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A dysfunctional start, with no way for Abbott to define himself

The Coalition had a clear idea of what it wanted to be — in power — but absolutely no idea what it wanted to do when it got there. The dysfunctional, muddled, sophomoric mess that is this government is the result.

Your correspondent hasn’t read Catallaxy (“Australia’s leading libertarian and centre-right blog”) for a while, but he remembers one posting from it, from a decade or so ago. The site’s founder, Jason Soon, had posted a piece of nonsense from an Australian Democrat, defending Third World misogyny as culturally specific or something. Soon remarked: “I’ll leave the sledging to others — for the moment I just want to try and understand this.” Not long after, both the Australian Democrats and Soon departed polemical politics.

In that spirit, one turns to the performance of the Abbott government and their defenders in the lickspittle press. The sledging would be easy enough, but for the moment something else is required: not merely to understand how a government has performed badly, but how it has managed to become the very essence of incompetence. It entered power with less support than most new governments, promising to behave like “adults”, and thereby presumably bolster its ratings. After a series of sophomoric disasters, its support has collapsed in spectacular form. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, having projected an image of old-fashioned steely authority, now looks hapless, at the mercy of both wider circumstances, ructions within his own party, and not least of his own distinctive obsessions.

All new governments falter. There is nothing like government, so no way to fully prepare for it. Giddy high spirits take over — Treasurer Joe Hockey taunting Labor with “you’ve just had your best day in opposition”, something with a pretty obvious retort. But amid the debt ceiling madness, the Indonesian disaster, the tertiary funding stuff-up, the Gonski fiasco, something does not add up.

There was a near-wilful rush to squander political capital. The sense of giddy abandonment appears to have affected the Coalition’s camp followers as well, with the Bolter returning to his narcissistic self-obsession about his 18c penalties (and complaining, most oddly, about the lack of support from “Jewish-owned media”) and Piers Akerman’s fulminations at deep-cover feminista Peppa Pig.

Supporters of the Coalition have consoled themselves with the argument that none of this will matter in three years’ time. But that ignores the tenuous situation the Abbott government faced even on election: this government was unquestionably elected to maintain much of Labor’s program — Gonski, NDIS, Fair Work, and all that such thing symbolised — because the public had decided that Labor was unable to do it competently.

Abbott’s government has never had a full mandate from the public, in the way that Margaret Thatcher or Barack Obama had a mandate. These MPs have a contract with the people, and casual discussion of breaching it has brought them furious opposition. This sudden collapse of legitimacy is an early imprint, establishing path-dependency. The Coalition will have to spend most of its first term catching up for the losses that have occurred in these first weeks.

Why has the Coalition fallen apart so quickly? The short answer is that it was never together. The Coalition did not go to the people with a program of unequivocally tackling the debt/deficit — because it couldn’t. The consensus in favour of a centre-Leftist state was set in the Bob Hawke/Paul Keating era, and nothing has changed it greatly. Those years accustomed Australians to a degree of state development and involvement. John Howard’s government purported to maintain that and gave people the impression that it could be done with a surplus budget. The Rudd government tried to address the resulting backwardness with a series of haphazard programs, ballooned the deficit, and was thus sacked.

The result of this historical 1-2 act is that people now expect attention to national decline and a balanced budget.

The depth of these political difficulties suggests there will be no easy way for the Abbott government to establish itself.”

A truly courageous Coalition would have gone to the people, arguing that national development had to be done largely by the private sector, that stateism had choked productivity, etc, and that it wanted a mandate to substantially change the approach the country was taking. It didn’t do this, not only because of the political risk but because the Coalition doesn’t really believe this. So much of the neoliberalisation of a once highly statist society has come from Labor, that it has left the Coalition without much space to develop a program it would really believe in.

Labor’s centrist/centre-Right position leaves the Coalition with only two places to go, in programmatic terms: as a national-security government, subsuming the economy to its demands, or a libertarian Right government, attacking state institutions root and branch. The Howard government got to use the national security thing; that isn’t available now. The libertarian Right option is not only politically unpalatable, it is also something the Libs don’t want to adopt as a policy option. They would love to cut wages and union power, but disturbing the interlocking oligopolies that run Australian life is something else indeed.

So the Coalition has arrived in power with nothing it really wants to do. The government is led by a man whose passion to be prime minister was there simply because he had been told from childhood that he would be prime minister — and at some stage he had accepted the ambition as his own. The cultural battles that had got him into politics were now dead letters. There is no Cold War, and the projection of Western power and identity that drove the Iraq and Afghan wars are now being wound to a close. Behind him is a group of second-raters, to such a degree that Education Minister Christopher Pyne and Attorney-General George Brandis have become its leading lights.

Thus for years, in place of a policy agenda, the Coalition has had politics — scrappy, oppositional, unthemed. The Libs’ assault on Rudd/Gillard/Rudd was nothing like Howard’s sustained battering of the Keating government throughout 1995 and ‘96, which linked “political correctness” and deficit spending, and combined them as an expression of the government’s profligacy, both economic and moral. Howard’s assault was careful to underplay the assault on Keating — Howard painted a return of the Coalition in 1996 as an opportunity for the Australian people to be more “comfortable and relaxed”.

Team Abbott threw the kitchen sink and stove into the fight, charging that Labor was the “worst government in history”, while offering no real alternative. By thus depoliticising the political sphere, they put the onus right back on performance and execution. When that falls short, they have no positive programme to point to — “mistakes/early days/eyes on the prize”, etc — and so the government effectively implodes. Abbott’s absence from the media and the headlines for the first few weeks was not because his team were away on a retreat, furiously hammering out a new program for Australian government. It was because they had nothing to be going on with.

With that collapse, their media phalanx has collapsed, too. The initial Pravda-style commitment to a rah-rah strategy also had to be abandoned, when it was clear the “government by adults” boast was the embarrassing opposite of the truth. Having only oppositional politics, the Right focused on the major countervailing power, the ABC. But even this has a haphazard air, since its  major focus has been the ABC’s use of Edward Snowden/National Security Agency material in conjunction with The Guardian — a random event, a messy political issue that Abbott himself had not handled with any finesse. The strategy quickly took on a life of its own and gained a level of hysteria, like those fainting epidemics that sometimes run through girls’ schools. Inevitably it was Piers who gave that campaign its Orwellian absurdity (“they looked from columnist to cartoon pig and from pig to cartoon columnist, and could not tell the difference”).

The depth of these political difficulties suggests there will be no easy way for the Abbott government to establish itself. It’s tough to pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you have nothing to hand, including hands. But there is no guarantee that Labor will be able to benefit from this. The impasse is part of the wider crisis of Left/Right politics in our era, and there is no sign that Labor is any less complacent about it than the Libs have been. But who would deny that a single-term government is now a real possibility, and a repeat of ‘98 — with better luck in demographics — should Labor be able to offer a real alternative? Most likely though, it will stick to the sledging.

  • 1
    stephen Matthews
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    amid the debt ceiling madness, the Indonesian disaster, the tertiary funding stuff-up, the Gonski fiasco, something does not add up.

    Yes Guy ..what is it that does not add up?

  • 2
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    They looked from columnist to cartoon pig and from pig to cartoon columnist, and could not tell the difference”

    Made my week.

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    If Labor and Greens are serious they will block supply. Everything else is grandstanding. With the opinion polls in Labor’s favour, there are no excuses.

  • 4
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I expect that sooner or later they return to the well of that old Howard era staple whenever he was in trouble, bashing on particular groups of people. After the workchoices disaster I’m sure that their old bogeyman, the unions, are given a rest for some time to come. But it can’t be long before either one or more of dole bludgers, single mums, Somalians, Muslims, overweight kids, bikies or anyone else that can be classed as an “other” gets singled out and made responsible for destroying all our lives.

  • 5
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    But they do have a mandate - it’s that they “are/were less unpopular than Labor”?

    See Limited News (Murdoch’s) for workings.

  • 6
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    OH, how I wish this sort of analysis - this piece for starters - appeared in the MSM. Amidst the hysteria, the cheerleading, the advertorials (“big mess” etc), some clear thinking and plain speaking on Abbott and this pack of second-raters.


  • 7
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Limited News, even if blocking supply was a sensible thing to do (which it isn’t), by the time the next budget comes around the new Clive Palmer senate will be the one voting on it.

  • 8
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    And one of the most powerful members of Abbott’s team wasn’t even elected - “Tarzan” Credlin’s there to keep Cheater from “lo(o)sing his shit”?

    If they could only shut the ABC and their like up, from casting all this negative publicity - and let Murdoch’s Limited News handle the PR?

  • 9
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    How come no mention of the environmental disasters being promoted by Greg Hunt in your analysis of the first 100 days? The very same Greg Hunt who penned a spirited essay on the dangers of dredging Port Philip Bay in 2007? Where the rest of the world is recognising the need for a price on carbon and is dialling back coal, what are we doing? Does the Australian environment’s future not merit some commentary?

    And what about this doozy? http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/16/tony-abbott-winds-back-code-of-conduct-to-let-ministers-to-keep-shares-in-public-companies

  • 10
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Guy, Annabel Crabb beat you to the Animal Farm reference in her Sunday Age column. No matter, I laughed like a drain at both of them.

    Abbott doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would be satisfied with “don’t disturb the oligopolies” as the ultimate goal of his leadership. What if we could reconceptualise the whole impending environmental disaster/economic collapse thing as an opportunity for a return to self-reliance and traditional values? Could we plug that into the Coalition’s policy vacuum, get them fired up about Transition Towns and give them something useful to do?

  • 11
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Clive Palmer will not have balance of power in the senate. There will be 33 LNP, 35 Greens/Labor, 2 or 3 PUPS, and 4 random others.,

  • 12
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    An accurate summation, Mr Rundle.

    Well before the hundred days I was convinced this is a one term government.

    Imagine if Greg Combet or Lindsay Tanner was Opposition Leader - it would offer some light at the end of the tunnel. Shorten doesn’t land the verbal punches deftly, he lacks fire.

  • 13
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Guy, you really should credit Annabel Crabb when you use her lines:

    From the last Sun-Herald:
    “And when you think about it, perhaps it’s not so silly after all that a writer in the Akerman genre would feel adequately qualified to take on a cartoon pig, whose chief failing - feminism aside - is that she is shouty, argumentative, one-dimensional and just that little bit too loud.
    “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.” “

  • 14
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant article

  • 15
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I also think that one of, or possibly the main reason, why the Abbott government seems to have such an incoherent policy stance, was the active boosting that they received while they were in opposition, by large sections of the mainstream media. That is, instead of engaging in any substantive and coherent policy debate, Abbott and his acolytes were allowed to constantly utter their slogans, generally without being challenged. Or if the policies were challenged, these convictions were quickly altered, depending on which audience that Abbott was talking to at the time. Consequently, while in opposition, they tended to partly develop multiple and contradictory positions on most issues. I think their positions on climate change are probably the pinnacle of this lunacy. That is, while most people would realise that Abbott is not a believer in climate science, when on the odd occasion over last few years that he was asked, Abbott always claimed that, no, he did really believe, and that he was going to act with his ‘direct action’. The fact that virtually nobody in Australia, has any clear idea what this policy actually entails, does strongly suggest, an almost total lack of interest by the media in digging behind the spin.
    Also contributing to the policy vacuum, was the situation that whenever somebody in Labor or The Greens, started to score a few political points, the Coalitions camp followers usually just shrugged their shoulders and went back to the manufactured hysteria of the ‘Rudd’s just about to challenge’ story. Or if Tony’s present day honesty became a bit too apparent, they instead, relentlessly went back to what Julia might have done twenty years ago as a young lawyer; while the more obnoxious of their ranks shouted, “Juliar, Juliar!”

  • 16
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Dont be too cynical. The cream of labour experience, direction and knowledge of leadership; (and what people want), pi55ed off when the blud nut got it. Their frustration evident with the lack of direction of the ruddles. The rud was a micro manager and had no idea of the big picture.

    With most of Howards deadbeats and “brains trust” still involved with the newbie government, including the ancient tokens in dresses, they still have no direction, ideas or original thought. This government needs to put up or shut up. Double dissolution now. I dare you.

  • 17
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm Turnbull must be doing it tough, having more than 50% of the intellectual capacity of an entire coalition can’t be an easy gig. Even worse when you have to carry a policy that is against every fibre (to the home) of your being.

    This was a good one GR, a scathing and scything analysis.

    And now, cast your mind to the boosters in the media. I had thought they could not look more stupid than when defending Abbott as the opposition leader, but by god, now that they are defending him as PM they make the former stupidity look glamorous.

  • 18
    Interrobanging On
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    …Coalition’s camp followers as well.”

    Sorry, does Cory “Rabies” Bernardi know there are camp followers? He will be wild-eyed at the thought.

    A good read and please more on the Akerman sledge of a cartoon pig. That is gold, although it is scary that those lunatics have the key to the asylum.

  • 19
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Power without a Clue, to paraphrase both Frank Hardy and some quickie about the Frazer government, illustrated by Patrick Cooke - can’t find my copy and not on Google.
    Trudeau’s Doonesbury did the same schtick with HW & BO, office was the aim, not governing/

  • 20
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Tony Abbott and the Coaltion had the support and protection of the Murdocharcy. Maybe they thought that was all they needed.

  • 21
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Now they’ve given Mirraball a job “playing with submarines”?

  • 22
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Klewso this is definitely facism. They claim to have a mandate; she was soundly defeated by another candidate in the election; and now we are forced to accept her regardless of the election result. Jobs for the boys? Well she has bigger jatz crackers than most on the front bench.

  • 23
    The Pav
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t Tony Abbott promise to work thru Xmas to get his legislation thru………Seems that has gone the way of everything else

    The other thing that will be interesting is the Senate election in WA

    Usually Govts do nasty things in the first year then suck up for the next two in the lead up to the election.

    Abbott can’t afford to have a poor senate result in WA so that means no nasties or mini bidget despite there beinmg a “crisis” As he stumbles from mishap to accident to catasrophe then his chances of getting three senate seats will diminish. If credible middle of the road candidates appear expect them to do well. With this being the only show in town then the minors will attract attention beyond their normal level. It is quite possible the ALP & the Greens will retain the seats they looked like losing. Probably the love affair with Clive Palmer will end and voters will be scared off. Abbott could well face a more hostile senate with the added embarassment of a stinging rejection by a Liberal state. Barnett is doing him no favours and the Liberal brand is getting more & more on the nose.

    A poor result in the WA Senate election could well see Abbott removed in an attempt to shore up the Liberal vote and we all know how well that works. Can you see Abbott retiring quietly to the back bench? His reactioon would make Rudd look like a saint.

    Remember that in WA News Ltd only have the Sunday Times and whilst the West sometimes acts as a Liberal perty organ it does retain some vestige of integrity so that playing field will be a little more even. The commercial networks effectively have no Current affiars presence in WA so there will be no mechanism to protect Abbott that way.

    In the unlikley event the ALP campaign smart ( they just need to find one item that appeals to WA parochialism) we could be seeing a one term govt

  • 24
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Abbott promises a lot of things - the devil’s in the spelling.

  • 25
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Love the dialectical analysis. But perhaps content is no longer king in the political realm. Feelings and stereotypes rule the day.

  • 26
    Percy Pigeon
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    The strategy quickly took on a life of its own and gained a level of hysteria, like those fainting epidemics that sometimes run through girls’ schools.”

    Went to a girls’ school myself, and goodness is Rundle right. Never did get much done because of all the fainting, particularly of the hysterical variety. Can you imagine the lunacy of attempting a weekly school assembly with a hall containing nearly 1000 *young women*? Looking back, not sure why we even let women be edumacated really. Apart from the jobs boost to the rent-seeking smelling salts manufacturers’, a total politically correct waste of time and resources that could better be spent on upgraded gunboats for Sri Lanka.

    Yeah, OK. We have a bunch of powerful, entitled, self-satisfied, mostly old, mostly white, mostly, guys (Akerman, Abbott’s cabinet) acting like a bunch of disingenous, incompetent, self-serving d-cks, and the choice of mockery is to compare them with young women.

    The problem with these powerful, entitled, self-satisfied, mostly old, mostly white, mostly, guys, is that they are acting like a bunch of powerful, entitled, self-satisfied, mostly old, mostly white, mostly, guys. Young women are not remotely implicated in this f-ck wittery.

    If the image of hysterical fainting really was unequivocally necessary, a comparison with evangelical Christians (including old white blokes) is a more than viable alternative.

    Really, this kind of stuff could be expected from Bolt. And even if I can’t expect better from Rundle, I’d expect more from the Crikey editors. Actually ha, ha, ha, no I don’t. I’ve been reading Crikey for a while, and so I know better (although I have to say First Dog is pretty good at generally not denigrating women). But I can hope.

  • 27
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 11:23 pm | Permalink


    i didnt see annabel crabb’s piece until, and the animal farm reference, until pointed out now. to be fair, when a shameless propagandist attacks a fictional pig it’s difficult not to think of animal farm…

  • 28
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Wednesday, 18 December 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Well, with Sophie Mirabella’s appointment to something to do with submarines, perhaps she could follow in the footsteps of Bronwyn Bishop, who proclaimed, “That she was proud to be the first woman to go down on an Australian submarine”.
    And by the way, Mr Rundle, having just finished, and thoroughly enjoyed your book, 50 People Who Stuffed Up Australia, I now have a strong desire, to make sure that the term ‘rightard’ is in much more general use.

  • 29
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Wednesday, 18 December 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Ugghh, my previous poor punctuation is bugging me. It should read…that she was, “Proud to be the first woman to go down on an Australian submarine”.

  • 30
    Posted Wednesday, 18 December 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    A well written, interesting article Guy! Enjoyed a lot of the posts here too!

  • 31
    Posted Wednesday, 18 December 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Excelent summary Guy of a total disaster in the making. This is the failing of identity politics, where the figurehead is used to replace the policies. We were voting in Tony Abbott or voting out Kevin Rudd and what we have ended up with is a total F-up!
    What was Abbott’s catchphrase, cut rhwe carbon tax and he can’t even do that at this time and, when he does, he’lol replave it with a dogs breakfast/lunch/dinner of an environment policy that even his lapdog Hunt doesn’t know how it’s going to work.
    Today we have Citizen Hockey talking of ‘tightening’ the NDIS (read lets shaft the underpriviledged in society), then yesterday the cash for sinkers plan rose from the depths again. I didn’t vote for these incompetants, someone save us before it is too late; Revolution now!
    PS. reference Comrade Clive, he’ll tow the LNP line despite his grandstanding comments in the media…he knows where is tax avoidance works best and its with a Liberal government.

  • 32
    Lil Z
    Posted Wednesday, 18 December 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Percy - snide sexist asides are a depressingly regular feature of Rundle’s otherwise excellent work. I don’t think Crikey eds are empowered or inclined to stop him.

  • 33
    Percy Pigeon
    Posted Wednesday, 18 December 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Lil Z - well, and I guess that’s fair enough too.

    Racism and homophobia are generally decried these days - that nasty bigotry can sometimes be directed at actual people - ie. men.
    So I guess us chicks should just lighten up and take one (and another, and another) for the team. How else will quality Australian independent journalism survive, if those essential gendered slurs are no longer in the political analyst’s repertoire?

    And ‘rightard’ (@ 28)? Priceless! Deriding venal, Ayn-Randian a — holes at the expense of those with cognitive or intellectual disabilities? Unique, incisive analysis! Incomparable wit! On its own, totally worth the price of another Crikey subscription.

  • 34
    Bob the builder
    Posted Thursday, 19 December 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Interesting how deep the incompetence goes - the shoving of Indigenous affairs to PM&C, a body totally inexperienced in implementation - is a case in point. I’m reliably informed that, at least up to a week or two ago, there still had been no spending delegations put in place, so nothing could be approved below Ministerial level. There’s lots of people in the bush waiting, waiting, waiting ….

  • 35
    Posted Thursday, 19 December 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    But surely Abbott has defined himself and his spots?

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