What’s going on with the Abbott Government?


Cross-posted from The Conversation

For every opposition, the prospect of taking office – attaining politics’ ultimate prize, often after years of hard grind – can be relied upon to drown out the little noises of self-doubt and self-criticism that lurk inside the head of any reasonable politician.

The transition to power? We’re ready. There’s a whole bureaucracy devoted to helping us with that. And we’ve watched the other mob, that hopeless, talent-challenged crowd, mess it up; we know how to avoid the pitfalls. That’s the self-talk in which pretty much every new government indulges. Bear in mind, politics is very much a confidence-based activity, at least in the way that it’s habitually conducted in Australia.

The only time in recent history a new government genuinely entered on tip-toe was in 1999 when the Victorian ALP, led by Steve Bracks, shocked even itself by defeating the Kennett government.

Bracks knew his team was underprepared, so he organised workshops for his ministers, who were instructed on how to do their jobs by senior members of the then-highly regarded New South Wales government led by Bob Carr. Labor began slowly and quietly, went on to secure a landslide victory at the next election and held office for 11 years.

The contrast between that entry to power and the experience of the Abbott government in its first three months is stark.

Let’s get all of the concessions out of the way. The electoral term has a long way to run. Most new governments experience some early turbulence; this was the case under Hawke and Howard.

The power relationships inside the government have not yet been settled. Its policies have not yet had the opportunity to be felt. External events can change the political outlook dramatically – the biggest recent example being the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Having acknowledged the above, it still has to be asked: what’s going on with the Abbott government?

Events will always test a government, new or old. The revelations of the 2009 monitoring of the telephone traffic of senior members of the Indonesian government by what was then the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) were not attributable to anything Tony Abbott or his team had done.

And Abbott was caught in a very difficult position. He had to satisfy the diplomatic need to placate Indonesia while also meeting the imperative of not compromising Australia’s security.

He faltered, but he’s new to the role of being the nation’s spokesman to the world. No freshly minted prime minister has known how to fashion le mot juste right from the start.

The real problem for Abbott during those tense weeks after the DSD revelations hurt the Indonesia-Australia relationship came not from what was said then but from what the Liberal-National Coalition had said and done before.

The revelations came after a swaggering performance by the Coalition on asylum seeker policy in the months leading up to the election, which characterised Indonesia as a bumpkin state that would cop whatever an Abbott government would give it when it came to towbacks and boat buybacks.

That was the context. Once Abbott got a few words out of place in his response to the spying furore, the Indonesian government swooped.

There is a price to pay for being the most aggressive, unyielding opposition in recent memory. And the new government is in the process of paying it.

Under Abbott the opposition leader, there was nothing that could not be reduced to a slogan. Nor were there many issues that could not be subjected to a form of triangulation in which what was said or proposed could be read in several ways.

The best example of the latter is the question of man-made climate change. The government’s position is that it accepts the phenomenon as a reality. Its Direct Action policy is proffered as proof.

But the government is far more exercised by taking credit for killing the carbon tax. And it openly scoffs at the idea that any atmospheric events can ever be attributed to climate change – a curious way to express belief. How long will this approach be sustainable?

Of course, there are other examples that have been widely canvassed in recent weeks: the budget emergency that has lost its urgency; the debt crisis that necessitated the removal of a limit on future borrowings.

The most disturbing was the rolling catastrophe over education funding, Labor’s Gonski model being thrown out. On a crucial national policy, the government simply made it up as it went along. Education minister Christopher Pyne came out of it looking like an utter fool.

The result was that to rescue itself from a self-created disaster, the government – with finances already under heavy strain – produced A$1.2 billion extra and threw it, no strings attached, at the holdout regimes of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory so that it could say that it had reached a fully national funding agreement.

Has there ever been a government that’s had to buy itself out of a massive political problem in its first three months?

This suggested a lack of process inside the government, a lack of hard policy work during the opposition years and a lack of direction, of clearly thought-through goals.

A distressing possibility is that in office the Coalition has gorged on its slogans and still believes its overriding mission is to disgrace the Labor Party. Here’s hoping that’s not so. It’s no way to run a government.

Article by Shaun Carney, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University



Unconventional Economist
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  1. Carney was very good on the failings of Gillard. I’m happy enough (hopeful?) that the Abbott Government will finesse its communication issues – think Credlin is largely on the right path – but expect turbulent times via economic issues and media excitement.

    • “I’m hopeful that the Abbott Government will finesse its communication issues”

      Is that what you call it? Finessing?! Now I’ve heard everything.

      I’d call it a series of monumental fuckups the like of which we’ve never seen so early in a governments term. But hey, I’m not paid to come here and spin for the Liberal Party like you are.

      • Seems like voters agree with you (and I) Lorax.


        The Abbott government’s extraordinary collapse in public support has been confirmed in the latest Newspoll, which puts Labor well ahead on a two-party basis and shows the Coalition has lost its carbon tax advantage.

        The Newspoll, published in The Australian on Tuesday, finds the Coalition’s election winning margin has been erased in just three months, with Labor now leading the two-party preferred vote with 52 per cent compared to the Abbott government’s 48 per cent.

      • Does this mean they no longer have a “mandate” ? That they no longer represent “the will of the people” ?

  2. It is rare for a government to come in to office with a well considered plan for reform, that they were prepared to spend political capital on. I can only think of Hawke & Kennett. Howard had a similar quiet patch after being elected but soon found events take over with Port Arthur and then the Asian Crisis. Abbott is having a similar settling in period, but given the challenges we face I am sure events are about to shape his policies one way or another.

    On this whole Carbon tax issue though I would have thought the left wing carbon set would be happy Qantas paid out $100M in Carbon tax contributing to its certain demise as well as the rest of our heavy industry shutting down. That was the point of it to raise prices so we stop flying building cars, consuming energy and import all these things after buying carbon credits form the third world Kleptos. While I may add selling them Coal so they can enjoy the beauty of cheap abundant energy.
    But maybe they didnt think we would actually suffer loss of employment in the miracle economy from this insanity especially after we introduced a tax and then in the same breath compensation for the affect of the tax
    They should be celebrating the death of Holden & Qantas. Pretty soon Qantas wont have any Carbon emissions. how good will that be

    • Former RBA board member Warwick McKibbin specifically warned that job losses would result post introduction of the carbon tax. He was ignored.

      • I seem to remember him walking around with a Carbon/industry shut down policy to sell also. The stupidity is breathtaking. China does not even recognise its neighbours territorial sovereignty, why would they really respect our carbon permits after we export our industry to the third world think about it.

        I just hope the climate does not cool before my Xmas Holiday and that Qantas can emit just a little longer otherwise my family will be riding one of those green bicycles the ones made of lettuce to our resort.

    • General Disarray

      Qantas introduced the “Carbon Price Surcharge” to cover the carbon tax. Virgin also has a carbon price surcharge.

      Saying the carbon tax made a material contribution to their results would have to come with some evidence that passenger volume has fallen because of these surcharges.

  3. Given the characteristics of the media an LNP govt would never have got elected by outlining our problems and promoting the necessarily painful solutions. There could be no Gonski nor Disability schems and certainly no Abbott parent payments. Would MB have given them real accolades for telling us some of this stuff (other than the paid PPLS!) could not be done. They’d have been accused of ‘stupid austerity’
    Unfortunately LNP is too dominated by the Real Estate /Finance sector so they probably really don’t have a clue as to what is really going on. Also given the quality of advice they’d get from RBA, Treasury et al then one should hardly expect any real policy.

  4. Macrobusiness is cross-posting all kinds of junk these days.

    Or do people really want to hear wisdom from “the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University”

    How much is a degree from there worth ?

  5. Well we can blame the Indonesia thing on the lefties.

    The backflip on austerity is a shocker, Gonski, does anyone really want it besides the lefties? I think the problem is not education but how badly we treat nerds, and how we treat others too well in comparison.

    Their brand is still strong imo. But mainly because of a lack of a good alternative. Shame about that NBN though. But damn I’m still enjoying the peace and quiet from the subversion of the histrionic PC brigade. It was so bad it was worth losing the NBN for!

    • All we did was replace it with the pathetic bleating of the Murdochracy instead. I think I’d rather hear the PC wailing than the Australian crying about the ABC or Andrew Bolt (the poor persecuted little dear) crying that lefties are picking on him. Whose shorts do you have to crawl into to get your own whole TV show that nobody wants to watch, I want one!

    • Shame about that NBN though.
      Your desire to blame everything on those filthy “lefties”, while lamenting the loss of the NBN – a textbook example of left-wing policy – is hilariously hypocritical.

  6. And Abbott lied, then lied about having lied and treated about 2/3 of Australian families with kids (ie those at state schools) as idiots. Now it seems he has gutted Gonski for the recalcitrant states and the opportunity for reasonable equity in educational opportunity has been flushed away.

    And Abboott has proven himself a liar yet again! There is no unity ticket on educatiuon.

    Those families with kids in State schools should never let him forget it.

    It might be too early to predict the Libs to jettison Abbott and put in Turnbull, but the leadership polls in the next year or so are going to be very interesting, particularly those from the 15 or so electorates where Labor needs the smallest swing.

      • Where I went is irrelevant as is where my kids went.

        Abbott has betrayed all those with family members at state schools and lied irresepective of where I went to school.

        And he had a clear option not to betray them, no excuse of it being the price of forming a minority government. He just had the arrogance to choose to break the promise he made.

        By the way, an interesting article on how politics overrides numeracy in a study with outcomes said to be for skin care and gun control. Our political beliefs seem to override the data irrespective of our numeracy.

  7. In case they are reading, I’ll offer some free advice to Tony Abbott’s minders: guys, look at Tony’s photo above.

    If you people want Tony’s ministry to last more than 3 years, in addition to forbidding him from speaking in public, you guys need to stop him from being seen smiling.

    Make him wear a burqa, or something.