‘Tony Abbott is a pathological liar who has lost the respect of the Australian people. He leads a beleaguered government, held ransom by extremists in the Senate. His government is illegitimate. He must resign and end our collective misery!’
Of course, no one is calling for the head of our PM just yet but this is precisely the kind of hyperbole Abbott used to demolish Julia Gillard’s prime ministership when she confronted similar political circumstances just three years ago.
Indeed as opposition leader Abbott cast himself as the ultimate lie detector. Every Labor policy contortion represented a broken promise, another nail in the coffin of a government “dying of shame”.
Herein lies the problem for Abbott as he tries to fend off criticism over his proposed “deficit levy” and a mounting list of junked election commitments. Having hounded Kevin Rudd and Gillard for broken promises, he has left himself no wriggle room. There can be no surprises and no excuses.
As a result, a rising stench of hypocrisy and dishonesty threatens to overwhelm the Abbott prime ministership.
There has always been a paradox at the heart of the Abbott ascendency. Despite achieving electoral success for his party, he has never been a popular political leader.
His strategy involved tearing down the previous government through keeping a relentless focus on Labor’s deficiencies. He achieved this to devastating affect, destroying both Rudd and Gillard. Yet despite his success in driving down the Labor vote, the Liberals only achieved a modest swing of just 1.5 per cent at the 2013 election.
When you throw mud in politics inevitably some of it sticks and in the minds of voters Abbott is explicitly linked to the Rudd/Gillard debacle. With his targets no longer in the frame, he remains an emblem of a nasty and ugly period in our politics.
Through his hyperbolic attacks Abbott not only damaged his own standing and that of his opponents, he also reshaped the political discourse. There can be no room for negotiation or policy nuance in government, when any compromise is characterised as a lie or broken promise. This is precisely the dilemma that Abbott has confronted in his first months in office.
In asking voters to forgive his own budget backflip on the basis of an alleged “emergency”, Abbott is asking for slack he never cut his predecessors. Having poisoned the well, he now has no goodwill to draw on. This will create a huge obstacle for him to overcome, not only when selling his first budget but also when negotiating with a new, unpredictable Senate.
This growing sense of hypocrisy is reinforced by the contradictory political persona the Prime Minister has crafted for himself. Indeed, six months after his election, many voters would struggle to articulate precisely what he stands for.
We have a budget emergency, yet the Government can still find billions of dollars for fighter jets. Abbott supported Gonski and the NDIS before the election, yet was eager to dump them after. He promised no new taxes, yet wants to charge for visits to the doctor. Even his Paid Parental Leave Scheme has been watered down, suggesting that if it was Abbott’s signature policy, his autograph was forged.
The Australian people may well conclude that this lie detector is just another liar.
More broadly, the Government lacks a consistent narrative. The Doctor No of Australian politics has morphed into Doctor Do Little, lurching from one bizarre ideological hobbyhorse to another, without any master plan for the nation. Indeed, it appears Abbott’s vision for Australia is as small as his Speedos – focussed on petty indulgences like “the right to be a bigot” and Knighthoods.
While it is early days for the Government, the danger for the Liberals is that the “burn and churn” culture of modern politics means voters don’t take long to form judgements about their political leaders. Once these views take hold, they are difficult to shake.
In the case of Abbott, the first six months of his Government provided a brief opportunity to remake his image as Prime Minister. With Labor no longer making headlines, Australians have indeed taken another look at Abbott. If the polls are anything to go by, they do not like what they see.
It is not all good news for Labor, however, and while the Government may be tanking, the ALP is failing to gain any traction. Like Abbott, Shorten is explicitly linked to the Rudd/Gillard leadership fiasco. The architect of the Gillard coup and the Rudd resurrection is not well placed to offer a clean break from the past. The failure to offer an alternative vision or new policy ideas can only reinforce this perception.
This perfect storm has prompted the emergence of a reactionary populist force in the Palmer United Party. Without a consistent suite of policies, the party follows in the footsteps of One Nation as the latest repository for voter anger and frustration.
With the next election not due until 2016, time is certainly on the PM’s side. But this is surely cold comfort for Abbott. After all, it doesn’t take long for political parties to lose patience with leaders who can’t lift their standing in the polls. Just ask Rudd and Gillard.
This piece was first published on the ABC’s The Drum on Wednesday 7 May 2014.