In 2012, then-opposition leader Tony Abbott gave a speech that set out his agenda for winning government and indicated the policies he intended to implement. He argued that one of his key aims was to make voters feel secure again:
John Howard was onto something when he said that he wanted Australians to feel more “relaxed and comfortable” about our country. People naturally seek the reassurance that their job is safe, their doctor is available, their children go to a good school, their neighbourhood is friendly and their country is secure.
As John Howard saw it, a big part of his mission was to end the confused sense of self that afflicted Australia at the end of the Keating era exacerbated by the then-prime minister’s insistence that we couldn’t be a real country unless we changed our symbols and repudiated much of our history.
These days, there’s an even deeper sense of public unease about where we’re headed, only the uncertainty is more economic than cultural.
Recently, I have argued that this speech helps explain a key part of Abbott’s strategy for winning government. Abbott sought to heighten voters’ feelings of fear and anxiety by emphasising the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of the Labor government and the economic threats posed by Labor’s claimed debt crisis.
Abbott then offered voters the opportunity to feel reassured by arguing that electing the Coalition would provide both stable government and good economic management.
It was a good, and ultimately successful, formula for winning power. However, Abbott doesn’t seem to have thought through some of the implications of his own words for what to do in government.
Let’s consider some of the issues that have got Abbott into trouble in recent weeks. The government claims to have stopped the boats, so it argues that it has delivered on border security. However, Abbott hasn’t performed so well on other issues.
In 2012, Abbott stressed that voters like to feel certainty about access to their doctors. Yet the government’s proposed Medicare co-payment in its various iterations has made voters uncertain and anxious about whether they will be able to afford to see their doctor when they need to.
Abbott also stressed that workers like to feel that their jobs are safe. However, his government has overseen the Australian car industry’s demise and threatened to buy new submarines from overseas rather than building them in South Australia.
There is debate over whether the Coalition has kept its promises on school funding. Parents are increasingly anxious that even if their children do get a good secondary education, the Coalition’s proposed higher education reforms mean that they may not be able to afford to go to university.
Meanwhile, Abbott has managed to re-ignite voters’ dormant anxiety about cultural identity issues by knighting Prince Philip. As former NSW Liberal premier Nick Greiner pointed out, one of the reasons the decision was so unpopular was because:
… of what it says about the future, about a self-image for the country.
Here, as elsewhere, Abbott has shown none of John Howard’s skill in handling issues of national identity and has gone much further than Howard in emphasising Australia’s British links. Abbott had previously affirmed that he sees Australia as part of the so-called “Anglosphere” – a concept that Howard was careful not to endorse in office.
During the 2013 election campaign, Abbott attempted to reassure the electorate that Kevin Rudd’s accusation that a Liberal government would “cut, cut, cut” was a false scare campaign. He infamously assured voters that there would be no:
… no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.
After Abbott won office, he seemed to forget the need to reassure voters on economic issues. Hence the voter backlash when precisely these cuts and changes were proposed. In his attempts to cut the budget deficit, he’d been hoisted on his own petard, his election strategy.
Meanwhile, the government is having trouble delivering reassurance via sound economic management because it is facing many of the same economic problems that its Labor predecessors faced, including global economic uncertainty, falling commodity prices and major drops in government revenue. Unlike Peter Costello, Treasurer Joe Hockey is not facing unexpected and massive increases in government revenue due to being at the height of a resources boom.
Further, as part of his political strategy of encouraging feelings of anxiety then offering reassurance, Abbott in opposition also said that his government’s policies would not be dependent upon making deals like the “dysfunctional” Labor government’s were:
There is only one way that Australians can be sure to leave the chaos, the division, the failures, the bloodletting and the politics behind, for good … and that is to change the government.
Only the Coalition can be trusted when we say: there will be no deals with the Greens, no deals with flaky independents, no deals whatsoever.
Above all we will return stable, certain, competent government so all Australians can again plan their futures with confidence.
It was an extraordinary statement to make given that the Coalition was never likely to win a majority in the Senate. Now voters and business are still suffering the uncertainty of waiting to see if deals can be made to get key government legislation through the Senate and what form the final legislation will take, given the influence of the Palmer United Party and various other minor parties and independents.
There are many factors contributing to the Abbott government’s malaise, just as there are many factors that contributed to the government being elected in the first place. However, one of those problems is that, in the exact opposite to his election strategy, Abbott has been making voters feel anxious and alarmed about his government rather than offering them reassurance.