FEELING THE HEAT
Tony Abbott, on the most basic measure, was Australia's most successful opposition leader. He oversaw the destruction of prime minister Kevin Rudd, prime minister Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd again. Now the pressure is on him.
"The time for campaigning has passed, the time for governing has arrived," he told his legions of supporters on the night of his election victory, September 7, 2013.
"I now look forward to forming a government that is competent, that is trustworthy, and which purposefully and steadfastly and methodically sets about delivering on our commitments to you, the Australian people.
"In three years' time, the carbon tax will be gone, the boats will be stopped, the budget will be on track for a believable surplus and the roads of the 21st century will finally be well under way.
"And from today, I declare that Australia is under new management and that Australia is once more open for business."
Three months later - the first 100 days in power ticks over on Monday - it is clear that governing has proved significantly more challenging than opposing. Voters had booted a dysfunctional Labor government, but the Coalition remains far from embraced by a grateful public.
The last two major polls - Fairfax/Nielsen and Newspoll - both have the Coalition in a much worse position than at the September 7 election. Indeed, those polls, the worst for a new government in Australian polling history, placed the Coalition so far behind Labor that if an election had been held in the past month, they suggested a Labor prime minister would be at the dispatch box rather than Abbott.
The attempt to remove the carbon tax is stalled, the business of stopping the boats has been rolled into a secretive military operation that now has no co-operation from Indonesia, the budget's "believable surplus" may or may not be on track - economic forecasts regularly prove unreliable - and it won't be long before no Australian-made cars will be on those roads of the 21st century.
Abbott, in South Africa at Nelson Mandela's funeral, was unable to attend his own Christmas drinks for the press gallery this week. His absence was something of a mercy. There seemed little enough for the new Prime Minister to celebrate.
His government's competency is a matter of debate within his own ranks, its trustworthiness is being questioned by disparate interests both domestic and international and the promised steadfast purpose has been methodically undermined by ham-fistedness or events that were either inevitable (Holden), inherited (the NBN) or - like the revelations that Australia had been listening in to the phones of prominent Indonesians - so unexpected they were beyond Abbott's control.
His government's handling of Holden in the lead-up to its decision on Wednesday to quit manufacturing in Australia has left observers divided about whether it displayed political ineptitude or was a smart play designed to flush out Holden before it became a disaster waiting to happen later in the political cycle.
Australia was under new management, but with Christmas approaching, the government was exposed to the gibe that it appeared to be closing for business, particularly after Treasurer Joe Hockey, keen to please the Nationals, had refused to allow foreign interests to purchase the nation's grain handler, GrainCorp.
It is not unknown for new governments to plunge into controversy early. Abbott's political mentor, John Howard, experienced a disastrous first few months. He lost a series of ministers and his own trusted chief of staff to rolling travel rorts scandals, saw relations with China plunge to icy levels when he stridently backed the United States' tough reaction to China firing missiles into Taiwan's waters and found his government the subject of deep suspicion in Indonesia.
All of these difficulties find echoes in Abbott's early administration. Howard, of course, went on to enjoy almost 11 years as prime minister.
The Abbott government appears ready to emulate Howard's history wars, too. The Attorney-General George Brandis, having made sure the ABC TV journalist Barrie Cassidy (once a staffer to Labor PM Bob Hawke) would resign from the Council of the Museum of Australian Democracy before he had taken up the role, quietly made three new appointments on Thursday. Heather Henderson, 85, the daughter of the late Liberal PM Sir Robert Menzies; Sir David Smith, 80, who read the proclamation announcing his boss, governor-general John Kerr, had dismissed the Whitlam government in 1975, and former Liberal minister David Kemp, 75, closely associated with the right-wing H.R Nicholls Society, got the appointments. Sometimes, small things tell a story about ideological triumphalism.
The real fly in Abbott's ointment, however, is that the election isn't over. The government's hope of pulling together the numbers in the Senate to pass his signature legislation is not settled.
West Australian voters are likely to get a second chance to pass judgment on the Coalition government in the New Year. The Australian Electoral Commission, fresh from a mauling at the hands of former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty for losing 1370 ballot papers during a recount of the WA Senate vote, has petitioned the High Court to hold a new election. Assuming a $13 million fix for a fiasco goes ahead, WA voters are likely to be in a sullen mood.
They will also be wiser than at the September 7 election about where their votes, and the preferences that flow from them, will go. If they decide to avoid micro parties like the Sports Party, which on the botched second count won a Senate seat, and find themselves less than impressed with the Palmer United Party - which was judged worthy of a senator on the first disputed count - Abbott's Liberals will have a fight on their hands to gain the numbers in the Senate.
Abbott needs WA to deliver him three Liberal senators and a relatively friendly Palmer United Party senator, to grant him a manageable Senate. But if the state turned sour on him, he could in a worst case find himself with only two Liberal senators facing three Labor senators and a Green. It would leave him no better off than now.
The government's inability to push the carbon tax repeal through the currently hostile Senate galls Abbott and his colleagues, who argue that voters gave them a mandate in September. So frustrated has Abbott become that he allowed himself to be reduced to the emptiest of threats, common to prime ministers fearing time is robbing their hopes: last week he declared he would force Parliament to sit through Christmas if the Senate wouldn't come to heel.
But Parliament has adjourned for the year and the Senate won't repeal the carbon tax for the simple reason Abbott doesn't have the numbers to force it to.
In fact, Abbott bunkered down in the weeks after the election, and Parliament did not resume sitting until well into November - almost eight weeks after he was sworn in. He had the benefit of the Labor Party conducting its own search for a leader. The interregnum created a vacuum within the political cycle, and it sucked in trouble.
Abbott's wish to display a steady-as-she-goes attitude by keeping his old frontbench essentially intact found him attacked for overlooking women: his cabinet, sworn in on September 18, included only one woman, his party's deputy, Julie Bishop.
By September 23, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had introduced the most peculiar and secretive approach to border protection in Australia's history: standing beside a military general, he would provide a single media briefing each week on boat arrivals, but there would be no information on a key election promise - whether or not any boats had been turned around. Anything deemed an "operational matter" would remain a secret. It invited the scorn of critics and concern within the Defence Force that the military was being traduced by politics, but the government argued it was denying people smugglers a "shipping news service", and was indeed slowing the boats.
The gloss began to be peeled from the Coalition within a month of the election when Fairfax Media began investigating and reporting that Abbott and a series of ministers and MPs had quietly begun paying back money they'd claimed as "entitlements" to attend weddings and other social events.
The resulting stink reached its height with the revelation that West Australian MP Don Randall and his wife had jetted to Cairns on "electoral business". Coincidentally, they owned an investment property in Cairns. Randall eventually decided to repay $5259 to "ensure the right thing is done by the taxpayer and alleviate any ambiguity".
Astonishingly, only last week Randall was reappointed to the privileges committee, which oversees the code of conduct for parliamentarians and their interests. He stood aside within hours, but the government under Abbott's new management looked incompetent and shifty - dangerous territory. By then, Abbott's government had managed to confuse parents, the education community and the states with a risible approach to dismantling Labor's Gonski review of education. Arguing that the Coalition was doing nothing beyond what had been promised before the election, Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced at the end of November that he was scrapping Labor's funding model and would renegotiate agreements with the states and territories within a year.
The resulting brawl led Pyne to accuse critics of failing to understand his policy, but state premiers maintained their fury and the federal opposition began gaining significant political traction. A week was lost to the outcry before Abbott and Pyne bought their way out of trouble, reversing their position (again) and finding $1.2 billion for two states and a territory that hadn't signed.
Amid the outcry, the first Fairfax/Nielsen poll found the government's fortunes had plunged - Labor was way ahead, 52-48 on a two-party preferred status. Last week, Newspoll, published in The Australian, reached precisely the same result: 52-48. In less than 100 days, the voters - so enthusiastic to remove the Gillard-Rudd administrations - had reversed their position.
It seemed particularly pointed: the new Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, remains widely considered to be still finding his feet. The Abbott government was being judged on its own performance.
Since then, Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley, declaring low-paid childcare workers would be denied $300 million in pay rises, has urged childcare operators to "do the right thing" and hand back $62.5 million received under legal contracts.
And Holden, goaded by the government, decided to pack up its manufacturing business, with the likelihood of Toyota and component suppliers following.
The Prime Minister and his colleagues now have summer to regather and face the remaining 950-odd days of their first term.
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
September 18: Tony Abbott’s Cabinet is sworn in; Julie Bishop is the only woman.
September 23: Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refuses to reveal “operational matters”
on asylum seekers.
October 7: Abbott reveals he paid back “entitlements” used to attend weddings of MPs Peter Slipper and Sophie Mirabella.
November 18: Australia is revealed to have bugged the phones of Indonesian President Yudhoyono and his wife.
November 19: Abbott refuses to apologise for Australia’s spying.
November 25: Fairfax/Nielsen poll has Coalition losing to Labor, 48 per cent to 52 per cent.
November 25: Education Minister Christopher Pyneeff ectively dumps Gonski. November 28: Treasurer Joe Hockey refuses to allow Grain Corp to be sold to US company.
December 1: Abbott and Pyne back-flip on Gonski.
December 5: Trade Minister Andrew Robb signs free trade agreement with South Korea.
December 10: Newspoll confirms earlier Fairfax/Nielsen
December 10: Treasurer Joe Hockey dares Holden to leave Australia.
December 11: Holden announces it will end production in Australia by 2017.