Tony Abbott’s triumphs and troubles in first year as Prime Minister
<strong style="line-height: 1.
538em;”>Timeline: The Highlights of Tony Abbott’s first year in government
Prime Minister Tony Abbott – sworn into the top job on September 18, 2013 after almost three years as Liberal leader – has won both praise and criticism for his actions on issues as wide ranging as the economy, foreign affairs and public protests.
According to some, it’s been more up than down.
“Over the first 12 months, you would probably give the Abbott Government and Prime Minister Abbott himself a pass mark,” says John Warhurst, emeritus professor from the Australian National University.
“It’s in many ways been a learning year for him and the government. There have been problems that could have been foreseen, including negotiating with the new senate late in his first year of government, and there have also been unforeseen issues particularly to do with international relations.
‘You would probably give Prime Minister Abbott himself a pass mark’ – John Warhurst
Professor Warhurst describes it as a “settling in year”, a description his academic colleague John Wanna also refers to.
Professor Wanna says the short parliamentary period before Christmas last year did undermine the government in some way, meaning it had little opportunity to push through tough messages ahead of the incoming Senate the following year.
“It’s meant that 2014 has been a more troublesome and more problematic year for the government than it otherwise might have been,” he said.
The Federal Budget
One of Tony Abbott’s biggest tests in his first year of government was the federal budget and, according to former Liberal leader John Hewson, it’s a test he failed.
Mr Hewson, who himself faced significant backlash to his Fightback! economic plan in the early 1990s, said the tough budget sell lost Mr Abbott’s team significant credibility as economic managers.
“They probably stand out in terms of our political history as having burnt an enormous amount of political capital to get to where they are, with little net gain on a number of fronts,” he said.
“In terms of the budget measures, they’ve got the mining tax but they’ve had to pay away several billion dollars’ worth of expenditure in order to achieve that.
“They’ve created a lot of business uncertainty, a lot of uncertainty among consumers and they’ve been distracted from time to time with some silliness.”
‘I think the problem with the budget is it lacked an overall strategy’ – John Wanna
Professor Warhurst drew comparisons to another former Liberal leader, saying the first Abbott budget was received less well than the similarly tough first budget of John Howard’s government.
“The first Howard Government had lots of problems just getting into speed as far as governing was concerned,” he said.
“In fact, I think there are some comparisons with the first Howard Government. It looked at one stage as though the Howard Government was going to be a one term government; it looked that bad in its first year or two. But it recovered.
“It’s always possible that the Abbott Government will be the same.”
But any recovery will require Mr Abbott to bounce back from the perception that he has broken promises, says Professor Wanna.
He said a number of pre-election commitments – including no cuts to public broadcasters and no new taxes – were “if not broken then certainly bent” in the budget, leaving the Abbott Government in need of a sales plan.
“The government was very critical in Opposition of Julia Gillard for breaking promises and they made that one of their lead motifs of their attack on the Gillard Government,” he said.
“Abbott and his senior ministers have been very careful not to be seen to be breaking promises… There are issues there in terms of how they sell the things they’ve done. The message of why you needed to make the change is important and I don’t see the senior government people making that.”
‘Although Abbott said there’d be no surprises, the surprise would have been if he hadn’t broken some promises on the way through’ – John Hewson
Professor Wanna says a number of significant promises had been kept, including stopping asylum seeker boats reaching Australia, as well as abolishing the carbon and mining taxes.
“They would feel on those big ticket items they tried and eventually delivered to do as they promised,” he said.
Mr Abbott’s pre-election commitments have been hindered by the Senate, where the Coalition must negotiate with 18 cross benchers in order to pass any legislation.
His government has come under fire for deals done with balance of power Senators from the Palmer United Party to pass bills such as the repeal of the carbon tax, but for Mr Hewson, negotiations have been more odd than ominous.
“I found their negotiating strategy quite strange,” he said.
“I don’t think they ever really tried to negotiate with the main opposition party, the Labor Party. It’s an interesting question whether they would have got a better deal by negotiating with the Labor Party than they would have from negotiating with a string of minor parties in the Senate.
“There are questions about the effectiveness of that negotiating strategy.”
‘I think they’ve been slow to learn to negotiate’ – John Wanna
Professor Warhurst acknowledges that it has been a difficult task for the government, though it may “fade into insignificance” compared with the troubles faced by the previous minority government led by Julia Gillard.
He says there have been improvements, despite a slow start with Senate relations.
“Initially they didn’t do a particularly good job in negotiating with the Senate and presumed that what they called their mandate would carry them through,” he said.
“That hasn’t proven to be the case. In more recent days, they’ve had some more successful negotiations and it remains to be seen how that will continue.”
The public and protests
While the government battles with a difficult Senate, Mr Abbott and his team have also been facing significant hostility from the some members of the public.
Protests against the government, its budget and numerous policies have been held nationwide, with the burning of budget papers and even a cardboard cut-out of Education Minister Christopher Pyne.
The protesters have come under fire for their sometimes violent outbursts, but Professor Warhurst says that for the most part, the protests are similar to those faced by previous governments.
‘Strong backlash is not unusual in terms of community protests’ – John Warhurst
“There were of course extensive protests against the Gillard Government from very early in her term as Prime Minster,” he said.
“Strong backlash is not unusual in terms of community protests, but I think what’s unusual here is the breadth of the backlash, particularly to the budget. This was a backlash that involved not just left wing protests against an incoming right wing coalition government, but it involved strenuous backlashes from state premiers, most of whom are coalition premiers who were devastated by the consequences of the budget.
“The distinctive feature is its breadth and it’s not just the usual suspects, but a range of other voices, some within the Liberal and National parties themselves.”
Things haven’t been easy for the government in terms of selling it’s proposed new anti-terror laws, which would make it easier to detain people returning from conflict countries such as Iraq and Syria. Some Muslim leaders have denounced the laws as discriminatory.
The government did however win some public praise over its handling of international affairs over its first year in power.
With the exception of incidents such as the Indonesian spying revelations, Mr Abbott has been acknowledged as taking a leading role in the international response to issues such as the Malaysian Airlines disasters, the ongoing threat from terror groups in Iraq and he gained praise for signing a Free Trade Deal with Japan.
‘He responded quite decisively to the MH17 disaster’ – John Wanna
Professor Wanna described Mr Abbott’s actions as an “important global achievement”, while Professor Warhurst said international affairs had provided both tests and opportunities for Abbott.
“That’s been a feature of the first 12 months, particularly the last few with the issues of Ukraine and Iraq and the terrible tragedies of the Malaysian Airlines planes,” he said.
“The government has been given an opportunity to play a role on the international stage and I think the jury is still out as to how the community will react to the role that the prime minister has set up the government to play.”
More recently, there has been bipartisan support for Australia’s involvement in the Iraq crisis, which so far has included aid and arms drops. But any escalation of Australia’s role, such as joining a US-led military campaign, would likely be a significant test for Mr Abbott’s leadership.
Professor Wanna said it was likely that the Abbott Government’s second year will likely be better than the first, while his colleague Professor Warhurst warned that issues such as carbon tax and asylum seekers will return “with a vengeance” in the years to come.
Polling as recent as this month showed Mr Abbott’s team trailing Labor 52 to 48 per cent, in the two-party preferred Essential Research results, a slump which Professor Warhurst noted.
“The opinions polls show that it’s not necessarily a very popular government, nor is he as prime minister particularly popular,” he said.
“But he has a big majority and he was two more years to go before the next election.
“There’s plenty of time to raise that mark from a pass to a credit.”
Explore Tony Abbott’s first year as Prime Minister as recorded in Hansard. The document below is all of Mr Abbott’s recorded entries from November 2013 to September 2014, including 959 references to the Opposition and 834 to Australia, Australian and Australians.