Paul Bongiorno
Abbott scraping barnacles off a sinking ship

Tony Abbott was seething as one of his backbenchers told him some home truths in the party room this week. Stop engaging in “verbal gymnastics” and be straight with people, was the advice of Sydney MP Craig Laundy. It was a watershed moment. The prime minister was being asked to live up to one of his most repeated promises: “We will be a government that means what it says and says what it means.”

Essentially the emperor who had relentlessly attacked his predecessor Julia Gillard for breaching trust with the electorate and lying was found to be without clothes by one of his own. “It was a career-ending intervention for Craig,” was the observation of one of his admiring colleagues. His courage was born of frustration felt by many on the backbench as they watched their leader slip-sliding from reality during the first question time of the week.

On Monday opposition leader Bill Shorten seized on the announcement of 400 jobs to go at the ABC as management sought to respond to a $250 million cut to its funding. He asked, “On the night before the last election, the prime minister promised: No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS. Is the prime minister regarded as ‘box office poison’ in Victoria because he is breaking every single one of these promises?” Without blushing Abbott said he didn’t accept the premise of the question and then listed four promises he has delivered on or at least is trying to: scrapping the carbon tax, stopping the boats, building the roads of the 21st century and getting the budget under control. He insisted, “This is a government that has fundamentally kept faith with the Australian people.”

Labor’s Jason Clare was withering in his counter, “People are wondering if they really can trust this prime minister. He has become the thing that he once so despised.” Clare also told the house, “people do not like it when politicians lie to them, but there is something they hate even more than that. They hate it when people lie about lying.” If alarm bells weren’t ringing in the government – some are in denial much like their leader – their media mates at The Australian are not so sanguine. The paper thundered in an editorial, “Mr Abbott’s approach to messaging is a shambles of conception, strategy and execution. This deficiency can no longer be masked or ignored.” The esteemed Paul Kelly wrote, “This government confronts a growing crisis of trust.”

Bill Shorten believes the government’s messaging is not the cause of its malaise, it’s the message itself. As Ten Eyewitness News graphically illustrated, Tony Abbott’s 10-second statement on poll eve is now a pithy indictment of the breaking of four promises in areas that directly affect millions. “It’s what this unfair budget does to the lives of Australians, not the presentation,” he told his caucus.

All of Abbott’s benchmarks on trust applied so relentlessly to his predecessor are now coming back to haunt him. Like this clarion call back in 2011 to parliament: “It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.”

But sometimes, often even, circumstances change. Persuading voters a promise needs to be broken is never easy. Abbott assured his party room, “There are one or two barnacles still on the ship but by Christmas they will have been dealt with. It has been a good year, and we will have an even better year next year.” It is reminiscent of Julia Gillard boasting how successful her government had been as measured by the number of bills it had been able to get through the parliament. Just what the barnacles are, we are left to speculate. If nervous coalition MPs had their way, the Medicare co-payment, the multibillion-dollar-a-year paid parental leave scheme and the huge hit to university funding would be the first of the arthropods to be scraped. The problem is, of course, if the wish list was granted, where would it leave the government’s credibility? It could look like a weathervane in a wind storm.

Abbott has little choice but to take a deep breath and try to retrieve the situation. Strong signals were coming from his office that the Medicare co-payment would definitely be shelved. But within 24 hours the prime minister was fudging even here. On Tuesday, to ridicule from Shorten that no one would own up to making the “no cuts” statement, the prime minister finally fessed up, “of course I made that statement”. He then tried to do a Bob Hawke after winning the 1983 election. The much-admired “Hawkie” told a stunned nation he had to ditch most of his promises because the Liberals had left the books in such a parlous state. But thanks to Peter Costello’s charter of budget honesty, the electorate and Abbott knew the budget was $30 billion in the red when he made those commitments. He seized on the final budget outcome of a $50 billion deficit to argue, “Under the circumstances that we subsequently found ourselves in, it was important to make sensible savings, and that is exactly what we are doing.”

Before the election, Abbott ruled out using the condition of the budget as an excuse for breaking promises. “Exactly right,” he assured one interviewer. But Hawke and John Howard, with his “core and non-core” promises, proved that trusted prime ministers can break promises and survive. One senior Liberal backbencher fears Abbott hasn’t got the political skills let alone the credibility to pull it off.

Just as the repositioning was getting under way midweek, a torpedo hit the government midships fired by none other than the bumbling defence minister, David Johnston. He gave an already paranoid ASC (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation) even more reason to be worried when he rhetorically asked the senate, “You wonder why I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe?” On the line, the status of his pre-election promise to build 12 new submarines in Adelaide. The South Australian Liberals were beside themselves. Their state leader, Steven Marshall, called for his resignation: “I don’t think he has any alternative; I don’t think his current position is tenable.”

The state’s defence industries minister, Martin Hamilton-Smith, broadened the attack. “Clearly the message we’re getting is that the Coalition doesn’t see a future for advanced manufacturing,” he said. “Doesn’t want us to build ships and submarines, is giving up and wants to run off overseas with the taxpayers’ cheque book.” The Liberal renegade, now an independent member of the state Labor cabinet, says 2000 jobs are at risk in three states and the Australian electorate will take its revenge at the ballot box.

Tony Abbott is defiant: “The minister for defence is doing an outstanding job, absolutely outstanding job, following six years of neglect by members opposite.” And to rub salt into the wound he qualified Johnston’s pre-election promise, saying the commitment was only to do the bulk of the “Australian” work on the submarines in Adelaide.

Not everyone in the government is convinced the minister or his department did an outstanding job on defence force pay. A pay rise of 3.9 per cent was provided for in the budget but only 1.5 per cent was submitted to the independent tribunal. Newly independent senator Jacqui Lambie is furious and says she will continue to vote against all the government’s legislation until it relents. Time is running out for a rethink. There is a December 1 deadline for any new submissions to the remuneration tribunal. Abbott seemed to be opening the door to more generosity: “As always we are keeping these matters under close review. But the fact is that we cannot pay people everything that we would like to pay.”

If he wants to take full advantage of the new architecture in the senate following Lambie’s defection from the Palmer United Party, Abbott has to come up with more than pious sentiments to win her over.

The corridors of parliament have been abuzz all week with talk of a reshuffle of the ministry as part of the government’s reboot to give effect to another Abbott promise that 2015 will be even better than 2014. But the prime minister is waiting on the Independent Commission Against Corruption, in Sydney, to deliver its verdict on stood-aside minister Arthur Sinodinos. He is keen to reinstate him despite very damaging evidence that has Labor convinced his return is politically untenable. Former prime minister John Howard is understood to be urging Abbott to bring his old chief of staff back into the ministry.

Abbott claims his government has been “stable and competent”.

All the tumult, he says, has been outside of it. If by stable he means no one has challenged him for leadership and, apart from Sinodinos, his ministry is intact, he’s right. But it’s clear even his loudest supporters think that when it comes to political competence, he’s stretching credulity – again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 29, 2014 as "Scraping barnacles off a sinking ship".

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

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