Any new government’s first year after winning an election and gaining office is a tough one. You’ve come in with a plan, and the plan has unpopular elements to it, or the former government would have been done it already. As soon as you start implementing the plan there will be protests. If you’re going to make cuts, this is where you make them. Yes, there will be outrage (Australia has a lot of it — we lead the world in outrage). Your standing in the public opinion polls will start to slide.
All of this has happened to the Abbott Government. It won 45.5 per cent of the vote in September 2013. By July this year its share was 39 per cent, and it is now 38 per cent (I’m using the Galaxy Poll here). Labor won 33.4 per cent, scored 37 per cent in July and can point to 41 per cent now. The Greens have picked up a bit and the Palmer group has lost support. If an election were held next Saturday, Labor would probably be back in power, at least on those figures.
But of course there is not to be an election next Saturday, and in the ordinary course of events a government in this situation starts looking to the next election with some traditional tactics. The cuts have occurred, and over the next year or so people will get used to them. Then the positive things the government is doing begin to kick in, lifting its support in the polls. With any luck, the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues can show some leadership skill, and thereby look like a government that is calm, assured and in control.
Alas for Tony Abbott, the traditional scenario doesn’t look likely. The economy is now in trouble, and with it the Government’s budget. Treasurer Hockey is right to say that raising taxes in the current situation is not obviously a wise move. The government can go ahead with infrastructure, since the funds for such activity come from the capital side, not the recurrent. But there’s not a rosy look on the horizon economically, so other spending will be minimal.
The Senate remains a problem. No doubt there are some who’d like to see a quick election so they can help to kick out the PUPs and the cross-benechers who have stymied much of the Abbott Government’s legislative program. But there’s no likelihood of a double dissolution election. The one issue that might have produced such an event, a refusal by the Senate to repeal the carbon tax, did not occur. Issues like the deregulation of higher education funding, and the co-payment for doctor visits, are harder to justify in terms of an election mandate, and are in any case not widely popular.
The Abbott Government looks ineffectual because it is unable to get its legislation through, but that would be the case for any government in the same pickle. Nonetheless, it has to be said that the PM is neither polished nor persuasive in defence of his plans, and he needs to be. There are problems with many of the proposals that he and his Ministers have put forward, and they go on not addressing them.
Why, for example, do we need a medical research fund of astronomical proportions ($20 billion, it was to be). We already have the Medical Research Committee of the NH&MRC, which seems to do a good job, is experienced after 70 or so years, and has general confidence? Why isn’t the co-payment there to reduce the deficit?
Or, why, after scrapping the carbon tax (that, and ‘stopping the boats’, are the only two real ‘achievements’ of the new government), and initially talking hard about the RET and slamming the UN’s Green Climate Fund, has the Government decided to contribute to the Fund after all, and is now talking up the virtues of the RET? I ask this not just because I agree with the earlier Government position, but because inconsistency and incoherence in government, at any level, are the forerunners of disaster. If you think something is important, you’d better be sure that have the right reasons for thinking so, because backing and filling about it is a real no-no. Ask Kevin Rudd.
Political leaders benefit from external threats, which is why unpopular dictators often involve themselves in wars. If the external world becomes more menacing, we turn to our elected leaders for assurance. In the case of the Sydney siege, which was certainly connected to external threat, it was Mike Baird, the NSW Premier, who will earn political and electoral credits, as the Prime Minister correctly said that he had every confidence in the NSW authorities, and left the response to them.
Mr Abbott has a holiday coming up, like the rest of us. He has less than two years to turn his government ship around, and head confidently to port. That holiday needs to be a time of taking stock, making some firm decisions — and sticking to them.