Tony Abbott: The least popular Opposition Leader ever to be elected PM.
The following article first appeared at The Economist…
As political honeymoons go Tony Abbott’s has proved elusive, even invisible. Mr Abbott (pictured above) became Australia’s prime minister almost four months ago, when he led the conservative Liberal-National coalition to a comfortable victory over an unpopular Labor government.
By the end of the year, however, the unpopularity had shifted to the new government. No prime minister in memory has fallen so quickly from voters’ grace.
Surveys conducted in November and December by Australia’s two main pollsters, Nielsen and Newspoll, both showed Labor ahead of the coalition by 52 points to 48.
The coalition won 53.5% of the vote at the election last September against Labor’s 46.5%, after distribution of second preference votes. John Stirton, of Nielsen, says that in 40 years of polling, his firm has never seen a swing of such magnitude against a new administration.
Governments have usually basked in polling honeymoons of up to two years. This time, the post-election swing is against it.
Besides bad polls, problems now loom over the government’s handling of the economy. On December 17th a Treasury update on the fiscal year from July 2013 painted a chilling picture. The budget deficit had more than doubled from its original projection last May to A$47 billion ($42 billion). Growth had slowed, and unemployment was forecast to rise slightly, to 6%.
Falling revenue and the legacy of stimulus spending under Labor played some part in what the Treasury called the “deterioration”. The Treasury also cited the new government’s promised grant of almost A$9 billion to the central bank to help it manage future crises, and some of its policies such as the projected repeal of a carbon tax.
Mr Abbott has retreated from his promise a year ago of a surplus in each of his government’s first three years.
Even before this sober reality, the government was looking clumsy. Mr Abbott’s apparent insouciance over revelations in November that Australia had spied on Indonesia’s leaders made that furore worse.
The government in Jakarta then withdrew co-operation over dealing with people-smugglers who were sending asylum-seekers in boats to Australia. This imperils another of Mr Abbott’s election promises, to “stop the boats”.
Damage from arrogant performances by two of Mr Abbott’s senior ministers has also been self-inflicted. Once, the immigration department revealed numbers and nationalities of asylum-seekers arriving by boat. Scott Morrison, the new government’s immigration minister, banned such disclosures.
Instead, flanked by an army commander to highlight the government’s military-led operation against boat people, Mr Morrison holds weekly briefings, where he reveals only what he chooses.
In a statement on December 27th to mark the “first 100 days of Operation Sovereign Borders”, Mr Morrison declared: “The boats have not yet stopped, but they are stopping.” The press lampooned him.
In November Christopher Pyne, the education minister, reneged on the coalition’s promise to implement the former Labor government’s education-finance reforms. They stemmed from a report two years ago by David Gonski, a leading business figure, who called on Canberra and the states to spend an extra A$5 billion a year, especially to raise public-school standards, where Australia has slipped lower in world league tables.
The Abbott government underestimated the public backlash to its ditching of this popular measure; it was forced to reinstate it. Mr Abbott even tried to explain his original promise as one “that some people thought that we made”.
Collectively, the government’s performance has fed voters’ long-standing doubts about Mr Abbott. The doubts have surfaced in the conservative Liberal Party, which Mr Abbott leads. John Fahey, a finance minister in the former coalition government, under John Howard, says Mr Abbott was not “known for his judgment” then, and has not taken his “best team into government” now.
As opposition leader, Mr Abbott played tough against a divided Labor government, but offered few sturdy policies. Mr Stirton reckons Australians changed government in September mainly to be rid of Labor. Mr Abbott, he says, is “the least popular opposition leader ever to be elected to the prime ministership”.
Mr Abbott has plenty of time to hone his judgments; the next election is due in 2016. In a report to Australians on his government’s first 100 days, he said it was “purposefully, carefully and methodically” building its “policy foundations”. So far, at least, voters seem uncertain about both the policies and their foundations.