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.