Abbott's decision to plan is plan enough

Tony Abbott’s budget reply showed the Opposition leader changing tack at the right time, from negative strategy to a more ‘adult’, consultative attitude.

Last night's budget reply speech by Tony Abbott marks a significant turning point in the election campaign and, more interestingly, an evolution in the man from Tony aka ‘Mr Wrecking Ball’ to ‘Mr Abbott, consultative leader in chief’.

You could almost hear the sighs of relief from the Opposition benches.

The most important thing Tony Abbott could do as Prime Minister would be to put an end to Australia's recent history of public policy making on the run.

First impressions of Mr Abbott's public policy making instincts have not been promising. They have included such though bubbles as a northern exclusion zone, building 100 new dams and a paid parental leave scheme conceived entirely out of shadow cabinet wedlock.

But last night, Abbott made all the right noises about ending a disruptive period of policy making.

He even spoke slower than he usually does. Staring down the barrel of the House of Representatives chamber camera, and not looking at the speaker, he promised Australia an "adult" government like the Howard and Hawke governments.

Australians, he said, are sick of the revolutions, the biggest this and that, the historic policy proposals that aren't carried through.

There will be none of that. Abbott will take an entire two years to produce a white paper on tax reform.

Any proposals will be taken to the 2016 election when Australians will have a chance to vote on any proposals.

The Coalition rhetoric is of a "strong and prosperous, safe and secure" Australia. He could have easily said relaxed and comfortable.

No nasty surprises, no lame excuses; an Abbott government would rebuild the bonds of trust with the Australian community and rebuild confidence.

It won't be the greatest, best, most excellent government of all time. Just good. A government whose first duty is to do no harm.

A "careful, collegial, consultative, straight forward government... that says what it means and does what it says".

It was a masterful speech with several great political lines including the final pledge: "It’s not about us, it’s about you the Australian people. We pledge ourselves to your service."

But Abbott not only said all the right things, he made a decent start on spelling out what an Abbott government would do, apart from not being the other guys.

We now know a Coalition government would abolish the carbon tax as its first act, but keep the already delivered $4 billion in relief for families in tax cuts, benefits and pension increases.

Without the revenue from the carbon tax to fund the benefits, Abbott outlined $5 billion in plausible budget savings. These include rescinding an increase to Australia's humanitarian intake, cutting 12,000 public sector jobs by attrition (save $1.7 billion), scrapping the green loans scheme, axing a twice yearly supplement for people on benefits ($300 million), getting rid of Labor's $1 billon top up for low income superannuation accounts and delaying the ramp up in the compulsory super guarantee to 12 per cent by two years ($1.1 billion claimed save).

An Abbott government would also most likely keep all the savings measures outlined in this week's

budget, including axing the Howard government's baby bonus, pausing indexation of family benefit limits, medicare cuts and the crackdown on company tax collections.

A Coalition government would proceed with the National Disability Insurance Scheme but not with the $16 billion Gonski education funding boost unless all states signed up to it before the election.

Wisely, and not before time, Abbott has changed tack.

He has put away the wrecking ball and will, apart from the carbon and mining taxes, largely keep Labor's policies. The national broadband network will be retained, but in a cheaper and slower version

This is not the wholesale, full frontal attack on suburban front lawns of Abbott-old, when he promised to rip up the NBN.

Labor's major problem in government has not been that it doesn't have good, visionary ideas, just that it lacks the political skills to execute them.

In an excellent report released last year, the Institute of Public Administration Australia correctly diagnosed Australia's current affliction with "policy on the run", cataloguing the many high-profile policy flops that have resulted, including the alcopops tax, Building the Education Revolution, the national broadband network, Fuelwatch, the Green Car Innovation Fund, the Darwin to Alice Springs railway, the green loans program, the home insulation program, Grocery Watch and set top boxes for pensioners.

All these policies, according to the IPAA's reckoning, failed on several of the most basic principles of good public policy design, including establishing facts and known views on a subject, identifying policy alternatives, weighing their pros and cons, sharing the information with the public, consulting relevant stakeholders, establishing a final business case and communicating it to the public.

Then institute chairman, Percy Allan, made the astute observation that Labor's time in power, under both Rudd and Gillard, had been characterised by "policy outbursts preceded by secrecy". Disability Care is a notable exception, having been the subject of a Productivity Commission inquiry, which heard from thousands of people and took many months. Bill Shorten should get much of the credit as then parliamentary secretary for disability.

Many in the media will be crowing for details of Mr Abbott's plans. And more details are needed. But it is important to recognise that a plan to more properly plan is an important plan in itself.

There will be a commission of audit into government spending, a review of competition policy and white paper and state-federal relations.

Abbott is making all the right noises, but it remains to be seen if he can deliver the sort of stable, rigorous and well communicated policy Australians have been so sorely missing of late. 

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