The “adults” have a lot of growing up to do

ScreenHunter_03 Jun. 26 21.56

Cross-posted from The Conversation

It is just 100 days on Monday since the election, but the Abbott government lacks that air of excitement that power often brings. Rather, it is staggering towards Christmas, mugged by moving from rhetoric to reality, from the disciplined order of opposition to the setbacks and unexpected challenges of office.

We will do, Abbott pledged before the election, reeling off intentions, only to find there are many things, including the core promises of repealing the carbon and mining taxes, that he can’t do, at least for the moment.

He’d run a government of no surprises, he said. Well, he has been surprised, unpleasantly – most notably by the revelations about Australian spying in Indonesia, as well as by Holden’s intended departure.

And there’s been the unsettling reminder that voters were more anxious to throw out Labor than enthusiastic about the Coalition; now they’re unimpressed by the government’s early efforts. This week’s Newspoll had the ALP leading 52-48%. Satisfaction with Abbott’s performance was 40% – it has fallen steadily from 47% in October. Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s satisfaction rating was 44% – it has risen steadily from 32% in October.

On any measure, the Abbott government has had a faltering start.

The spectacular own goal was its attempt to cut back on the promised Gonski school money – the full catastrophe of a broken promise and two backflips.

The dramatic crisis – Indonesia’s reaction to the spying revelations – was not its fault, but the early handling lacked deftness.

The announcement of Holden’s 2017 departure is a more complicated story. Despite the company’s claims, it is nearly impossible to believe General Motors hadn’t made its decision before this week, and it was reasonable for the government to press for public clarification.

But the optics were bad. It has been easy for the opposition to portray the government as standing over the multinational (though that notion is surely absurd) and as parsimonious when so much was at stake.

As well, losing Holden, while economically rational and indeed inevitable in the long run, is not something any government wants on its watch.

During the censure debate Labor brought on yesterday, Bill Shorten put in a stronger performance than did Abbott, regardless of the relative merits of their arguments.

The new government has found itself frustratingly unable to deliver in important areas. It’s huffing and puffing on the carbon tax left the Senate unmoved. That was not unexpected, and will likely be fixed in time.

But now Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has had to retreat on the Coalition’s NBN commitments, with a spectacular broken promise.

A review of the project has estimated the Coalition’s version will cost $11.5 billion more than the $29.5 billion earlier estimated; the government has been forced to retreat on its pre-election commitment that by 2016 all Australians would have access to download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.

As a defence, Turnbull yesterday stressed the Coalition had said its undertakings would depend on finding out what it didn’t know. He dubbed this a “health warning” (a twist on “disposable” or “non core” promises – voters should beware of “health warnings” in future.)

Turnbull himself is something of an island within the government – former leader, articulate, publicly popular, a moderate. He might have a lot on his hands now, but he’ll ultimately be under-used. He must contrast the portfolio mire in which he finds himself – which includes having to defend the ABC from some of his feral colleagues – with the position of Treasurer Joe Hockey, who confronts many problems but also has a vast sweep of power.

Three months has told us something about the government’s power centres, and the good and not so good performers.

The National party is happy. It had a big win with Hockey’s rejection of ADM’s takeover bid for GrainCorp. While he received some stick for his tough talk on Holden, Nationals leader Warren Truss, whose understated style often sees him under-estimated, came across as having gravitas when he was acting PM this week.

Deputy Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has kept out of trouble, even if colleagues note that during his fiery answers in question time he goes red to the ears (literally).

Hockey has the demeanour of a man determined to make a mark, and do it quickly (eyes on outdoing Peter Costello?). The Liberal dries hated his GrainCorp decision but Hockey looks to be winning more than he’s losing. His Holden hype wasn’t pretty, but he’d wear criticism of that as a badge of honour. He’s previously expressed the view that unpopularity goes with the Treasury job.

He’ll be centre stage next week when he releases the mid year economic and fiscal outlook. As will the NBN, so with MYEFO (and much else): the story will be that everything is worse than anticipated.

There won’t be big new savings – they are for later – although we’ll probably hear what in education is being cut to restore the Gonski money. Debt and deficit are being described as shocking. Hockey said this week that debt would go beyond $500 billion (so he must be relieved the Senate refused to approve the bill for a $500 billion ceiling, compromising on having no ceiling at all).

Abbott, despite his reputation for rising damp, is sticking with Hockey’s “dry” direction, at least on Holden and Qantas. He told the party room yesterday the government’s greatest equity was its economic and budget credibility and it wouldn’t run down the street waving a blank cheque at unprofitable businesses.

But the government hasn’t been able to hide some significant divisions – on GrainCorp, between the Nats/rural Liberals and the Liberal dries; on Holden, between Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and cabinet colleagues.

And there has been plenty of gripes about the command-and-control approach adopted by Abbott’s office, run by his chief of staff Peta Credlin.

Abbott is trying to keep his “tone” low key, and to attempt where possible to cast himself as above the partisan fray. During the exchanges about Holden he insisted he didn’t want to “play politics” (even as he did so).

Some ministers have got into trouble by their shrillness. Scott Morrison came across dreadfully initially though he’s pulled back somewhat. Because his performance attracted such bad reviews, the large fall in boat arrivals has received less attention than it might have. Christopher Pyne enjoys the fray of politics too much for his own and the government’s good.

It’s to be expected that the government will in its early months load as much blame as possible onto its predecessor (except for the Indonesia spy issue, where Abbott commendably resisted the temptation).

But spare us the hypocrisy. At yesterday’s joint parties meeting, on Parliament’s last day, Abbott told his MPs that Labor was obstructing the Coalition at every turn. According to official sources he described the Labor’s conduct as “political and economic vandalism of a very high order, lacking in ethics or political morality”.

Aware that Labor is doing to the Coalition what it did to Labor, Abbott added that although the Coalition was said to be obstructive, there was a vital difference. “We tried to stop them breaking their promises, they are trying to stop us from keeping ours.” This, of course, is political tosh. The Coalition in opposition said “no” whenever it saw it as advantageous to do so.

Before the election, Abbott liked to talk in absolutes. Promises all to be kept. No surprises. No excuses. But government isn’t like that. We are getting broken promises, surprises and excuses. It was ever thus. The question is, are we seeing growing pains, or the start of a permanent condition?

Article by Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra

Comments

  1. Turnbull himself is something of an island within the government – former leader, articulate, publicly popular, a moderate. He might have a lot on his hands now, but he’ll ultimately be under-used. He must contrast the portfolio mire in which he finds himself – which includes having to defend the ABC from some of his feral colleagues – with the position of Treasurer Joe Hockey, who confronts many problems but also has a vast sweep of power.

    I’ll give Abbott a lot of credit for setting up Turnbull as Communications Minister.

    Combine Turnbull’s half-assed NBN plan with whatever the crazies can do to damage the ABC, and he will bleed support from those who would prefer him over Abbott (myself included).

    Not that Hockey’s been doing much better so far, but I think he at least has the portfolio potential to introduce some worthwhile reforms (whether he chooses to do so or not is a different matter).

    • interested party

      AB,

      I have reservations on Turnbull. He is cut from the same investment banker class cloth that has devised ways to commoditize almost every part of our lives. He comes across as a reasonable bloke but when push comes to shove I believe he will sell us out as just another trade. We are turning very american when we look to these types of people to represent/rule us. I may be wrong on this bloke, but i’ll wager I’m not. Investment bankers have sold the world so we need one as PM because….?

      • He comes across as a reasonable bloke but when push comes to shove I believe he will sell us out as just another trade.

        I must admit that I tend to agree but I don’t seen anyone much better on the Coalition side (or on Labor’s side for that matter).

      • Interested Party,

        I share some of your reservations about Turnbull.
        However, it is possible for some people to call upon deeper motivations when confronted with the power and opportunity to bring about change.
        I believe Turnbull showed signs of that during his brief tenure as Opposition leader.
        The mere fact that he was able to reach consensus with the Government on some big issues was in itself a promising sign.
        I remember when Ronal Reagan was running for President.
        Common wisdom was that America was doomed if a “B-grade actor” was ever elected to that office.
        Now, he is one of their most lauded and respected past leaders.
        It seems that leopards can change their spots under certain circumstances.

        @Tedblack44,

        You betcha!
        Although I don’t think this is petty warfare.
        These Tory wankers actually believe that this stuff is important.
        Makes ya just wanna cry, don’t it? 🙂

      • IP,

        I don’t see Turnbull as fitting that mold. I think his journalism background and work with Kerry Packer give him a base that is much broader and productive than a career banker.

        IIRC from Anabell Crabb’s Quarterly essay, Kerry Packer was a big influence on Turnbull. This and his connection with Neville Wran probably makes him far less mercenary than a investment banker stereotype would assume.

      • interested party

        AB
        The damn lot are woeful…….what the hell do we do?

        Nun, NQ,
        For me the jury is out, as I said….he does come across as a reasonable bloke and I am quite certain we will soon find out.

      • @interested party – I know what I do. I tune out of politics (with the exception of MB) and aim to position myself and my family for what I think is coming.

      • interested party

        AB

        Very similar with me and mine. This place(MB) is perfect to gauge where we are in the story’s that Chris Martinson, Aldous Huxley, Orwell have put together……eerily accurate and worrying.

      • IP,
        I know a number of people who’ve “done business” with this bloke.
        He’ll sell us out, no question.

    • Tedblack44MEMBER

      There are little whiffs of petty warfare in some of the floated agendas. Student Union fees. ABC bias. Better get on with some governing instead of focusing on the enemy. I think the Lobbyists own them. More of the Howard era will not fix some of the fundamental problems this country has at all three levels of government.

      • interested party

        If you add the household issues to that government list you realize we have fundamental problems on every level. This problem is soooooo deep, it may be a quicker exit if we try to dig through the hole and out the other side:).

  2. I think Abbot has good chance of becoming “Australia’s W” with the difference of Bush being, at least, very funny.

  3. Ms. Grattan is on the money as usual. ALP were thrown out as a very bad government, but only with hope that the new mob would be less bad.
    Note Daily Telegraph warning that they have been “very disappointing” after 100 days – after several years of solid support this is a shot across the bows and the PM would be well served to take it as such.
    To be fair they have had rough seas in which to transit to government (Indonesia and Holden) … don’t forget Rudd was in for 10 months before Lehmans collapsed. But they need to make some changes to improve performance ASAP.

    • Rubbish.

      Julia Gillard and Bob Carr would have sorted out the Indonesian and Holden issue in a flash.

      Tony Abbott has done boxing, something for which foot work is critical. But anybody can see that on these two issues his, and many others, his foot work has been appalling.

  4. Maybe we should thankful that in Australia when a political party wins an election they have so far been prepared to form a government.

    Doesn’t happen in all countries.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-25361082

    But then again, given the coalitions performance to date, or should I say lack of it, maybe it would have been better if the LNP had decided that they were now purely a protest party and refused to form government.

    Just think:
    – A workable relationship with Indonesia.
    – A much more competent and nuanced approach as a member of the UN Security Council.
    – Not being singled out at the recent Climate Conference as a main blocker to any progress.
    – A much better NBN option STILL being built.
    – The rail infrastructure of the 21st century being planned and built, not just the roads of the 21st century.
    – Two car manufacturers in Australia through to 2022.
    and the list goes on and will continue to be added too no doubt.

    • interested party

      ‘that they were now purely a protest party”

      Strewth, if they are the new kind of protest thingy, then what do WE call ourselves now? I don’t want to be in the same category as them.

      • Given the way the LNP is governing and particularly their performance in relation to the growing government debt under Labor compared to the LNP increasing debt by just as much, the charge that they are now in fact a protest party failing to come up with credible policy to match their retheric over 5 years of opposition is a very credible charge.

        Even the Greens, the archetypical protest party, were able to back up their performance with credible actions in the last term of government. A test which the LNP now fails.

        The LNP is now a protest party that doesn’t have a clue how to govern in vastly changed world. And to make matters worse we have a position on the security council to megaphone this fact to the world. At least Romney had the commonsense to realise that he was leading the wrong party at the wrong time in the US 2012 Presidential Election and had the decency to proverbially shoot himself in the foot. Australia had no such luck with Tony Abbott.

  5. I’ll await the 900 day verdict!

    To be fair there are a couple of communication issues that could’ve been handled differently. I hope for improvement on that front.

    Fortunately this lot are not yet as bad as Gillard and co (Shorten please don’t leave the country again. Plibersek is intolerable).

    • 3d1k,

      Further to my response. If you look you will note that the view statistics took a jump around the time of his election.

      I expect it to go viral some time around the 100 day mark.

    • I’d like to see Tanya and Malcolm as leaders. Do they have a regular spot on breakfast TV? I saw them this morning. I’m usually watching the ABC of course.

      Certainly the quality of debate was a notch or two higher than the usual pollybabble.

      Hey 3d, how’s your dirt file on Tanya?