In his victory speech on election night, Tony Abbott said, “From today I declare that Australia is under new management and that Australia is once more open for business …
A few days later, at the first meeting of Coalition MPs and senators, he said, “Our task is to give … better government that the people of Australia deserve … We will now move purposefully, calmly and methodically to deliver on our election commitments to build a stronger economy for a stronger Australia.
“The challenges are considerable: we must stop the boats, we must scrap the carbon tax, we must build the roads and we must get the budget back into the black.
“We will do these things because that is what the Australian people have elected us to do. That is what the Australian people have a right to expect.”
The steady-as-she-goes basis on which Mr Abbott has taken the reins of government contrasts with the frantic style of his predecessors, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, who wanted to control the media cycle, but ended up being captured by it.
The new Abbott government was not sworn in until 10 days after the election.
Laurie Oakes, doyen of the Canberra press gallery and political editor for the Nine Network, was astonished by the transition.
A week after the decisive election outcome, he wrote: “Never before in Australian politics has there been such a quiet transition to a new administration. Not a single news conference from the prime minister-elect. Hardly a peep from MPs who will be sworn in as ministers within days.
“Abbott and his team ignored the hungry media beast’s demands to be fed. Instead, they worked away quietly and methodically behind the scenes, preparing for an orderly and unhurried takeover of the levers of power.
“And the country got on perfectly well without daily announcements and continuous commentary on every issue under the sun from the people who are our new rulers” (Melbourne Herald Sun, September 14, 2013).
The Abbott strategy is to try to put the new government in control of events, rather than constantly chasing media headlines, which can so easily backfire on the government.
While it is early days, it seems to be working. The only announcement of note in the early days was the decision to revoke one of the Gillard government’s last actions, which had been to install a former Labor premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, as Australia’s agent-general in New York. This was balanced by an announcement that Kim Beazley, another former Labor leader, would continue to be Australia’s ambassador to the United States.
Michael Pascoe, a contributing business editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, suggested that Mr Abbott’s timing was “lucky”. He said that the latest Chinese inflation figures and growing exports, coupled with the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics housing finance numbers, confirm the Reserve Bank’s forecast that the Australian economy has bottomed and should slowly but steadily pick up from here.
He added, “If just the event of the change of government adds a dash of investment confidence for business, the tide should start running stronger sooner” (SMH, September 9, 2013).
Since he wrote this, further data from China indicate that industrial production rose 10.4 per cent in August year-on-year, its fastest increase for more than a year. And retail sales, another key indicator of China’s economy, rose 13.4 per cent in August compared with the same month last year, also ahead of expectations (Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2013).
It is interesting to contrast Abbott’s methodical transition to government with the Labor Party’s current leadership paralysis, arising from the change in leadership rules, which Kevin Rudd foisted on the party after he defeated Julia Gillard.
Under the Rudd plan — which was clearly intended to stop a party-room coup against him similar to that which ousted him in 2010 — the parliamentary leader is elected by a ballot of both parliamentarians and party members, and cannot easily be replaced mid-term.
We now have two candidates for Labor’s parliamentary leader, Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, who are conducting a head-to-head campaign. The interim leader, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, is clearly irrelevant.
As Laurie Oakes observed, “The quiet from the Coalition contrasted with what was happening on the other side of politics. Labor figures couldn’t stop talking — about themselves, as usual. MPs and retiring ministers criticised their party’s election campaign or demanded that Rudd quit Parliament or attacked new rules for the election of a leader or squabbled publicly over whether to support or oppose abolition of the carbon tax.”
Despite Labor’s continuing divisions, the Abbott government faces a difficult set of challenges, with a hostile Senate until June 30 next year, which will oppose his plans to ditch both the carbon tax and the mining tax, to halt a continuing flow of boats from Indonesia, and to bring the ballooning budget deficit under control.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.