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May 24th 2013 print

James Allan

Truth or consequences, Mr Abbott

David Cameron and Julia Gillard are each on the nose with voters, who have watched their leaders' whoppers piling up. There is a lesson there, one it is to be hoped will stay any Coalition impulse to mislead


Let’s assume that Mr. Abbott is going to win the upcoming election. I certainly think he will. In fact I think he’s going to win quite easily. But that’s then. What about now? What can Mr. Abbott do now that will help him later?


And here’s the answer. He must only make promises he absolutely intends to fulfill. Trust will be a crucial ingredient in any long-term success of an Abbott government.

Let me make this point by having you consider what is happening to David Cameron’s Tory government in the United Kingdom. Almost three years into its coalition with the Liberal Democrats it is imploding, in slow motion. In fact, one of the most recent polls puts the Cameron Tories at 24% support, 11 points behind Labour, but, more significantly, only two points ahead of UKIP’s 22%.

In my view one of the biggest problems for Cameron is that far too many people, members of his own party and regular Tory voters, simply do not trust the man any longer. Back when he was in opposition he gave what he called a ‘cast iron guarantee’ that there would be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. But in office he reneged on this, on the basis it was now too late.

Oh, and he promised beforehand to fix the anti-marriage bias in the tax code. But thus far he has done nothing on that front.

He promised to get on top of the previous Labour government’s gross over-spending. But despite all the talk of austerity, his government now spends more than the previous Labour one. All Cameron has managed to do is reduce the rate of increase. This is pretty small potatoes, as the amount spent on servicing the debt goes up and up. Meantime, Cameron has found the parliamentary time to do things that were nowhere mentioned in the Tories’ manifesto, things like hammering defence spending, revamping the NHS and legislating for same sex marriage.

All of this makes it no wonder that many people otherwise inclined to vote Tory simply do not trust what he says. So Cameron can now promise up and down that after the next election he absolutely, positively will hold a referendum on continued membership of the European Union, but such promises are flat out disbelieved by many people. Saying he double-swears it or no longer has his fingers crossed behind his back won’t cut it. Lose trust and nothing you say helps much.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is a textbook example of that particular phenomenon. So here’s what I think Mr. Abbott absolutely must do after he wins this September’s election.

First off, he must legislate to get rid of the carbon tax, and he must pursue that promise even if it means holding a double dissolution election. I expect as much. So do most voters. Frankly I believe that the Labor Party, shorn of Ms Gillard and with a new leader, will roll over on this one. But if it doesn’t, so be it. Call the double dissolution election and honour your promise.

The other big pledge that must be kept is to fix our free-speech problem. So s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act must be repealed. It’s a travesty. Abbott and Brandis said most of it (I say all of it) would go. So go it must.

On the other hand, Abbott must say now, before the election, that if the accounts are as terrible as we all think they will be, that his paid parental leave scheme will be put on hold. Personally, as a small government guy, I hate the idea and the promise to bring it in. I know that no political party will offer up everything any one voter likes, but this strikes me as pretty woeful stuff.

Still, Mr. Abbott likes it. He thinks it will be affordable. But at the very least he needs to qualify the promise now so that, if the books are terrible, he can delay its implementation, if nothing else.

Let’s be honest. Australian voters are craving a dollop of honesty and promise-keeping after what must be considered that most wayward government of all time. If Abbott confines himself to doing what he promises, and not doing what he didn’t promise, he’ll be in fine shape in three years to tell the voters that we need to fix our now-awful labour laws.

But Mr. Abbott is correct not to tackle this until a second term. He needs to show that he can be trusted. And then he can perhaps take up this suggestion. He can promise before the election after next that he will amend the labour laws so that they are exactly as they were before the WorkChoices legislation. That will still be a big improvement on now. And it will make the scare campaigns hard to run.


And one last thing. Mr. Abbott needs to signal now that he will take a look at the ABC, its financing and lack of balance

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law, University of Queensland (on sabbatical at the University of San Diego School of Law)