Features Australia

Reform interruptus

Tony Abbott is determined to run a government along the lines of Hawke, Keating and Howard

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

The climb to Dead Horse Gap is an act of defiance against the law of gravity. Tony Abbott rode it in April 2010, churning his largest cog in slow rhythm for 18km, barely rising from the saddle.

As he rode into Thredbo for the lunch stop, the alpine weather was closing in. Faced with a mountain descent in driving rain and a southerly crosswind, the Pollie Pedal director suggested abandoning the day’s ride. Abbott would have none of it and fastened his helmet, promising his fellow riders: “We’ll have serious bragging rights tonight.”

The grit conspicuously lodged in the prime ministerial soul helps explain why Abbott both frustrates and encourages those who long for his demise. His stubborn determination is balanced by the likelihood that he’ll end up sprawled in the gravel, uttering Tommy Simpson’s last vain request, “Put me back on my bike.”

Launching Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise, Abbott politely insisted that, contrary to Kelly’s despondent thesis, the age of bold government is not over.

“The challenge of the current Government – is to show that the age of reform has not ended, it was merely interrupted,” he said. It is an audacious commitment given his administration’s record so far. At least one reform – the repeal of 18C – collapsed in a heap. Fiscal adjustments, like GP co-payments and pension indexation, have divided the non-Labor senators. The deregulation of university fees, essential to the health of higher education, hangs in the balance. By any objective measure, Abbott’s attempt to disprove Kelly’s thesis is not going well.

Yet Abbott’s first year achievements are many. He has proved, contrary to conventional wisdom, boats can be stopped. In diplomacy, Abbott and Julie Bishop can barely be faulted. When tragedy dragged us into the conflict in the Ukraine, Abbott seized the opportunity to say the things other Western nations would not articulate. He is now taking the rhetorical lead in Iraq and Syria.

He has secured free trade agreements with Japan and Korea, feats that eluded his predecessors. The New Colombo Plan is a practical application of soft-diplomacy. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has offered to host Australian interns at his ministry.

The abolition of the carbon tax was an act of insubordination against the zeitgeist. A second test of Abbott’s resolve will be the imminent decision on the RET. By standing firm on car industry subsidies and declining to bail out SPC, he has made some progress on industry welfare reform. He is not letting up on a deregulation agenda that will lighten the deadweight of government.

Compared to Kevin Rudd’s Year One, Abbott’s record has substance. Rudd’s Kyoto signing and apology to the so-called stolen generation were acts of symbolism. The alcopop tax, GroceryWatch and FuelWatch were kitsch politics. The 2020 summit was a cry for help from a prime minister without a clue. But here’s the thing: a year into government 70 per cent of the electorate were satisfied with Rudd’s performance. Abbott’s Newspoll rating is barely half that.

From the day he became party leader, Abbott’s supporters confidently expected that the Australian public would warm to his clubbable personality. The best part of five years later, evidence suggests that perhaps they never will.

When writing The Lucky Culture in 2012, I resisted speculating about how the establishment would react to an Abbott victory. Just as well, for the cultural resistance has been far stronger and more sustained that I would have imagined. One suspects that Abbott, too, has been caught by surprise. The failure of the 18C amendment and other bold adventures suggest Abbott had an inflated sense of his own cultural capital. Winning an election is not the same as winning the argument;power and authority are very different things.

Howard of course provoked similar consternation and condescension. Yet the resistance to Abbott is more vigorous and vicious. It is acrimonious, caustic, defamatory and shows no sign of abating.

Indeed it cannot, for Abbott is an habitual offender against the laws of political correctness and therefore irredeemable. His attachment to the unfashionable causes of Catholicism, Monarchism and climate realism have made it impossible to win the hearts and minds of the bien pensant including those in his own party.

Paid parental leave – a noble cause to progressive thinkers for decades – is poison in his hands. “Team Australia”, a mild expression of nationalism when used by others, is incendiary when it comes from the PM. Abbott, we are told, dog-whistles to racism and winks to misogyny.

The cognoscenti will accept nothing but dismal failure since even the mildest victory is an affront. Yet Abbott cannot ignore them completely, since their strident voice in the public square has the power to shape the popular narrative. It is they who control who’s on Q&A and the questions asked; who sits in the audience and whether they sneer or applaud.

If the thesis of The Lucky Culture holds good, and the ranks of progressive thinkers increase in proportion to the number of university degrees, Abbott is in trouble. In 1996, when Howard came to power, 16 per cent of Australians had university degrees; by 2011 it had doubled. The impossible task of governing for middle Australia without antagonizing the alumni was the undoing of Labor, and may yet prove too much for Abbott.

Yet Abbott has an important source of authority he has so far been reluctant to draw upon: being in office. Having declared himself to be a reformer à la  Hawke and Keating, he must now set the terms of the conversation as they did.

He must concentrate on explaining, clearly and convincingly, what his government is doing and why. It will require a softer vocabulary than ‘structural adjustment’, ‘fiscal discipline’ and ‘the end of entitlement’. He must paint a picture of our destination, a sunnier world of choice, opportunity and prosperity in which the government knows its place.

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