How important is the ‘first hundred days’?

Mr Abbott is copping a bit of stick from the media and the Opposition for what has transpired in his first hundred days in office. But how important is such a passage of time — and where does this particular measure come from?

The number of days — 100 — probably comes from Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his final defeat at Waterloo. However you measure it, the timing is about 111 days — but no matter: ‘Napoleon’s Hundred Days’ is what it’s called, or just ‘the Hundred Days’. The progenitor of the modern political use of the phrase seems to have Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used it in a radio address in 1934, though he actually referred to the hundred-day session of Congress between March and June in that year, rather than to his own administration.

No matter, it stuck, and American presidents generally  have to account for what they have done in that time — the assumption being that their power and influence is greatest in their first three months. I wondered when the first relatively contemporary use arrived, and thought it might be with John F. Kennedy. But in JFK’s case it was his last hundred days that were important, according to a book it with that title (by Thurston Clarke) that was published only this year.

When did I first hear about the ‘first hundred days’ with respect to my own time ? If I go back, Barack Obama’s first hundred days were certainly scrutinised, and that was in 2008. Kevin Rudd’s first hundred days also received inspection, and that was in 2007. In fact, he issued a special brochure to mark the occasion. John Howard, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, to go back thirty years, were not thought to be memorable  in any way I can find, for what happened in their first hundred days. Gough Whitlam’s first hundred days have received attention in the last year or two, but no one much seemed  be doing it in 1973.

Julia Gillard’s first hundred days passed without much notice, the Herald Sun informing its readers that the period was best forgotten; she drew no attention to it herself. Why is the period notable? I don’t think it has any special importance.

I think that it is best applied, if at all, to leaders from the Left (so to speak) who come to power with an agenda of reform at a time where there is much need of reform. That would certainly apply to Roosevelt, who came to office at the worst moment of the Great Depression, with an agenda which he put in place, and a Congress able to assist him. Barack Obama has always looked good, but I don’t think there is much comparison with Roosevelt, and I doubt that his two-term Presidency will  be seen as decisive in any way. Kevin Rudd made up his agenda from day to day, in most respects.

What then should we say about Tony Abbott? He issued his own assessment a little early, perhaps anticipating the criticism he would get from those parts of the media more or less aligned with the Opposition. And of course he had actually promised to do things in the first 100 days. The list of ‘achievements’ he put forward was quite long, but they weren’t quite what he said a Coalition Government would do, other than bring in a bill to end the carbon tax, and likewise the mining tax.

Understandably, no one from the left was going to be enthusiastic about his achievements, and the critics ignored them, concentrating instead on the own-goals it thought the new government had kicked. The most notable was a continuing fumble about school funding, ended only when the Government committed itself to recognise the  agreements that had been negotiated by the Labor Governments.

MPs’ entitlements caused another ruckus, and Mr Abbott seemed not to have remembered how much pain the Labor Party endured when it did not discipline Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper in rather similar circumstances. The government debt issue, which will hang around like a bad smell for months, it seems, is not, and cannot be, a plus for the new Government.

And though the alleged spying on the Indonesian President and his family was something done in the days of the Labor Governments, the Coalition had to carry the can for it. Just when that was about to die as an issue, up came the Timor Leste attack on Australia for another burst of spying, this time when the Howard Government was in office. Mr Abbott might think that there is no justice in politics.

The fact that his Government is now behind in the polls is not at all surprising. This is not a time of confidence in the future, and a return to confidence and optimism is months off, if not a year or two. These are uneasy thoughts for the new Prime Minister to carry into the new year, which will be a time of real testing for the Ministry. As its members will have observed in the manic days of the Gillard and then Rudd Governments, government today is not at all an easy business.


Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Peter Donnan says:

    As you write, 2014 ‘will be a time of real testing for the Ministry’. The facts are that the Senate numbers have constrained the Government from implementing some of its major agenda items.

    But as commentator Graham Richardson notes: “The deterioration in the economic numbers is largely the result of external factors over which Australia has little or no control. Commodity prices have come off their boom highs and if Chinese growth flattens and falls, as most economists predict, then prosperity at home will look harder and harder to deliver”.

    The short term media cycle, the 100 days cycle, the focus group perspective, poll driven politics: the deeper down, sustainable policies and some common sense in reducing inflated rhetoric about performance, as well as reducing blame-shifting to political predecessors might be a simple starting point. The deeper cuts are yet to come and when they do, Australians won’t be saying it’s day 189 or 223. Our expectations need to be grounded in the fundamental realities and Joe Hockey’s blather and blame needs to translate to substantial policy reform.

    • whyisitso says:

      Coalition governments are an aberration in Australia. Unlike Americans, Australians expect governments to solve all their personal problems. They won’t accept the excuse that the government has no control over the legislature (which is the current situation), or that they haven’t fixed 7 years of destruction in 100 days with virtually no power. “Conservative” is a dirty word is most arenas of life here. This is a one-term government.

      • Mike O'Ceirin says:

        You want more of the last 7 years? If not then do not talk it down. This government is must succeed if not we move to Greece. Sorry we become Greece.

  • gavin_moodie says:

    The Abbott Government did not just ‘fumble’ school funding and did not end its problems by promising more money: the Coalition has decided not to fund schools according to need as recommended by Gonski, but on some other basis, presumably based on the Howard Government’s discredited socio economic status formula.

    Government debt is an issue not because of its substantive importance for Australia but because it was politicised by the Coalition in opposition, first under Howard (the Government debt truck) and then under Abbott when the Coalition misleadingly confounded public and private debt.

    The Coalition ‘had to carry the can’ not for spying on Indonesia but for its its initial botched response – failure to apologise or even explain to Indonesia and failure to give an assurance of different behaviour. This was exacerbated by being after the Coalition’s ‘turn back the boats’ slight to Indonesia.

  • Grant says:

    Maybe this is too late to even be read, but perhaps you could explain how the Labor Party was meant to discipline Peter Slipper, whose sins were committed as a sitting Liberal member?

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