Coalition struggles to deliver

By Kathy Marks

Voters hoping for change disillusioned after Abbott fails to make good on election promises

Diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia are tense following a spy scandal which has led to protesters burning posters of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.  Photo / AP
Diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia are tense following a spy scandal which has led to protesters burning posters of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo / AP

Devastatingly successful in opposition, Tony Abbott has discovered that it is much harder to control the news agenda in government - and that voters are a volatile bunch, particularly if you break a promise or appear to be just treading water.

Most new governments have the occasional rocky moment, but the Coalition's first three months have been ugly.

That is reflected in the opinion polls, which suggest that its primary vote has slumped as low as 40 per cent: its worst showing for nearly three years and the swiftest decline for a new Australian government since polling began.

Since his landslide victory on September 7 - and after promising a "no surprises, no excuses government" - Abbott appears to have lurched from one crisis to the next.

Some, such as the debacle over education funding reform, were of his own making - or, at least, that of his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne.

Others, such as the diplomatic spat with Indonesia over spying, were exacerbated by Abbott's clumsy response.

Yet others, such as Holden's decision this week to end manufacturing operations in Australia by 2017, probably could not have been prevented, although debate about whether more public money should have been ploughed into the company will continue to rage - particularly as Qantas is currently seeking government support.

The Coalition has faced controversy over MPs' parliamentary expenses, a decision to block the sale of GrainCorp (a grain storage and handling company) to the American agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland, and a deal with the Greens to remove the debt ceiling, despite its criticisms in opposition of the former Labor Government's level of debt.

As for Abbott's signature policies of scrapping the carbon tax and stopping the boats: a hostile Senate will prevent him from accomplishing the former until new senators take their seats next July, while Indonesia's withdrawal of co-operation on the latter may be partly to blame for a recent spike in asylum boat arrivals, including 195 people in one week.

Equally concerning for Coalition MPs heading off on a two-month break this weekend is the perception that the Government lacks a sense of purpose and a positive vision.

"What is the point of the Abbott Government?" asked Peter Hartcher, political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, in a recent column.

"It offered itself as a way to make the unattractive Labor spectacle go away. It accomplished that. But what now?"

Even the Australian's political editor Dennis Shanahan, who is generally supportive of Abbott, wrote that the Government is "suffering from an array of failed expectations" and "post-election torpor". "They've had absolutely no honeymoon," says Antony Green, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's election analyst.

The Prime Minister himself has been strangely low-profile.

"He led them [the Coalition] to a major election victory, so he should have Labor on the ropes and be in a very strong position," says Dr Nick Economou, a senior lecturer in politics at Melbourne's Monash University.

"But he comes across as very tentative all the time, and quite reticent in his approach to government."

Still at the heart of decision-making is a select group of advisers, headed by Abbott's formidable chief of staff Peta Credlin. But while credited with moderating his "attack dog" image and making him electable, they are now resented by some Coalition politicians.

The Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, is reportedly fuming after being scolded by Credlin for performing poorly at a media conference, while Ian Macdonald, a backbencher, complained last week about a culture of "obsessive centralised control" and "unelected advisers in the Prime Minister's office telling elected politicians ... what should and shouldn't be done".

While the rift with Indonesia (caused by revelations that Australia tapped the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife in 2007) could not have been predicted, Pyne's announcement that he would not honour the previous Government's school funding commitment - despite Abbott's pledge during the election campaign that the Coalition was on a "unity ticket" with Labor on that issue - was a spectacular own goal. Amid the uproar from lobby groups and Liberal-run states which had thrashed out deals with federal Labor, Pyne performed a second u-turn.

The unedifying sequence of events was closely followed by news that Australian primary and high school students are slipping down the international rankings of educational achievement.

Green says: "In opposition, they [the Coalition] were very good at only talking about the issues they wanted to talk about, and picking issues that hurt the Government. But now they're in government and a whole bunch of things has come up, like the closure of manufacturing.

"I don't think they're dealing very well with the transition from opposition to government."

A Newspoll this week put Labor support at 52 per cent, on a two-party-preferred basis, ahead of the Coalition's 48 per cent.

The latter's primary vote has fallen by seven points since late October.

And it has yet to start making the swinging spending cuts required to bring the budget back to surplus by 2016-17, as Abbott has promised.

The economy - already slowing as the mining boom peters out - is set to remain at centre stage following Holden's announcement, which means the loss of 3000 jobs.

An editorial in Thursday's Sydney Morning Herald said that "now more than ever, Mr Abbott needs to explain to the nation his vision for the Australian economy".

Economou says the Government appears to be "all over the shop", and he detects "a nervousness [among voters] about the economy and the provision of services like education ... That's where the Government is struggling, and the message seems to be changing daily."

A break from politics until February, the lure of the beach and a likely Ashes series win will take some of the pressure off Abbott and his ministers in the coming weeks.

The Prime Minister, though, will need to use that breathing-space to re-think his political strategy.

Otherwise, voters - more of whom now disapprove of his performance than approve - may never return to the fold.

- NZ Herald

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