Base politics

Tony Abbott is in grave danger of losing his party’s base vote and failing to deliver the sort of Liberal government he promised. Don’t take my word for it, that’s the considered view of one of his staunchest cheerleaders, Andrew Bolt. The outspoken champion of most things conservative wrote in his Murdoch tabloids’ column this week, “Tell me how Liberal the Abbott government really is. Or if you’re the Prime Minister, tell the deflated party members.” He listed a number of grievances and, not surprisingly, top of the list was the dropping of plans to “restore free speech, frightened off by the Muslim lobby”.

When you are in opposition, of course, you need all the friends you can muster, especially columnists who boast a readership upwards of 300,000. But to retain government you need about 7½ million voters to stay disposed your way. And it is clear the prime minister has made the hard-headed assessment that Bolt and his mates at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), the right-wing Melbourne think tank, aren’t where the mainstream is. The IPA is promising to keep Abbott’s feet to the fire and sent a tin around its supporters to pay for a full-page ad in The Australian promising it “will fight to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Even if you won’t”.

Bolt concedes that elections can only be won by appealing to the centre but warns the Abbott administration, “a party that alienates even its own base risks pleasing no one at all”. He cites an unnamed cabinet minister, saying of 18C: “We’ll lose the base on this.” The question is, what base? Almost certainly not the Christian right, or the moderates. That leaves more of a rump from the libertarian right.

This rupture is highly significant because all the evidence has been that the IPA’s agenda and Abbott’s were nigh identical. Indeed, at the institute’s 70th anniversary bash last year, he was grateful for the group’s policy advice and offered a “big yes” to deliver on it.

“I want to assure you,” Abbott said, “that the Coalition will indeed repeal the carbon tax, abolish the department of climate change, abolish the Clean Energy Fund. We will repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, at least in its current form. We will abolish new health and environmental bureaucracies…” There was more, but you get the drift.

But the implications are greater than mates falling out. The dumping of this promise as a “leader’s call” discards four years of the Abbott doctrine of absolute political truth captured in the mantra, “We say what we mean and we mean what we say.” Not for this politician was there any nuance or wriggle room. Labor’s Julia Gillard was skewered mercilessly for her “bad tax, a toxic tax based on a lie”. Three years ago he had no qualms standing in front of signs at a Canberra rally slamming the then prime minister as a “liar”.

The apostasy has been noted by one of his closest allies in the parliamentary party, Cory Bernardi. The South Australian senator is proudly of the Liberals’ right; he sees freedom of speech as a core party value. He criticises Abbott for “unilaterally abandoning an election promise”. He says, “It undermines what we stood for at the election and put to the people.” Finally, he asks, “How can we now claim a mandate for the paid parental leave scheme simply because it was an election policy?” 

In March this year they were singing from the same hymn sheet. At a doorstop, Abbott was his usual clear cut, adamant self. “We were quite careful before the election in saying that we absolutely supported free speech … So because of that, we said we were very committed to the repeal of section 18C in its current form. That was the position we took into the election and that’s the commitment we will be implementing shortly.”

Enter Attorney-General George Brandis. The next month he dealt the project a fatal blow by telling the senate that the government was on about giving bigots “the right to be bigots”. That sent shockwaves throughout the nation, which shook many government MPs into revolt. The mainstream was having none of it. The Brandis draft bill was condemned not only by Muslims but by Jews, Indigenous leaders, other ethnic communities, Labor, the Greens and some of the crossbench.

The Abbott government prides itself on being a continuation of the Howard government, but its political management lacks the deft touch of the old master. Sure John Howard, like all politicians, made mistakes. But he had been around long enough to learn from them. The current prime minister’s dumping of this promise was provocatively ham-fisted. It singled out Muslims and linked the shelving of the 18C repeal as the price for winning them over to Team Australia.

“Really?” asked Howard’s treasurer, Peter Costello, in a newspaper column. He wrote, “To suggest that somebody, anybody, would decline to co-operate in the fight against terrorism because they didn’t like the repeal of a section like this in the Racial Discrimination Act is truly frightening.” 

The Lebanese Muslim Association was particularly unimpressed, telling the ABC the proposals are “more destructive” than the now abandoned changes. And on cue, Andrew Bolt made the link, disdaining the government for caving in to the “Muslim lobby”. That of course evokes terrorists, boat people and foreign customs that are not dinky-di. Who could blame law-abiding Muslims for being insulted and even humiliated?

The penny seems to have dropped for the government that the hard right’s agenda is not the winner it thought. Indeed, it is politically toxic. Maybe if Abbott were riding higher, he could carry the commitment to the IPA’s broader wish list. A list that had expression in the budget with university fee deregulation and a clampdown on family tax benefits. Earlier, it saw an end to car industry subsidies and the abolition of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency.

The Liberal backbench is despairing of the quagmire the government is now in. It’s been trailing Labor since last December in the opinion polls. Remarkable for a first-term government so soon after a decisive election win. The budget is the worst received in 20 years and has robbed the Liberals of their dominance as economic managers, according to the Essential poll.

No wonder the prime minister has flicked the switch to khaki. National security is traditionally a huge Liberal plus. His racial discrimination backdown came in the context of a new terror emergency. Although, curiously, at the press conference stressing the homegrown jihadist menace, we were told “there’s no change to the threat level”. 

The dash to the Netherlands and Britain this week neatly fits in to the new political strategy. Labor was unwilling to criticise it. The closest Bill Shorten came was to say, “If Tony Abbott believes travelling to the Netherlands will help [to bring remains from MH17 home] then of course he should and I support him doing that 100 per cent.” Some in Labor’s ranks, though, are convinced the partisan politics of the trip was unmasked by the opposition leader being left home.

In London, Abbott raised eyebrows by not ruling out military action in Iraq. But the prime minister can’t avoid the budget forever. Labor is mystified by the length of time it has taken for the budget bills to hit the parliament. Even so, it suits  Shorten just fine. He is taking a leaf out of the Abbott playbook to attack it.

“The Abbott government lied before the last election,” he said. “They promised black and blue there would be no cuts to education … They have now broken their word, broken their promises and the losers are going to be the universities and the students and staff in those universities.”

“Lie” as distinct from a “broken promise” always denotes bad faith, a breach of trust. Abbott had no compunction using it against Julia Gillard and in the process trashing not only her, but also esteem for the office. In this, he was urged on by the cultural warriors of the right. They did him no favours. It’s increasingly apparent their agenda more broadly is just as lethal politically. There are a growing number of angry backbenchers who believe Abbott’s low personal standing is hugely responsible for the government’s malaise. A net satisfaction rating of minus 18 for him in the latest Newspoll was hailed as an improvement. That just about says it all.

It’s a strange position this government finds itself in: confused over its base; repaying its biggest supporters at News Corp and the IPA with an agenda that is harming it; and behaving as if it is back in the Howard years, only in place of Howard they have a leader with none of the popularity and few of the political tricks.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 16, 2014 as "Base politics".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.