Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott’s year of magical winking

Thrilled that the mining tax was finally gone, in a stealth deal with the Palmer United Party, Tony Abbott taunted Labor that “what we have seen today is a government that is succeeding and an opposition leader who is drowning”. On the eve of his first birthday as prime minister, that claim was more chutzpah than cold hard fact.

Abbott did not leave it there, he cited a list of achieved commitments. “We said we would abolish the carbon tax and the carbon tax is gone; we said we would stop the boats and the boats are stopping; we said we would build the roads of the 21st century and those roads are powering ahead.”

But the punters aren’t impressed, according to Newspoll. This first-year government is more of a dud. 

Unlike its Labor and Liberal predecessors, it’s struggling. One year on from its first election, and after a very tough budget, the Howard government led the Labor opposition 55 per cent to 45 per cent. The Rudd government scored a similar 10-point lead. The Abbott government trails Labor 49 per cent to 51 per cent. And that result owes almost everything to the switch away from domestic issues to national security. 

Just as telling is a “comparison of the better prime minister” measure of this neophyte leader with his predecessors after 12 months in the job. John Howard led opposition leader Kim Beazley by 28 points. Kevin Rudd was a whopping 42 points ahead of Malcolm Turnbull. Abbott actually trails Shorten by one point, with the margin even greater in recent months. More disastrous, the prime minister’s net approval is minus 19, even as the Coalition’s stocks began improving.

This federal government never enjoyed a honeymoon. Its support began eroding within three months of the September election and crashed after a budget that was seen as unfair, unnecessary and lacking a consistent strategy. Former Liberal leader Dr John Hewson was one of many economists who thought the budget lacked a coherent argument. He wrote in the Fairfax papers last month, “Income of lower-income earners was cut by some 12 to 15 per cent while the income of those at the top was cut by less than 1 per cent.”

The deal that scuppered the mining tax did nothing to challenge that perception. If anything, it made it worse. Labor’s Penny Wong rammed home the point: “We saw a tax cut for some mining companies. We saw a hit on low-income Australians with an end to the schoolkids bonus, the income support bonus, the low income super contribution.”

Treasurer Joe Hockey defends the Palmer deal by saying the budget will be $50 billion worse off over the next 10 years without it. But if the budget position is so dire, why would he scrap a revenue measure aimed at some of the most profitable mining companies in the world? To argue that Labor botched the design so that it raised no money is surely an argument to fix it rather than ditch it. Politically it would make the selling of the budget much easier, spreading the burden and not appearing to be looking after the top end at the expense of the majority of Australians.

Whichever way you cut it, claims that mining billionaires such as Gina Rinehart or Andrew Forrest would quit Australia and invest elsewhere because of the mining tax are ludicrous. After all, their immense wealth is being dug out of Australian soil with the help of extremely generous tax breaks.

Just as counterproductive have been the arguments that went with the repeal of the carbon tax. Australian families were promised they would be $550 a year better off as their electricity bills fell. Treasury figures show the budget will make a single income family with two kids on below average wages $6500 a year worse off. No wonder pollsters are finding voters unimpressed and even feeling duped.

A Galaxy poll last month of 800 voters found 56 per cent believe the Abbott government is not as good as expected. More than a third of Coalition voters were disappointed. Back in November, Rebecca Huntley, of Ipsos Australia, noted that in addition to their expectations not being met, “their fears are being realised”.

In many ways Tony Abbott is a victim of his own unequivocal promises, made simply and with a conviction deeper than the Grand Canyon. Just before the election, he told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, “What we are not going to do is we’re not going to cut health spending, we’re not going to cut education spending. We’re not going to reduce pensions.” Labor has a list of dozens of similar undertakings all fuelling their “Tony Abbott lies” campaign.

To answer the charge, the prime minister relies on tricky pollie speak. In parliament he insisted the opposition was dead wrong. Rather than cutting these areas, they will all see their funding increase. Never mind that the government’s own budget overview shows the rate of increase being cut for health and education by $80 billion over the forward estimates. Certainly the Liberal premiers need no persuading: they’re screaming as loudly as federal Labor. And seniors resent being played for mugs with pension increases being similarly cut. Again the budget papers spell out the savings. 

Tony Abbott must know it’s tricky. He accused Julia Gillard of the same subterfuge when she denied that cuts in the rate of increased funding to universities were cuts at all.

The prime minister set his own rigid benchmarks. It seems he’s spent most of his first year trashing some of the most voter sensitive issues, such as, “We are about reducing taxes, not increasing taxes. We are about getting rid of taxes, not imposing new taxes.” The GP co-payment, the fuel excise, the debt levy income tax hike and the planned hit on 3000 companies for the paid parental leave scheme have shredded the credibility of that statement.

But Abbott’s biggest nightmare is the perception his government is as dysfunctional as the one he defeated. He stresses “methodical, purposeful, adult” as the hallmarks he claims for his administration. All fine, except the “quirky” senate and PUP ringmaster Clive Palmer haven’t played along.

For most of the year, Palmer has kept the Coalition off balance. He’s a consummate practitioner of the chaos theory of politics and has a genius for headline-grabbing stunts. His attacks on the prime minister and the budget have been at times more strident than Labor’s, only to then cut a deal on financial advice reforms and the mining tax. “This is one of the reasons,” he says without blushing, “why the Labor Party or Liberal Party doesn’t have control of the senate – so that we can ensure that there’s some sort of moderation.”

The saying goes that a week is a long time in politics. Some Liberals console themselves that there are two years until the next election. They are not convinced Bill Shorten, despite his much better performance in the opinion polls, is a real threat. Labor’s former pollster, Rod Cameron, was quoted in The Australian this week giving them heart by saying Shorten was “unelectable”. He also thought Tony Abbott was unelectable. Others in the pantheon of “no hopers” include John Howard, Jeff Kennett and Bob Carr. 

But to survive in politics you can get lucky or at least make the best of whatever opportunities come your way. Tony Abbott has certainly done that since the Malaysia Airlines atrocity in Ukraine. However briefly, he did tap into the mood of the nation. Without the responsibilities of a world power, such as the United States, he has stridently condemned Russia, giving voice to the fears and concerns of many. In the process he bewildered some by jumping on board his RAAF VIP jet and leaving his domestic problems behind to become the nation’s chief mourner in Ukraine and Holland. 

In fact, by this weekend he has clocked up as many international air miles in his first year as the man he derided for it, Kevin Rudd. It appears to be paying dividends.

He has won approval in the opinion polls for his anti-terror “jihad”. Newspoll found 77 per cent approval, and you can’t put a cigarette paper between him and the opposition leader on the need for us to be involved in combating Islamic extremists in Iraq.

“Australia cannot leave the Iraqi people to face this horror,” Abbott says. Shorten chimes in, asserting: “This is not 2003 [when] we went to Iraq without international support and without the support of the majority of the Iraqi population.”

The strategy is not without its risks, as Abbott himself admitted in parliament, but he’s clearly on a mission. The template looks suspiciously like John Howard’s in 2001. Howard built political momentum with a khaki election strategy in uncertain times. The prime minister would love to emulate his old mentor’s success in winning back disaffected voters. At the end of his first year, he’s already on the long march.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Abbott’s year of magical winking".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. 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.