Without Economic Nous, Abbott Was Doomed

Tony Abbott has never had a taste for economics, and that ultimately was his downfall.

It wasn’t the gaffes, or the self-indulgences, or his loyalty to Bronwyn Bishop, or the aimlessness of the Government since the last budget that led to yesterday’s drama. Each of these could be survived.

It was that his attempts to reset the agenda on “jobs and growth” were empty. It was the right message – finally the right message after so much flailing about. But it was a message without any substance. People don’t want to hear politicians talk about “jobs and growth”. They want actual jobs and actual growth. At the very least they want a credible story about how those jobs and growth will be achieved.

By people here, I mean both the voters and the parliamentary Liberal Party. There is no one in the party room, apart from Joe Hockey apparently, who has really believed for the last six months that the Abbott Government has a jobs plan and that plan is working.

In the back of their mind, this economic vacuum was laying the foundation for a devastating election loss.

For any other government the China-Australia free trade deal would be a minor diplomatic success. For the Abbott Government it became, by necessity, the great lynchpin of Australia’s future posterity.

The Government announced in August that its plan for South Australian jobs was to build ship after ship after ship for the Navy. This is the sort of big government industry policy that would make Labor traditionalists like Kim Carr proud. Government funded ship building is not a plan for growth.

Here so much of the blame for Abbott’s fall has to be laid on his loyalty to his Treasurer. The 2014 budget needed a story and an advocate. But it had no one who could explain the budget’s rationale – outside the old opposition cry of Labor’s debt and deficits – or how it fit into the big economic picture. Abbott wasn’t interested in it. Hockey seemed embarrassed by it.

Liberal parliamentarians knew when they voted last night against Abbott they were casting a proxy vote against Hockey. Abbott has goodwill in the party room. He was an incredibly strong opposition leader. He is an incredibly strong campaigner. Hockey has no such goodwill. An Abbott without his Hockey might have survived.

For the last six months I’ve been reading that Abbott’s parliamentary support was entirely resting on the “right”. This is probably how it has looked from the press gallery, as conservative positions on national security and gay marriage became central to the party room numbers.

But the right wasn’t a very stable platform. Abbott’s relationship with the right has been complicated at best.

Yes, Abbott’s rise to the leadership was on the back of Malcolm Turnbull’s support for Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, and it was the right that resigned in protest, sparking the leadership challenge.

But this support was first tested early on by the paid parental leave scheme – Abbott’s first exercise of the leader’s prerogative. When he abandoned this policy in February to protect himself, it showed he was willing to Year Zero his own leadership in the same way Rudd did with the emissions trading scheme in 2010.

The most devastating blow for his support among the right was abandoning the promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in August 2014. The press gallery has never understood how significant this original promise was to Abbott’s prime ministership. Abandoning it – and describing free speech as a “needless complication” no less – was very damaging. Abbott came to realise this. Hence his strong words in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The final test of his relationship with the right was yet to come. His personal support for Indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution – deliberate constitutional amendment for an uncertain and entirely symbolic end – would have torn his base apart.

Without a credible economic story, without a credible treasurer, and without stable support from the right, Abbott was going to go. Whether this week or next month or next year.

So what does this assessment mean for the new Prime Minister? Obviously Turnbull’s message before and after the spill was that he would bring a renewed focus on the economy. But two phrases stuck out in his press conferences last night. Turnbull chooses his words carefully.

The first was the declarative emphasis on “freedom” as a key to economic growth. The echo of the language of George Brandis and Tony Abbott’s “freedom agenda” in opposition was surely not accidental – and all the more powerful for now being used in the service of economics.

The second was his statement that his would be a “thoroughly liberal government” (assuming he meant “liberal” as opposed to “Liberal”). It’s indicative Turnbull said this publicly after the vote, not before. Abbott’s was an intentionally conservative government. Abbott sought to remake the party into a conservative party.

What these statements mean for government policy is anyone’s guess. Turnbull has promised not to pursue higher climate targets, and he has apparently reaffirmed the plebiscite plan for gay marriage. Turnbull proposes a new tone, but has no agenda that we are aware of. It’s going to be a long road from here.

At the very least, his choice of language is an unsubtle reminder that Turnbull will have to navigate the Liberal Party with far more skill and diplomacy than he did when he was opposition leader.