Abbott Has Poisoned Public Trust In Government


The first hundred days of a government is a rather arbitrary yardstick, dating originally to Franklin Roosevelt’s turbulent first months as US president during the Great Depression.

Roosevelt came to office a time of economic disaster and political paralysis. His whirlwind of legislation and policy was driven by the depth of the crisis the US faced, in which many of the nation’s banks collapsed and a quarter of the workforce was idle. The US stock market fell by 75 per cent from its 1929 peak, while GDP contracted by an astonishing 46 per cent.

Tony Abbott has come to office in a time of plenty. No looming crisis confronts him. Australia’s economy may be slowing and unemployment inching up, but by international measures we live in a wealthy nation. Australia enjoys a peaceful corner of the globe. There are no serious military threats to our security.

It’s a measure of the empty clichés that litter political discourse that we still care about 100 day milestones in 2013.

It’s true that many governments come to office fired by a determination to implement their policies. Gough Whitlam’s was a notable modern example; Kevin Rudd was also pretty busy, even if much of the activity was in the nature of commissioning reviews.

But in the long run, what matters for a government’s record is the entire sum of its achievements. Decisions made at the end of a government are just as important as those made at the beginning. Indeed, many of Julia Gillard’s most important achievements – such as the national disability insurance scheme, and the Royal Commission into child abuse – were made towards the end of her prime ministership, at a time when her government was deeply unpopular.

So we probably shouldn’t take too much stock in how much, or how little, the Abbott government has achieved in its first 100 days.

For the Coalition, that may be just as well. Jokes about its 100 days pamphlet containing pages “deliberately left blank” aside, the government’s policy achievements after 100 days are meagre, while its political performance has been dismal.

Some of this is understandable. The new government's legislative goals have been stymied by the make-up of the Senate, which stays in hostile hands until July next year. Hence, early attempts to repeal the carbon and mining taxes are going nowhere fast.

The political blunders from the Coalition are less excusable. Christopher Pyne’s disastrous early performance on education policy, for instance, was a classic own goal. It was not necessary to revisit the Gonski funding agreements with the states, nor to stir up the hornets' nest of the public-private debate once again.

In foreign policy, the Abbott government was handed a difficult early challenge with the revelations that Australia was spying on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The stridency of the Coalition’s pre-election rhetoric was hardly helpful here; nor were Abbott’s carefully calibrated non-apologies, apparently designed more for the ears of talkback radio listeners than the Indonesian government in Jakarta.

That’s not to say the Abbott government has been idle. In fact, in some areas, particularly environmental policy, it has been very energetic indeed.

In just 100 days, Abbott has appointed a cabinet without a science minster, abolished the Climate Commission, moved legislation to abolish the carbon price and the Climate Change Authority, removed critical federal environmental safeguards for biodiversity, taken the Murray-Darling Basin off the threatened ecosystems list, rolled back the no-fishing sanctuaries in Australia’s newest marine parks, announced a review into the Renewable Energy Target … and approved the world’s largest coal port in Queensland.

In keeping with the rather more conservative ideology tenor of the new government, these decisions have been accompanied by a rhetoric of ‘green tape’ reduction, and a view of environmental policy as an enemy of economic growth.

It’s clear that the right wing hatred of climate science has spread to a general crusade against environmental protections of any kind.

Other trends are apparent in the government’s first 100 days. There have been a number of decidedly political appointments to various boards, agencies and government reviews, appointments that clearly signal that the government will seek to impose its ideology on sensitive parts of the public service.

Just today, for example, we saw the appointment of noted culture warrior Tim Wilson as Australia’s new Human Rights Commissioner.

Wilson, a well-exposed libertarian who had made a name for himself as a talking head for the Institute of Public Affairs, has been hailed by Attorney-General George Brandis as “one of Australia’s most prominent public advocates of the rights of the individual”.

Also appointed recently to a critical review is Henry Ergas, a right-wing economist who will head up yet another review on the National Broadband Network for Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Wilson and Ergas join a growing band of conservative warriors doing the bidding of the Coalition in tricky areas and troublesome agencies. Some of them are already making waves with injudicious remarks about sensitive policy areas. Abbott’s business advisor, Maurice Newman, gave a speech in November in which he rubbished the very idea of the Gonski schools reforms; he has previously made a name for himself as a vocal climate sceptic and ABC critic.

Then there’s Tony Shepherd, Joe Hockey’s tip for the key role heading up the Commission of Audit. Shepherd comes to the role straight from a gig as the key figurehead for the big business lobby, at the Business Council of Australia. He has been an outspoken critic of the previous Labor government, particularly its deficits and debt – despite a record running up huge corporate debts himself as the chairman of infrastructure company Transfield.

Debts and deficits, it turns out, are only bad when Labor is responsible for them.

That’s certainly the line that Joe Hockey will be running as he releases the long-awaited Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook today. The MYEFO, put together by the bean counters at Treasury, is the nation’s most comprehensive budget statement since the election. It’s expected to show yet another blow-out in the budget bottom-line, with some forecasts topping $50 billion.

Why are the nation’s finances deteriorating even after the election of an Abbott government that promised it would “pay back Labor’s debt”? Decisions by the Coalition since taking office are largely responsible.

Nearly $9 billion was given to the Reserve Bank to top up its balance sheet, for reasons that still aren’t clear. Around $5 billion in savings from promised job reductions to the public service are now not going ahead. Billions of dollars in tax rises announced by Labor have also been abandoned, like tweaks to self-education tax write-offs. And there has been spending: the government is committing to around $1 billion in roads spending that it had previously promised it would cut. More money is also being spent on the money pit of Operation Sovereign Borders.

None of this will deter Hockey from blaming it all on Labor. But will voters care? The Coalition would have blamed Labor no matter what the circumstances.

One of the government’s biggest problems since taking office has been the low level of trust it inherited in the institution of government itself. Abbott himself came to office with very low approval ratings for an incoming prime minister. But instead of bending over backwards to honour promises and meet expectations, the government has managed to create a narrative of broken promises and disappointed expectations.

The Coalition was in large part responsible for poisoning the well of public trust in democratic institutions, so it cannot be surprised. But that doesn’t help it now. One hundred days in, the new government is finding that the easy slogans that were so effective in opposition are no longer working in government. Abbott and his colleagues will have to find some new narratives if they are to sell the many hard decisions to come. And the hard choices are coming: if nothing else, today’s MYEFO underlines the scale of Australia’s fiscal challenge.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.