How the new-look Senate could bring down Tony Abbott

Australians would, if we had our druthers, lock our politicians away in a tiny dark box for two and a half out of every three years.

We would allow the candidates out, briefly, at election time, so that we could hear what was on offer and make our choice, as is our democratic right, then we would lock them away again to ensure they couldn’t bother us for another two and a half years.

This is the way we like our politics: quiet.

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In the run-up to last year’s election Tony Abbott tapped into this desire with two promises. First, to give the country a grown-up government – one bearing no resemblance to an attention-seeking teething toddler. Second, to get political news off the front page and replace it with sport.

Tony Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Abbott has a solid populist instinct, and he was offering the voting public exactly what was wanted after several years of finding it difficult to hear yourself think what with all the politics.

His pledges also snugly fit the Australian two-party political template. We vote Labor when we want a bit of excitement. When that excitement becomes too much we get the Liberals back in to manage things and quieten the place down.

Post-election, new Prime Minister Abbott had two viable options to make the tiny dark box dream come true.

The first was to be a government which simply put its head down and got stuff done, the political equivalent of the strong, silent type.

So far the Coalition has been incapable of this. Cigars, dancing, winking, on-air disagreements over precisely what party policy is. It’s been an extended Laurel and Hardy skit with occasional ad breaks for ill-advised ideological escapades: knights and dames, unnecessary changes to discrimination laws, describing pre-British Australia as “unsettled”.

Unfortunately for Abbott the new Senate, taking its place on Monday, will add to this impression. Already Clive Palmer, essential to passing much of the government’s agenda, has shown himself to be a political supermagnet, capable of sucking the entire media cycle towards himself. Abbott may not want politics on the front page, but Palmer does, and he has the vaudevillian talents to put it there.

Clive Palmer

Political ‘supermagnet’ Clive Palmer. Photo: AAP

So that option’s out.

The second way to reach the tiny dark box remains open to Abbott. If you can’t get stuff done quietly, get predictable.

Predictability is one of the most desirable attributes in politics. Once people know what you’re likely to do they can switch off. It’s like stumbling across The Shawshank Redemption on TV. It doesn’t matter whether Tim Robbins is meeting Morgan Freeman for the first time, or putting up that poster of Rita Hayworth, or playing The Marriage of Figaro over the PA system – I know what’s going to happen, and I can keep watching or fall asleep as I please. As I’ve argued before, predictability was at the heart of John Howard’s success, just as volatility was central to the downfall of the Rudd-Gillard government.

This desire for certainty explains Abbott’s strategy.

The Budget was poorly put together, and it has been poorly sold. The government failed to put itself in voters’ shoes, and that was a big political mistake.

But Abbott has decided that he’s not going to add to that mistake with another, which would be to back away. In the past eight weeks Abbott has on several occasions asserted that the Budget will go through, and anything else now would leave voters confused and unsure what this government is all about.

Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd suffered over a failed ETS push. Photo: AAP

And so, in a bold speech on Thursday night, the Prime Minister doubled down: “Eventually – if not at the first attempt or even the second – this budget will pass”.

Here is where the Senate again comes into play. Abbott is pursuing the correct tactic, but the result is not entirely in his hands.

The public expects governments to govern. Excuses don’t work. That’s why Howard ultimately accepted the Democrats’ revisions to his GST and why Kevin Rudd, and not the Greens or the Liberal Party, ultimately suffered for failing to deliver on his emissions trading scheme.

If Palmer repeats this week’s performance there will be no problem. Acquiescence laced with circus trickery is still acquiescence. But if Palmer and the independent Senators combine to frustrate large swathes of the government’s agenda, it will hurt the Prime Minister’s credibility.

This is the real problem for the Coalition. An unremittingly hostile Senate could add significant weight to the current impression that this government is just a continuation of the previous two terms of Labor government, not in content but in tone: the appearance of chaos, unforced errors, and unpredictability.

That is exactly the opposite of the contract for grown-up government Tony Abbott struck with voters at the last election.

And as Abbott knows better than anyone, governments that don’t keep their word often end up paying a very high political price.

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