If a single speech is regarded as a make-or-break event for an Australian prime minister, then that prime minister faces an uncomfortable future. That’s because the “make” part is a fraud. Tony Abbott could have finished himself off with a dreadful performance at his appearance at the National Press Club on Monday. But he never stood a chance of restoring his prime ministership simply by putting on a decent or even a brilliant showing.
That’s because once the make-or-break tests begin, they never stop. Get through this announcement, this parliamentary showdown, this interview and there’ll always be another one. That’s the zone Abbott will now inhabit for as long as he remains prime minister or until the next election, should he still hold the position then. He’s only ever one more blunder away from collapse.
So too is his government. The fixation with his leadership – whether he should be replaced and by whom – at the mid-point of its first term of office unfortunately follows a modern, predictable script. Surely, it’s reasoned, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the government; the problems are down to the leader and to messaging.
There are calls, as there have been since the Queensland state election rout, for Abbott to admit error, to change his ways, or to hand over to someone else. Change the face, ramp up the PR, find a new way to tell the people that what’s being done to them is for their own good, and everything will be back on track.
This obsession with leadership pays insufficient heed to the deeper reasons behind the government’s problems. This is a government with a very long ministerial tail. Its weaknesses start if not at the top then with the second-most-important minister, Treasurer Joe Hockey, and through various parts of the ministry.
The lion’s share of responsibility for the government’s trials and its apparent lack of public support must go to Abbott, of course. The power of prime ministers in contemporary Australia is immense. But in a cabinet system of government, there’s a collective responsibility that should be shared by all ministers.
This is all too easily forgotten. The government is not and never has been just Tony Abbott; it is the sum of the Liberal and National party organisations, all the way up to the people the parties put up for cabinet membership.
Where the government has gone wrong is in its attitude to policy formulation and its approach to governing since the Liberal party room made the fateful decision to install Abbott as leader in December 2009.
Under Abbott, the Coalition has pursued a set of default positions. On policy, it has taken up the modern nostrums of economic liberalism, of smaller government, free trade agreements, the sale of public assets such as Medibank Private, of applying higher consumer prices to government services such as health and higher education. It is assumed by many of the people who write about politics and by public servants and political advisers that the public is comfortable with these policy choices, but there’s mounting evidence that this is not so.
On its communications, the government has opted for the most risk-averse positions. In opposition, despite holding a massive lead over Labor before the 2013 election, it took the safe route and chose to assure voters that it would be able to fix the budget without any cost to voters, with no cuts, no excuses and no surprises. The adults would be back in charge. Surplus budgeting was in the Coalition’s DNA, and so forth.
In office, its ministers all deliver little more than talking points. Its members run down the clock in interviews with answers that rarely address the questions that have been asked.
Government MPs are not unique in this; Labor members have in recent years taken the same approach. But that’s where the Abbott government has got itself into so much strife so quickly.
When voters heard “no surprises”, “the adults are back in charge” and a pledge not to impose costs on them during the repair job, they believed they were going to get authenticity and straight talk from an Abbott government, compared with the ALP’s chaotic, PR-obsessed shenanigans.
Instead, what voters got was a 2014-15 budget that contained nasty surprises such as a Medicare co-payment. They got a higher education policy that looked to place extra burdens on families and graduates.
Voters concluded that they’d been conned. They’d wanted something fresh, something straight. Instead – and qualitative polling by both sides suggests this – they’ve decided that they’ve elected another outfit committed to the political orthodoxy of spin and higher costs.
Being seen as a liar or a sneak is sudden death in modern politics because we appear to have moved into a new era in which – if the recent Victorian and Queensland elections are a reliable guide – there is no such thing as redemption.
The sense of crisis that has overtaken the Abbott government in the past week has been triggered by two events that have little material effect on national politics: Abbott’s awarding of an Australian knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, and the Queensland election result.
The reason that they’ve resonated so profoundly in Canberra is that they reflect public revulsion at not being told all of the truth. Abbott reintroduced Australian knighthoods only six months after the 2013 election. It was only a tiny surprise but an unnecessary one nonetheless. The shock of the first Hockey budget came soon after and the government has never recovered.
The Queensland result was the final response by voters to Campbell Newman’s 2012 pre-election promise that the jobs of state public servants and government workers were safe. Upon being elected, he promptly got rid of 14,000 of them, and his poll ratings started to fall away from that moment. His commitment to sell off government assets – a popular policy for adherents to the political orthodoxy but highly unpopular among many voters – locked in that fall.
Abbott did not do too badly at the National Press Club, although his call for political debate in which there were no cheap shots – and in which all players acted in the national interest and not their own self-interest – was, in the context of his own performance as leader, a bit of a stretch.
But it was merely the first of a long, long series of tests that Abbott will face every day from now on. And just getting a pass will never be enough.