Abbott has unleashed a pandora’s box of populism which, having wrecked havoc in Victoria and now Queensland, is threatening to unravel his prime ministership.
But first, how did we find ourselves here? Let’s hear a little story about ourselves:
Australia and the age of reform or what I like to call “the golden 80s”
With our rose-tinted glasses we look back on the 1980s as the golden age of reform. Reforms were hard, but they happened. Leaders were brave. They made the tough choices, they landed the hard sell.
But it was also a golden age of reform led by Australia’s elite. And by the mid 1990s, people were fed up with people being told what to do by ‘elites’. It was potent fuel for what we now simplistically remember as the creation of the “Howard Battlers”.
The reform era reached its peak in 1991 with the release of Fightback!. Hewson released his policy detail 18 months before the election, and succumbed under the weight of trying to defend a complex and radical reform agenda.
The lesson that politicians learnt was was: “do not try explaining difficult things in opposition”, which over time simply became “do not try explaining things” in opposition. Instead, wait till you’re in government to spring your agenda on voters, hold your nerve during the backlash, because the ‘iron laws’ of Australian politics is that governments get two terms.
But that was then.
Now back to our current day problems…
As opposition leader Abbott excelled. He was disciplined, on message and brutally effective at exploiting the weaknesses of the ALP. From keeping the political focus on refugees arriving by boat and the Carbon Tax, to adroitly half agreeing with the government on issues to neutralize them as political issues, such as the NDIS and the Gonski education reforms. Abbott mastered the art of speaking in plain language and offered appealingly simple solutions to Australia’s woes. Let’s also not forget what a gift the ALP’s ability to render itself unelectable was for the Coalition.
As part of his strategy, Abbott became a populist par-excellence. At every turn, he sanctified reflecting and channelling the will of the people whether it was evoking the people for his plan to repeal the carbon tax,whining about the cost while waving through increased spending on social welfare or accusations of class warfare for modest cuts to family tax benefits or his evocation of the people’s right to hire and fire leaders. As opposition leader he regularly made popular support the ultimate virtue for a policy case.
As he campaigned for the Prime Ministership, Abbott promised to be Prime Minister that listened to the people. Abbott rejected the elitism of a government, which had said one thing before an election but then proceeded to do another afterwards. He elevated a broken promise to the highest of political crimes. He famously promised as he announced his victory election night that his would be a “government that says what it means, and means what it says” and a government “of no surprises and no excuses”. Statements which are hard to reconcile with the government’s now infamous set of broken promises.
But when he was finally elevated to a position of power, Abbott transformed into an elitist Prime Minister. Now he told people what they needed, even if they didn’t like it or want it.
If you remain unconvinced, consider the ease with which Abbott and his government had rebuffed breaking their promises. Alongside the fact that it was obvious even before they were elected that their sums didn’t add up, suggests that these promises were never going to be kept in the first place.
Abbott’s crisis is entirely of his own making. It was Abbott that elevated and then sanctified the people’s will as the most important thing in politics. He promised to be a people’s champion (the unkind word for this is demagogue) and he promised to govern as a moderate. But upon being elected transformed himself back into the knowing patrician of the elite delivering medicine against the population’s will, but for its own good.
Having unleashed populism from pandora’s box, we can see as its gone around the country eating up the Coalition’s standard play book (surprise at the state of the books left by the ALP, commission of audit, tough medicine) and its governments too. For a government whose agenda has always struggled to be coherent and relevant to Australian life, it finds itself particularly vulnerable: it is neither a competent elitist government or an effective populist one.
Having unleashed populism, the question remains whether Abbott can out run it.