Window closing on Abbott's blame game

The Abbott government clocks up 100 days since its September 7 election win on Monday. It was sworn in on September 18. The 100-day window on that measure passes on December 27 by my count.
By · 14 Dec 2013
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14 Dec 2013
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The Abbott government clocks up 100 days since its September 7 election win on Monday. It was sworn in on September 18. The 100-day window on that measure passes on December 27 by my count.

On either count, though, the first 100 days have not gone as expected. The government has scored a few emblematic wins and has set in train many of the things it promised, but major wins including the repeal of Labor's carbon tax and mining tax are still unclaimed.

The spying scandal is dormant but is almost certainly going to be fed by more leaks. Holden has announced its departure after failing to secure more government assistance. Qantas is asking for help. And the government's promise to do what it says it will do has been tarnished by a backflip-with-pike over Gonski education funding.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his team also know that the window for blaming the previous government is closing: their bench strength and operational flexibility are now squarely on the line.

The 100-day window opens widest in the corporate world when a board brings in a new chief executive from outside the company, and Abbott's win was arguably the closest thing to an external chief executive appointment in federal politics since the election of the Fraser government in 1975.

Labor's late switch back to Kevin Rudd reduced the magnitude of the voter swing against it, but it was still a landslide win for an opposition leader who was promising sweeping changes, including the axing of the carbon tax and mining tax, a recasting of the national broadband network, the curtailment of green spending, and inquiries into union corruption, the financial system and the tax system.

Underpinning all that was the promise of a return to predictability. A Coalition government would do "exactly what we've said we will do", Abbott said in his campaign launch speech. Australia was once more open for business, he said on election night when he claimed the victory. Both propositions have been undermined by decisions the government has taken.

In the first 100 days, a chief executive needs to settle his leadership team, clear the decks of detritus while the previous management can still be blamed, and serve up decisions and changes that highlight the new strategy and momentum for change. The Abbott government was aware of the agenda. It announced on day one its plans to repeal the carbon tax and the mining tax, and also quickly reversed Labor's crackdown on car-lease fringe benefits.

A raft of announcements that affect business have followed, including terms of reference for the financial system inquiry, a remake of the broadband network and the announcement of an overhaul of competition rules that is expected to strengthen the negotiating position of smaller companies.

The mechanics of the Senate have, however, stalled the attempt to repeal the mining and carbon taxes, probably until the Greens lose the balance of power in July. Left-field developments have also undermined the government's sense of purpose, and so have some of its own decisions and announcements.

Abbott handled the Indonesian spying revelations as well as could be expected, but they were damaging. The wisdom of the government's decision to deny Holden extra assistance won't be tested for years, but the political optics of GM's decision to stop assembling vehicles in 2017 were also ugly.

Abbott's promise that the government was good for its word was also undermined by Education Minister Chris Pyne's attempt to ditch a pre-election promise to roll out Labor's Gonski education reforms, and the subsequent reinstatement of the promise with less stringent controls over spending attached.

Nineteenth-century German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke noted that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Treasurer Joe Hockey skilfully adapted his plan to boost the government's debt ceiling from $300 billion to $500 billion after running into opposition from Labor and the Greens, and secured a deal with the Greens to scrap the debt ceiling entirely.

Three foreign investment decisions by him have, however, created uncertainty about the new government's approach.

First he cleared Saputo of Canada's $500 million bid for Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Company unconditionally. Then he blocked US group Archer Daniels Midland's $3.4 billion takeover offer for GrainCorp for reasons that included an apparently new national-interest factor, its impact on support in the "broader community" for foreign takeovers.

This week, he excused China government-controlled Yanzhou Coal from commitments it made in 2009 to reduce its ownership of coalmines acquired for $5.5 billion in 2009 and list the business on the ASX, and said a move to 100 per cent ownership might be approved.

Where that leaves foreign investors is hard to know. The government's ability or capacity to support Toyota, Australia's last car assembler and biggest vehicle exporter, is also unclear after the Holden standoff.

For that matter, so is the extent of the budget pressure that Hockey will reveal next Tuesday. The government will blame the budget blowout on Labor, but it is in charge now.

Its original plan was to detail its response to Tuesday's budget blowout in its budget in May. After a disappointing 100-day launch, there's an argument that it should disclose the details earlier, to show that it has a plan that works.
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