J’accuse: Tony Abbott was Never the PM for Us

Tony Abbott was never the right Prime Minister for Australia. Abbott is out of step with mainstream opinions; he has old-fashioned Democratic Labor Party-style values. This fact was noted by David Marr in Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, and even by a fellow student writing in The Bulletin in 1978, during Abbott’s university days, who thought that Abbott “generally presents an old-fashioned DLP image” (incidentally, that fellow student was none other than Malcolm Turnbull).

Tony Abbott is the man who refuses to allow his party even a conscience vote on gay marriage in the face of the 72 per cent of the population who support marriage equality (Crosby Textor Poll, 2014). He is the lonely monarchist crusader who reintroduced knights and dames to the Australian honours system, and compounded that unpopular decision by awarding one such knighthood to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on Australia Day. He is not the Prime Minister for us.

Tony Abbott’s entry to the Lodge in 2013 was facilitated by his deadly effective opposition campaign and a dysfunctional Labor Government, the former serving to re-focus attention on the latter. He made himself into a small target and only offered up well-known mantras and (compared to the 650 page long “Fightback!”) a thin 52 page policy document, “Real Solutions”, for election. People voted not so much for an Abbott Government as against the Labor Government. Analysis of voting at the 2013 election shows that while Labor lost 4.5 per cent of the primary vote, the Coalition gained only 2 per cent.

Since being elected, two fundamental and seemingly intractable issues have worsened Abbott’s standing in the polls. One of those issues is, in a sense, rhetorical. The other is an issue of policy substance.

Abbott’s rhetorical problem is compound. First, as opposition leader, he elevated the notion of the “political promise” to an unprecedented level of importance through his attacks on Julia Gillard’s Carbon Tax. Second, in order to guarantee election victory for the Coalition in 2013, he made a number of mutually contradictory and therefore unfulfillable promises of his own. He promised to “get the budget back in black” but pledged to do so while “scrapping” the mining and carbon taxes, raising “no new taxes” and making “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”. In other words, even as the tide of wealth brought by the mining boom was continuing to ebb away, Abbott promised to ensure that the Commonwealth’s revenue exceeded its expenditure by cutting revenue and maintaining key expenditure items.

Inevitably, many of these promises would be broken, and many were in the 2013 Budget. Problematically – and ironically – for Abbott, they were broken in an Abbott-made context where the breaking of political promises has become an unforgiveable sin for Prime Ministers.

Abbott’s second issue relates to the substance of some of his most important policies. The measures laid out in the 2013 Budget are manifestly unfair – in perception and reality. They are unfair because they disproportionately cause the burden of budget repair to fall on the least-well-off parts of the community.

Separate modelling conducted in 2014 by the Australian National University and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling found that the budget cuts hit the lowest-income earners hardest, whereas they barely affected the positions of higher-income earners. As John Howard has remarked, for Australians to accept a change, they need to be persuaded it is both in the national interest and consistent with fairness. The 2013 Budget fails on at least one of those criteria.

It is no secret that Abbott is not well-liked on university campuses, including our own. Whether rightly or wrongly, his policies for young people and students – cutting welfare support and deregulating university fees – are viewed in the same light of inequity as his other budget measures.

Tony Abbott is on track to become the most unpopular Prime Minister in living memory. His approval rating stands at 29 per cent, according to the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll (Gillard’s stood at 33 per cent after the same period in office). But is that really surprising? Most Australians don’t identify with Abbott’s eccentric values. And we don’t like his cynical politics or unfair policies either. He was never the Prime Minister for us.

With that irreconcilable fact in mind, the central political and media question for the next two years now becomes not whether the Abbott Government will be remembered as the first one-term government since James Scullin lost office in 1931, but whether that ousting will be at the hands of the public in 2016, or his own party before then. Meanwhile, the time – and political capital – consuming task of making important policy for the long term languishes in an era when it is needed more than ever.