Abbott's policy muddle is taking its toll

Tony Abbott's inability to stay on message is having a disastrous effect on his popularity, and is starting to alienate his most ardent supporters.

It’s possible that Tony Abbott has finally tweaked to just how close he is to being a one-term Prime Minister. 

The ousting of the one-term Coalition government in Victoria demonstrates big change. Political commentator Laurie Oakes declared that the political mould is broken. The electorate, he said, is no longer automatically prepared to give a one-term government a second go.

Further, the two major political forces, Labor and the Coalition, can only rely on a solid vote each of about 30 per cent. Forty per cent of the electorate has become hard-core swinging voters. These are people with short political memories, highly attuned ‘bull manure’ detectors and quick to change their vote. 

Unfortunately for Abbott, his major successes so far -- stopping the boats and removing the carbon and mining taxes -- are almost forgotten.

Politics now suffers from the same challenge facing businesses. The consumer (and voter) pass judgment on what happens ‘today’, not what you did yesterday. Small failures are not tolerated if not quickly fixed.

If Abbott is to win the next election, he must do what he has done in the past: hold the 30 per cent of solid Coalition supporters and seduce the 40 per cent middle ground. His current trouble is that he is losing on both counts.

Here’s one example: Abbott’s failure to uphold free speech and repeal the race-hate laws diminished the core of his conservative support base. The most high-profile ‘victim’ of those laws, media commentator Andrew Bolt, struggles to maintain enthusiasm for the Abbott government.

But what’s as damaging is the lack of consistent messaging from the government, born from policy inconsistency.

Take these examples.

Abbott declared an end to corporate welfare. He took away taxpayer subsidies from the car manufacturers who are now closing down. What traditionally would have been a political negative -- the loss of manufacturing jobs -- became a political positive. People were sick of being ripped off by manufacturers on corporate welfare.

However, the now changed plan to raise revenue on doctor visits is a new corporate welfare splurge. The ‘tax’ will raise funds to line the pockets of medical elites who do research.

Then there’s the alleged debt reduction program. Abbott is increasing petrol taxes and more to reduce debt. His core support base and even swinging voters would grudgingly accept this if debt reduction were the clear goal. But that hasn't been the case.

The doctor visit 'tax' is not a debt-reducing tax. And the new tax for Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme does not reduce debt. People are being told to both pay more to reduce the debt, but also to pay more to increase spending worsening the debt! It’s no wonder that the message is failing because policies are contradictory.

This contradiction creates an impression of chaos in government. Never mind that Abbott has a solid team of competent people around him delivering results. The people managing foreign policy and immigration and trade policy have produced stunning results in just one year. But the domestic policies that impact on peoples’ pockets are confusing.

The soap opera that is the Senate is not to blame for the chaos. The Senate is reacting to policy contradiction.

And creating fear in people’s minds that the Labor Party is an arm of a systemically corrupt union movement won’t save the government. The evidence is mounting in the Royal Commission into union corruption that corruption is not isolated to individuals, but is the business model of many unions.

In Victoria it was clear that corrupt building unions would and will control the new Labor government. But this did not stop voters from rejecting the Coalition.

The Victorian Coalition government was highly competent. It controlled debt by tackling the public sector unions and limiting pay rises. It had visionary infrastructures projects. Yes it lacked clarity and focus in their communication. It suffered from chaos because of a rogue ex-Liberal MP who controlled the balance of power in the Parliament. Its chaos was externally generated.

Abbott has an impressive, solid team but confusion in domestic policy is negating the positives. This is generating internal chaos upon which the Senate feeds. The voters will not excuse this even if they are worried about a corrupt, union-controlled Labor Party.

The voters are feeling that they don’t know Abbott -- or more that Abbott doesn’t himself know where he wants to lead. This creates distrust. He’s losing his own supporters. Without them, he can’t win the middle-ground swinger voter. 

Ken Phillips is executive director of Independent Contractors Australia and author of Independence and the Death of Employment.