Abbott’s unpopularity is a matter of trust

If only the government had done a better job at communicating the fiscal crisis; if only the ABC were more supportive. Alas, neither of these is Tony Abbott’s real problem.

What explains the fact that according to every opinion poll, the Abbott government has had the most dramatic slide in popularity of any newly elected government in recent history? What explains the fact that Tony Abbott, again according to every opinion poll, is the most unpopular prime minister in many decades, even more unpopular than was Julia Gillard at the nadir of her time as PM?

According to Malcolm Turnbull, against whom a mini-campaign is building among some conservative commentators to get him removed from cabinet, the explanation for the government’s unpopularity is that it has failed to convince Australians that Australia is in the grip of a fiscal crisis.

It has failed to explain, argues Turnbull, that only tough measures of the kind that were featured in Joe Hockey’s budget could save us from the need for even more drastic action in the years to come to return Australia to something approaching economic health.

What is needed, Turnbull has argued, is an almost single-minded focus, not just by Abbott and Joe Hockey, but by every senior minister, on explaining the crisis and then on advocating for the reforms -- tough reforms, he admits -- that this government has had the courage to pursue.

There are other explanations offered for the government being so on the nose with Australians. Some conservative commentators seem to believe that the government’s woes are in large part due to the fact that some sections of the media, Fairfax and the ABC in particular, are so consumed with dislike of Abbott that they are determined to destroy him and his government.

These media organisations, they argue, are no longer involved in delivering fair and unbiased journalism. These media organisations, in cahoots with the Labor opposition, are making it virtually impossible for the government to deliver tough and vital reforms. Our politics, as is the case in the United States, is in gridlock.

In the minds of some commentators, there is this strong connection between the need to tame the ABC and what they see as the paralysis that now characterises our politics. Thus it is in the national interest to relentlessly hold the ABC to account for its many perceived sins of bias and left-wing advocacy.

It seems to me that neither Turnbull’s explanation for the government’s and Abbott’s awful polling, nor that offered up by some conservative commentators, stands up to even the most perfunctory scrutiny.

As far as Malcolm Turnbull’s position goes, it is an argument adopted by the supporters of a government that finds itself in trouble in the polls. We only have to remember the laments of backbenchers and even some ministers in the Gillard Government -- in private and in public -- distraught at how inept, how hopeless were Gillard and her senior team in explaining and advocating for policies which they all agreed, more or less, would be considered wonderful by the electorate if only these major triumphs of policy reform were properly explained. It is every government’s explanation, when things go badly, that somehow there has been a failure in communicating the absolutely great things it is doing.

And given that Turnbull is a senior cabinet minister, we must assume that he has done everything in his power to take his own advice; he has been out there, day after day, supporting every budget measure -- every single one of them, including the decision to break a promise not to cut funding to the ABC and SBS. If that’s what Turnbull has been doing, it has gone wholly unnoticed.

As for the argument that the government’s unpopularity and the gridlock of Australian politics is somehow about the left-wing biases of ABC and Fairfax journalists -- and to a lesser extent the failure of Bill Shorten to wholeheartedly support the government’s agenda! -- this too does not stand up to even the most perfunctory examination.

The fact is that the newspapers with either the largest circulations like The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun, or those newspapers with monopoly positions like The Courier Mail and the Adelaide Advertiser, support not only the Abbott Government’s insistence that we are in the middle of a fiscal crisis, but also support the remedial measures that have been taken to address the crisis. And this support is not only in the papers’ editorial columns, but also in the reporting and analysis of federal politics.

What’s more, The Australian, which even it admits is the most influential newspaper in the country, offers the Abbott government the most sustained and consistent support for its policy positions any government could hope for. That is undeniable.

And as far as Fairfax is concerned, it is hard to argue that The Australian Financial Review is a hotbed of far-left journalism.

The fact is that Malcolm Turnbull’s explanation for why the government is so unpopular and the explanation offered up by the virulent critics of Fairfax and the ABC are premised on a belief that Australians are either too stupid to form a view of the government without ‘better communication’, or they are easily fooled by left-wing journalists into believing the government is not worth their support.

This is nonsense. The far more likely explanation for the government’s poor opinion polls and for the fact that Tony Abbott is deeply unpopular is that people feel that they have been fooled. They saw Abbott relentlessly pursue Gillard for her broken promises. They heard him say many times that he would never break a promise he made to the Australian people. They did not believe when he came to power, he would break even more promises than had Gillard.

No amount of good communicating and no ‘taming’ of the ABC could convince the majority of Australians to blithely accept the Abbott government’s broken promises without feeling some sense of betrayal. No doubt in time some people will ‘forgive’ Abbott and his government, and some might even come to believe that the broken promises were somehow necessary. But this won’t be because the government improved its communication or because its critics were able to cut the ABC down to size.

John Howard often said that the people always get it right. They can’t be fooled. They know when a government is performing well and when it is performing badly. It is hard to know whether he really believed it. But whether he believed it or not, politicians in a liberal democracy should act on the basis that Howard’s truism is true.

On that basis, the dismal polls for Abbott and his government are not about bad communication or bad journalism. They are a reflection of the fact that less than a year after the Abbott government was elected, a clear majority of people believe Abbott is not a great prime minister and that his government cannot be trusted.