Caution will reign in the Abbott government

As Opposition leader, Tony Abbott was often painted as an unpredictable zealot. But his record on small business and indigenous issues point to man who will govern with pragmatism and discretion.

Now that it’s clear that Labor and the Greens have lost control of the Senate as well as government, the nature of Tony Abbott as national leader comes into sharper focus. As prime minister, Abbott has the numbers (with reasoned Senate negotiation) to effectively govern.  

For those in the conga lines of industry and special interest lobbyists waiting to influence the Abbott government, they need to consider the sort of person Tony Abbott is. To misunderstand him will be to lose influence.

For all of his period as federal Opposition leader, Abbott was portrayed in caricature. He’s been painted as a woman-hater, an irrational religious zealot and a dangerous denier of environmental science who will allow humans to destroy the planet. Further, he’s allegedly unpredictable and lacking in self-control. The images created of him are more cartoon-like than real.

This demonisation of Abbott is understandable from the party political angle of the Labor Party, union movement and their core supporters. They have a need to hate Abbott and create fear of him in the electorate. But it’s an image that doesn’t fit the Abbott reality.

Abbott has been in the public eye for a long time. The secret to him is that he is transparent. His personality and motivations are most easily judged by his behaviours. What people see is the true Abbott. There’s no mystery.

First, expect a government under Abbott of deliberate, thought-through action tempered with caution. (Outisde of Canberra, one example of this approach is Abbott’s volunteer firefighting and surf lifesaving background. Both of these roles require the ability to carefully judge situations, to know when to ‘go in’ but to avoid harm to yourself and the people you’re seeking to help.)

Expect to see this trait in the Abbott government. Situations will be watched and assessed carefully. Facts will be gathered. When needed, actions will be decisive with follow through.

Tied to this is the team issue. As Opposition leader, Abbott demonstrated an ability to pull competing political personalities together into a single force. But although he is the leader, Abbott submits himself to the discipline of the team. It’s a demanding balance to maintain in politics.

Expect to see significant reform to government administration. Abbott has vast experience as a minister. He was principally in charge for example of closing down the monopoly government job placement agency, the Commonwealth Employment Service, in the late 1990s. He replaced this with a competitive privatised service under contract to government on a fee-for-service basis.

Abbott’s commitment to social welfare is heavily on display in his work on indigenous issues. He’s made it clear that he has little patience for meaningless symbolism. Yes, he supported the apology. But all his actions point to someone determined to see practical advances in indigenous health, education and job opportunities. Abbott has aligned himself solidly with indigenous leaders who demand practical outcomes.

Late in his opposition leadership days, Abbott showed a disinclination toward what could be called 'big business welfare'. Holden used the recent election campaign to try and heavy both parties into increased subsidies for the local car industry. Labor promised a bucket of taxpayer money; Abbott declared he was not offering an ‘open chequebook’. This was a significant departure from the Coalition's previous position on the issue. 

Then there’s Abbott the politician. His book Battlelines made it clear that he needs to see community support for an idea before acting. He killed off WorkChoices (“dead and buried,” he said) when he became opposition leader. Abbott will argue for a position but will be cautious if community backing is not clear.

But he will try to alter political parameters if he can, particularly if a policy shift makes sense. This is strongly demonstrated in his small business policies. Robert Gottliebsen has accurately described the transformational intent of Abbott (Abbott's 12-point plan to transform Australia part II, September 10) to put small business at the centre of government economic thought and action. It’s a big shift from the perception of the Liberal Party being in the pocket of big business. Small business people are central to Abbott’s political and economic approaches.

Given this assessment, big business lobbyists are going to have to be careful. Big business has a history of parking itself with Labor and unions to gain advantage. (Witness the duopoly in the construction sector.)  Abbott has observed this. He’ll politely listen, but will be alert to the spivs and spinners pleading for self-interest.

With Prime Minister Abbott, the levers of government will operate quite differently to what some might expect. 

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