Paul Bongiorno
Abbott burying his head in the quicksand

Tony Abbott says he’s listened and he’s learned, but almost in the same breath he assures the nation, “I’m the same man now as I always have been, with I guess some strengths and some faults.” His problem is a growing number of his party room and Liberals generally have concluded his faults have swamped his strengths. Worse, if he continues as prime minister he threatens the fate of yet another state coalition government and will inevitably lead his government to defeat next year.

Victoria’s former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett says Abbott’s leadership is terminal and is calling for a spill ahead of the March election in New South Wales. He has accused Abbott of sabotaging the Liberals in two states and says he should be forced out before more damage is done. But the former university boxing champion will have none of it. He’ll have to be knocked out before he leaves the ring. He firmly believes he can turn around the appalling judgement of him by voters in a string of opinion polls. He’ll do it by better selling the same agenda but with electoral bribes thrown in. The prospect of it working is bleak.

Campbell Newman in Queensland threw $40 billion at the electorate in a gargantuan exercise of pork-barrelling but failed to stave off the rout of his government. A record majority was not enough to act as a buffer. Abbott is undeterred. He hopes the popular NSW premier Mike Baird will carry the day in March and calm the nerves of federal Liberals in marginal seats. Baird is being counted on to restore faith in Brand Liberal. Nice theory but will it restore faith in Tony Abbott? Sixteen months into his first term, the Fairfax Ipsos poll has found his approval rating is at 29 per cent; his disapproval at 67 per cent. A record low for a prime minister at this stage of the cycle. Six opinion polls have been published this year; the average lead of Labor over the Coalition is 9.5 per cent.

The Abbott survival plan has two huge mountains to climb. He has to be around long enough to sell it and, to make it work, the electorate has to believe him. What is clear is the trust deficit that opened up after last year’s budget of spectacular broken promises is as deeply in the red as that document’s bottom line, and it’s getting deeper. Not helped by the frank assessment of senior backbencher Dennis Jensen. There he was on ABC Television telling the nation: “Tony Abbott has been an absolutely fantastic opposition leader, in my view the best the country’s ever had. In effect he has been a great wartime leader. We now need a great peacetime leader.” And even more damning: “I don’t think fundamentally he understands what the problem is, and therein lies the problem.”

Former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello, in a searing newspaper column, spelled out the real damage Abbott’s latest captain’s pick did. It exposed him as out of touch with contemporary Australian sentiment and, worse, invited nationwide ridicule. He wrote: “The junior woodchucks of the Coalition were sent out on the airwaves to say that since the knighthood cost no money, and no one died as a result, then it didn’t really matter. Well, lives are precious and money is scarce but I’ll tell you one thing that is in shorter supply than money and that is respect. I wouldn’t be wasting any of that if I were looking to be re-elected.”

At the National Press Club the prime minister needed prompting from a journalist to admit he’d overdone the gong and henceforth the non-political Council for the Order of Australia would award knighthoods. Not good enough for another Liberal backbencher, Andrew Laming. He revealed he told the prime minister the honour should be ditched completely. It wasn’t, so he is now planning a private member’s bill to scrap sirs and dames. The MP says he has wide support but somewhat curiously denies his move is tied to any destabilising of his leader. Even now the listening prime minister cannot bring himself to admit that reinstituting a bunyip aristocracy is an anachronism backed by only the most quaint monarchists.

After two elections and four years of trenchant criticism inside and outside the Coalition, Abbott has finally taken his extravagant paid parental leave scheme off the table, not because it is deeply flawed but because the budget won’t allow it at this time. “I accept, though, that what’s desirable is not always doable.” But still on the table is the 1.5 per cent levy on 3000 of the nation’s biggest companies. That money will now be used to fund a families and childcare package. The Business Council of Australia is livid after Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed privately it is staying. The normally supportive Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry sees it as another broken promise. A new tax on business.

The prime minister, though, is foreshadowing a tax cut even bigger than 1.5 per cent for small business. It’s a messy narrative almost at war with itself. On the one hand, he says, “We do have a fiscal problem ... We can’t go on running up debt and deficit forever.” But a crucial message from Monday’s reset speech was, “Because we have done much of the hard work already, we won’t need to protect the Commonwealth budget at the expense of the household budget.” Labor says that’s because he has already staged his home invasion and cites the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, which says average families are $6000 a year worse off each and every year because the planned budget cuts were not a one-off. The opposition seriously doubts the touted families package will reverse that impact or that the billion dollars ripped out of childcare will be restored with more on top. Even if it is, the government in its present parlous state may not be rewarded with voters’ gratitude.

The fact is, the agenda that is responsible for Abbott and his government’s plunge in support is still very much on the table. The first items of business when parliament sits this week will be a reworked higher education package. That package has been tweaked: HECS debts, or concessional loans to students, will continue to be indexed at the CPI rather than the higher 10-year government bond rate, but the 20 per cent cut in funding remains, as does deregulation of fees. Christopher Pyne needs two more on the senate crossbench to support the bill. He can’t count on South Australian independent Nick Xenophon, who said, “Just because Christopher Pyne is dogged doesn’t mean he gets a bone.” The wily politician who is now setting up his own NXT (Nick Xenophon Team) party says reform of the sector is needed but Pyne’s prescription is a broken promise and a massive change that needs closer scrutiny. He says an inquiry is needed and an election to give it a mandate.

Significantly, Xenophon agrees with Labor’s Bill Shorten that the government’s malaise won’t be solved merely by changing the leader. Their ideological policy framework is just as big a problem, he says. “The Liberals need to shift to the political centre.” A case in point is the Medicare co-payment. It’s still being pursued and the prime minister’s office has installed a compliant chief of staff in new Health Minister Sussan Ley’s office to keep watch. Peta Credlin is being blamed but denies any Star Chamber involvement. Ley’s office confirms the new COS but won’t comment.

Medical specialist Andrew Laming is warning that “the medical profession turned on the Coalition and they’re ready to dismember us if we try it again”. He says the government should learn the lesson from 2014 and work on quality healthcare rather than merely cost-cutting. The finance minister is still talking about a modest co-payment for those who can afford it. Mathias Cormann doesn’t get that any form of means test undermines Medicare’s universality.

The co-payment fiasco reached absurd heights in the Queensland election campaign. Abbott, under pressure from his Liberal National Party colleagues, scrapped the $20 cut in doctors’ rebates for short consultations. It didn’t help. The whole idea came out of the prime minister’s office. Again Credlin is being blamed for devising the cut as payback for the Australian Medical Association’s trenchant opposition to the government’s Medicare vandalism. Senior Queensland Liberal backbencher Teresa Gambaro clearly had this in mind when she wrote in The Australian “policy ‘initiatives’ devised as a spiteful retribution for stakeholders having an opposing view resulting from a government’s own failed policy process is deplorable”.

Even when he was doing his best to show he was up to the job, Abbott reverted to type, insulting voters who had switched to Labor in Victoria. “The same man as he’s always been” described their behaviour as “a fit of absent-mindedness when people elect Labor governments”. Not a good start for someone trying to win back those voters to his cause with promises to listen. In a scarcely veiled swipe at her embattled prime minister, Gambaro wrote, “It is not enough for leaders to listen: they must also hear.” And she underscored why many in the party room are coming to the view there is no salvation for him or them with him at the helm: “The truth is often difficult, but ... any political figure who looks the public in the eye and betrays their trust is not worthy of office.”

For Abbott, it’s no longer just the public whose trust he’s trying to regain.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 7, 2015 as "Burying his head in the quicksand".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription