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Grattan on Friday: 100 days and the ‘adults’ still have a lot of growing up to do

Tony Abbott has faced many unexpected difficulties in his first 100 days. AAP/Daniel Munoz

It is just 100 days on Monday since the election, but the Abbott government lacks that air of excitement that power often brings. Rather, it is staggering towards Christmas, mugged by moving from rhetoric to reality, from the disciplined order of opposition to the setbacks and unexpected challenges of office.

We will do, Abbott pledged before the election, reeling off intentions, only to find there are many things, including the core promises of repealing the carbon and mining taxes, that he can’t do, at least for the moment.

He’d run a government of no surprises, he said. Well, he has been surprised, unpleasantly – most notably by the revelations about Australian spying in Indonesia, as well as by Holden’s intended departure.

And there’s been the unsettling reminder that voters were more anxious to throw out Labor than enthusiastic about the Coalition; now they’re unimpressed by the government’s early efforts. This week’s Newspoll had the ALP leading 52-48%. Satisfaction with Abbott’s performance was 40% - it has fallen steadily from 47% in October. Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s satisfaction rating was 44% - it has risen steadily from 32% in October.

On any measure, the Abbott government has had a faltering start.

The spectacular own goal was its attempt to cut back on the promised Gonski school money - the full catastrophe of a broken promise and two backflips.

The dramatic crisis – Indonesia’s reaction to the spying revelations - was not its fault, but the early handling lacked deftness.

The announcement of Holden’s 2017 departure is a more complicated story. Despite the company’s claims, it is nearly impossible to believe General Motors hadn’t made its decision before this week, and it was reasonable for the government to press for public clarification.

But the optics were bad. It has been easy for the opposition to portray the government as standing over the multinational (though that notion is surely absurd) and as parsimonious when so much was at stake.

As well, losing Holden, while economically rational and indeed inevitable in the long run, is not something any government wants on its watch.

During the censure debate Labor brought on yesterday, Bill Shorten put in a stronger performance than did Abbott, regardless of the relative merits of their arguments.

The new government has found itself frustratingly unable to deliver in important areas. It’s huffing and puffing on the carbon tax left the Senate unmoved. That was not unexpected, and will likely be fixed in time.

But now Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has had to backtrack on the Coalition’s NBN commitments, with a spectacular broken promise.

A review of the project has estimated the Coalition’s version will cost $11.5 billion more than the $29.5 billion earlier estimated; the government has been forced to retreat on its pre-election commitment that by 2016 all Australians would have access to download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.

As a defence, Turnbull yesterday stressed the Coalition had said its undertakings would depend on finding out what it didn’t know. He dubbed this a “health warning” (a twist on “disposable” or “non core” promises - voters should beware of “health warnings” in future.)

Turnbull himself is something of an island within the government – former leader, articulate, publicly popular, a moderate. He might have a lot on his hands now, but he’ll ultimately be under-used. He must contrast the portfolio mire in which he finds himself – which includes having to defend the ABC from some of his feral colleagues - with the position of Treasurer Joe Hockey, who confronts many problems but also has a vast sweep of power.

Three months has told us something about the government’s power centres, and the good and not so good performers.

The National party is happy. It had a big win with Hockey’s rejection of ADM’s takeover bid for GrainCorp. While he received some stick for his tough talk on Holden, Nationals leader Warren Truss, whose understated style often sees him under-estimated, came across as having gravitas when he was acting PM this week.

Deputy Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has kept out of trouble, even if colleagues note that during his fiery answers in question time he goes red to the ears (literally).

Hockey has the demeanour of a man determined to make a mark, and quickly (eyes on outdoing Peter Costello?). The Liberal dries hated his GrainCorp decision but Hockey looks to be winning more than he’s losing. His Holden hype wasn’t pretty, but he’d wear criticism of that as a badge of honour. He’s previously expressed the view that unpopularity goes with the Treasury job.

He’ll be centre stage next week when he releases the mid year economic and fiscal outlook. As will the NBN, so with MYEFO (and much else): the story will be that everything is worse than anticipated.

There won’t be big new savings – they are for later – although we’ll probably hear what in education is being cut to restore the Gonski money. Debt and deficit are being described as shocking. Hockey said this week that debt would go beyond $500 billion (so he must be relieved the Senate refused to approve the bill for a $500 billion ceiling, compromising on having no ceiling at all).

Abbott, despite his reputation for rising damp, is sticking with Hockey’s “dry” direction, at least on Holden and Qantas. He told the party room yesterday the government’s greatest equity was its economic and budget credibility and it wouldn’t run down the street waving a blank cheque at unprofitable businesses.

But the government hasn’t been able to hide some significant divisions – on GrainCorp, between the Nats/rural Liberals and the Liberal dries; on Holden, between Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and cabinet colleagues.

And there has been plenty of griping about the command-and-control approach adopted by Abbott’s office, run by his chief of staff Peta Credlin.

Abbott is trying to keep his “tone” low key, and to attempt where possible to cast himself as above the partisan fray. During the exchanges about Holden he insisted he didn’t want to “play politics” (even as he did so).

Some ministers have got into trouble by their shrillness. Scott Morrison came across dreadfully initially though he’s pulled back somewhat. Because his performance attracted such bad reviews, the large fall in boat arrivals has received less attention than it might have. Christopher Pyne enjoys the fray of politics too much for his own and the government’s good.

It’s to be expected that the government will in its early months load as much blame as possible onto its predecessor (except for the Indonesia spy issue, where Abbott commendably resisted the temptation).

But spare us the hypocrisy. At yesterday’s joint parties meeting, on Parliament’s last day, Abbott told his MPs that Labor was obstructing the Coalition at every turn. According to official sources he described the Labor’s conduct as “political and economic vandalism of a very high order, lacking in ethics or political morality”.

Aware that Labor is doing to the Coalition what it did to Labor, Abbott added that although the Coalition was said to be obstructive, there was a vital difference. “We tried to stop them breaking their promises, they are trying to stop us from keeping ours.” This, of course, is political tosh. The Coalition in opposition said “no” whenever it saw it as advantageous to do so.

Before the election, Abbott liked to talk in absolutes. Promises all to be kept. No surprises. No excuses. But government isn’t like that. We are getting broken promises, surprises and excuses. It was ever thus. The question is, are we seeing growing pains, or the start of a permanent condition?

Listen to the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, on rss and iTunes.

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