Abbott honeymoon was over before it began

By Greg Ansley

Tony Abbott.
Tony Abbott.

Less than four months since it won power from Labor, Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative Coalition Government is struggling to keep its head above political waters.

Abbott has been caught in cross-currents that have hammered his first months in office, from allegations of widespread abuse of parliamentary entitlements to climate change, asylum seekers and the disaster over spying on Indonesia.

The Government has been trying to control the agenda by secrecy and tight controls over ministerial comments, much of which is now rebounding on Abbott.There has been no traditional, extended post-election honeymoon for a new Government. Abbott's has been among Australia's shortest, while Labor has regrouped much faster than anyone expected.

Yesterday a Nielsen poll in Fairfax newspapers said Labor was now leading the two-party preferred vote for the first time in three years by a 52-48 per cent margin.

Abbott is still preferred prime minister, leading Labor leader Bill Shorten by 49-41 per cent, but almost as many voters disapprove of his performance as support him.

Shorten's approval rate has climbed to 51 per cent.

Shorten said the poll showed the Coalition was acting differently after the election to how it said it would before it. "This is a government that people were not told they would be like," he said.

But Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in Perth was unfazed by the poll: "These opinion polls will come and go, and it is early days," she said. "The Government is getting on with its agenda of getting rid of the carbon tax, getting rid of the mining tax, growing our economy. The polls can be based on a whole range of things, but we are also determined to stop the people-smuggling trade."

It remains to be seen whether the poll is reflecting an emerging trend, or is a one-off aberration. Even if a blip, the news would not be great for Abbott. Earlier post-election polls have shown almost no change, even a slight slip, in support. Morgan last week put the Coalition's two-party lead at 51-49 per cent.

Immediate implications include a confirmation that voters overwhelmingly wanted Labor out rather than Abbott in, weakening the Government's claim of an absolute mandate, and that Abbott's threat of a double-dissolution election if frustrated in the Senate carries less conviction.

Abbott also needs to evolve from Opposition pitbull to national leader. Fairfax said that with the exception of Labor's Paul Keating, no other new prime minister reached a disapproval rating close to Abbott's 46 per cent in such a short time.

In contrast, Fairfax said Labor's lead was the fastest achieved by any federal Opposition after losing an election. Previous Oppositions have taken anything from 12 months to more than two years to gain a two-party preferred lead.

The Government can take comfort that all this is happening so early in its term. It has three years to forge its authority and for voters to forget its initial stumbles. Even so, Nielsen points to serious policy difficulties.

The most urgent is the diplomatic crisis over Australian tapping of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's phone and those of his wife and senior ministers.

While the spying revealed by documents leaked by American whistleblower Edward Snowden occurred during Labor's time in office, Abbott is perceived to have badly bungled the response.

The Nielsen poll also showed most Australians disapprove of the Government's handling of asylum seekers, shrouded as it is in secrecy, and that climate change is also again emerging as a major thorn for Abbott.

While Nielsen found that although most voters want the carbon tax to go, Abbott's own policy of "direct action" involving measures such as tree-planting and buying emission reductions from polluters is at the bottom of the pile.

At the top of their preferred list was an undefined "some other policy", followed by Labor's planned emissions trading scheme.

Even the carbon tax outpolled Abbott's policy - and the Government's bid to repeal the tax is likely to be blocked in the Senate by Labor and the Greens.

Other contrary winds are buffeting the Government, among them an apparent move to break an election promise to continue with Labor's education reform, efforts to raise federal borrowing limits to a new record high, and dumping federal super co-payments for the poor while axing plans to tax super earnings of more than A$100,000.

The Government also intends watering down or abolishing parts of the Racial Discrimination Act outlawing public hatred of ethnic groups, infuriating indigenous Jewish, Arab, Muslim and other communities.

- additional reporting AAP

- NZ Herald

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