to concede that it had not been a great week, but then insisted this was largely a matter of “atmospherics”. Look beyond the atmospherics and, “I think we are getting the message across very clearly”. Tony Abbott at his most insouciant.
Some might say this was a lost opportunity for Abbott to re-connect with the Australian electorate, but there never was any such connection. And that is the key to the very real prospect that the Abbott government is a one-term wonder.
Abbott may not be aware of his feet of clay, but most of his ministers and backbenchers are only too aware. With Abbott, what you see is what you get. And that’s the problem. There is nothing to reset.
If Abbott was even an inch a leader, he would do away with his sycophant “political warrior” advisers and surround himself with intellectual rigour, diversity and candid counsel. Over a year into government the Prime Minister’s office remains consumed with putting out brush fires, many of them of their creation.
Abbott insists his private office delivered the Coalition government. Fine. Send them flowers, and on their way, because their job is done.
Even if Abbott lacks the self-awareness to be his own worst critic, has it occurred to him that given the dire straits of his government that perhaps his office is not as flash as he thinks it is?
Abbott and his office refuse to acknowledge how deeply unpopular the Prime Minister is. And it’s not because of atmospherics. It’s because Australians are on to him, and they always have been.
Australians were at no stage convinced that Abbott was PM material when they went to the polls in September last year, but Kevin Rudd was unable to provide them with enough reason to follow their instincts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Abbott couldn’t even crack it for the traditional first-term honeymoon period.
Honeymoon over before it started
On 25 November 2013, the first Fairfax Nielsen opinion poll published since the September 7 election showed that Federal Labor, under new leader Bill Shorten, led the Coalition in the two-party preferred vote 52% to 48%. It was a major boost for Shorten, and just the first of many indicators that this was a government in trouble.
At that time I wrote in BRW: “The Abbott government should be in no doubt about the import of this poll: it reveals an unprecedented case of voters’ remorse that should be taken as a warning that voters expect much more of this government.”
One year later, voters remain unimpressed with the Abbott government, and Abbott himself. On 18 November, The Australian published the results of the 14th consecutive Newspoll to show Labor ahead of the government, on this occasion 55% to 45%. Shorten, without having to lift a finger, was ahead of Abbott as preferred PM 43% to 37%.
The government is so unpopular that it was unable to use the acclaim for Abbott’s handling of the MH17 tragedy as a circuit breaker. Nor was Abbott able to translate being a “war time” Prime Minister – when he committed Australian military forces to Iraq to fight the Islamic State terrorist group – into a galvaniser of public support for his government.
The government could not have ended 2014 on a lower note: its relationship with the Senate is in tatters; its May budget strategy is gutted; beleaguered Treasurer Joe Hockey has every reason to fear what the new year will bring; criticism of the PM’s office, and Peta Credlin in particular, intensified; and the government’s policy agenda, including university deregulation, the GP co-payment and even Abbott’s “signature” paid parental leave scheme are in limbo.
Abbott’s abundant weaknesses as a leader might not have been so glaringly obvious if he had a ministry of talent, vision and resolve. Instead, we have one of the weakest government frontbenches in living memory. Any ministry contains its deadwood, shirkers and beneficiaries of political favours, but that comes nowhere near explaining the weakness of the Abbott government.
Tony Abbott is no John Howard
With an election not due until 2016, Tony Abbott has time to save his prime ministership and his government. As he is fond of pointing out, most recently at the December 1 press conference, there is recent precedent:
“Let’s not forget that the Howard government had a pretty rocky first term. The Howard government was in a diabolical position at different periods in the first term and yet it recovered to win its second election and then went on to be arguably the most successful post-war government Australia has had.”
Except that Abbott is no John Howard. If Abbott is to avoid Denis Napthine’s historic fate, he has some tough decisions to make.
First, Peta Credlin has to go, and his private office must be overhauled. Secondly, he has to decentralise decision making and devolve accountability in his government. Abbott has professed to be an admirer of Westminster-style cabinet government: it’s time he put his text-book theory of government into practice. Thirdly, he must have a ministerial reshuffle early in the new year, not just to give the impression of renewal, but to ensure that the best men and women are entrusted with the government of the nation.
That means Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton and David Johnstone, for starters, must be demoted to more appropriate junior portfolios, if not out of the ministry altogether. Fourth, Malcolm Turnbull should be appointed to the job he should have had in the first place – Treasurer – even if that is politically inconvenient for Abbott.
Were Abbott capable of doing these things, he would be well on the way to achieving the final plank of his rescue mission: Tony Abbott has to grow up. The government of the nation does not require a smirking, winking Opposition Leader with a grab bag of catchphrases, talking points and slippery slogans.
He won the position he fought for; now it’s time he started behaving like the Prime Minister. If he doesn’t, the voters will surely deliver their verdict in 2016 – if his own colleagues don’t beat them to it first.