In September, when voters appointed Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, I wrote in the unlikely Right-Left combination of Quadrant Online and The Drum that the more people see of Abbott the more they’ll like him. Post-election opinion polls suggest this isn’t happening.
Last Tuesday’s Newspoll giving a divided and discredited Labor Party under new leader Bill Shorten a two-party preferred lead over the three-month-old Abbott Coalition government is not a positive endorsement of the Opposition. Instead, it indicates uneasiness about the government’s direction and performance. It is an anti-climactic way for Abbott to end 2013.
If not tackled quickly, such early perceptions will harden and make the Coalition’s re-election in 2016 no sure thing. The Coalition’s own recovery after its drubbing by Kevin Rudd and Labor in 2007 should remind complacent Coalition supporters that electoral dominance is more than a big majority of bums on parliamentary seats: voter support is ever-fragile, and no election these days is a sure thing.
As part of taking stock as the year draws to a close, there are four things that the government needs to do.
First, get its story straight. The Coalition thrashed Labor on the pledge to repeal the carbon and mining taxes, stop asylum-seeker boats and rein in debt, the deficit and waste. Yet in its first three months, the Senate blocked those tax repeals, while relations with Indonesia – crucial to the Australia’s ability to supress people-smuggling – were strained by the fallout from the Rudd-era Yudhoyono eavesdropping scandal. Meanwhile, the Government’s standout legislative achievement was abolishing the previous government’s debt ceiling to allow the deficit to grow, rather than shrink. And having campaigned hard on waste in government, it badly misjudged the electorate’s anger about perceived abuses of parliamentary entitlements.
That most of these problems were inherited from the departed Labor regime is immaterial: this is now the Coalition’s watch and, having rejected Labor decisively, people want equally decisive action from their elected leaders. After three months, the polls indicate at least some voters are thinking that Abbott is not in control of his own agenda or, worse, that the agenda didn’t really matter in the first place. Even Blind Freddie can see that these are dangerous perceptions, however untrue.
Second, the government needs to bend over backwards to keep its promises, even those made unwisely. If any one factor ensured the government’s poor Newspoll result it was education minister Christopher Pyne’s belligerently and ultimately pointlessly shirtfronting of the states over schools-funding deals based on the Gonski review, contradicting pre-election assurances. Pyne, Abbott and the government generally were damaged by the uproar and their handling of it. If they didn’t like Gonski, the Coalition should never have committed to honouring Labor’s Gonski funding deals in the campaign.
To last in government, promises made must be promises kept.
Third, the government’s political management needs rejigging. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s deliberate goading of General Motors to “come clean” on whether Holden keeps manufacturing in Australia may not have forced Detroit’s hand, but his politically-stupid intervention made it all too easy for Labor and the unions to blame the new government for the GM’s final decision to leave in 2017. The Gonski uproar and the Holden decision are sharp reminders that governments need to think strategically to anticipate problems and prepare for contingencies. While many Abbott ministers were junior ministers or parliamentary secretaries in the Howard government, only eight ministers have prior Cabinet experience (nine including John Howard’s revered chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos) – several of those only in 2007. Some supposedly experienced players under Abbott are re-learning old political lessons as a result of their hubris. Joe and Christopher, come on down.
Also as part of improving political management, misperceptions that Abbott has devolved his personal authority to his office need scotching. The tight command-and-control regime so successful in opposition isn’t translating when it comes to running a sprawling and bloated government. Abbott is a strong believer in Cabinet authority and deliberative decision-making, and he is pledged to restore strong Cabinet processes after the aberrations of the Rudd and Gillard years. As part of honouring that commitment, the Prime Minister needs to ensure that his and other ministers’ offices support Cabinet , not the other way around. The debate over the controlling influence of Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin is a debate that should never have been allowed to arise, because it’s a role she should not have been allowed to have.
Lastly, Abbott and his senior team desperately need a few weeks off. The 2013 election campaign actually started in June, 2010, federal politics being conducted at breakneck speed ever since. Mistakes and misjudgements since the government’s election at least partly reflect creeping fatigue from relentless campaigning. Even the fittest can wilt under unceasing pressure. As the annual silly season begins, the best thing the PM, ministers and key advisers can do to refocus is get away, spend some time with their families, watch the cricket, and read some trashy novels instead of briefing papers. Abbott is himself taking a Christmas family holiday in France, a country whose current president was elected to replace an unpopular predecessor but now has the lowest-ever approval rating, will more than recharge him: it will give him fresh perspective about political fallibility.
As I wrote in September, Abbott is smart, talented and likeable. He has the stuff of a great Prime Minister in the making. The round of “100 days” media interviews Abbott did to end the parliamentary year highlight his admirable willingness (all too rare in political leadership) to reflect, admit mistakes made and learn from them. His end-of-year challenge is to address, decisively, the unexpected teething problems dogging the early months of his government, and to head off negative voter perceptions becoming entrenched.
How Abbott responds in 2014 is crucial, but supporters frustrated by the government’s stuttering start can be encouraged by his self-awareness and renewed respect for the electorate, while his political enemies are yet again deluding themselves about him.
Terry Barnes was a senior ministerial adviser to Tony Abbott in the Howard government