On his first day of government, Tony Abbott will phone the president of Nauru to reintroduce the Pacific solution and will start repealing the carbon tax.
The obvious question is what he would do on his second day.
Not what he plans to do. (If he runs the campaign anything like he did in 2010, the new prime minister will need a long sleep.) But what he would do. How would Abbott react to the unexpected?
The Labor Party and its supporters have been demanding the Coalition release a full suite of election policies immediately. Their motives are transparent. They are looking for something – anything – to tie a WorkChoices-style campaign to. You can just see Hawker Britton itching feverishly to roll one out. No surprise there. Labor’s friends are nostalgic for a time when their party wasn’t despised.
But the art of governing is not simply implementing previously determined policies and then waiting until the next election. George W Bush rightly described himself as The Decider. When we vote, we are not voting for a dot-point list of new laws and taxes, but for a team we trust to make future decisions that we will have no chance to vote upon individually.
Labor should understand this. The public’s current disillusion is not solely because the government broke a promise, but because it turned out to be a very different beast to what was first offered.
Recall that Kevin Rudd’s team promised in 2007 to be even more fiscally conservative than John Howard’s team. Rudd’s attack on Howard-era economic management was “this reckless spending must stop”. Yet when the Global Financial Crisis struck, Rudd flipped, declared the end of neo-liberalism, and instituted one of the biggest stimulus packages in the developed world.
Julia Gillard suggested in 2010 she would slow Rudd’s frenetic activity. Among other things, she would shunt the carbon tax out of sight, out of mind to a citizens’ assembly. But her government has spiralled further out of control.
Voters can forgive a change in priorities. They cannot forgive a change in character.
This is what Tony Abbott needs to be thinking about.
We’ve got a very good idea of what policies Abbott wants to implement. He has spent the last two years in opposition doubling down on his 2010 election promises. The Coalition will stop the boats, axe the tax – you know the rest. But as for Abbott’s philosophy, his image of Australia’s future … that’s less clear.
If Abbott wants his government to be stable and successful – to avoid the trap which Rudd and Gillard fell into – he needs to spend the next year not talking about what he plans to do on his first day, but articulating what he thinks a good government looks like. The opposition leader needs to give voters a vision of an Abbott government five years down the track, not one day in. We need some hint of how the prospective prime minister will react to unforeseen events.
After John Howard’s 2007 defeat, there was a belief in liberal and conservative circles that centre-right politics needed intellectual renewal.
A few dreary terms in opposition offered just that opportunity. But events intervened. Labor became disorganised and vulnerable. Discussion about the future of liberalism was postponed indefinitely.
It’s easy to proclaim the times suit a second coming of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. But the world those leaders faced is very different from ours. Reagan and Thatcher had to dismantle the nationalised behemoths that had built up over the past half century, to close down the government industry cartels, and reintroduce competition into the biggest sectors of the economy.
Our modern world is the fruit of that labour. Yet the great nationalised industries were not replaced with free markets but with a dense web of regulation and supervision. Governments no longer run railways but instead prepare seven-step risk-assessment processes for street parties in accordance with joint Australian/New Zealand risk-management standards. How a centre-right party navigates this new reality is something that requires serious thinking.
Abbott’s book Battlelines seemed to suggest that he had done some of that thinking. It wasn’t a manifesto of small government libertarianism – quite the opposite – but it was, nonetheless, a sketch of what a modern, updated, yet distinctly conservative party might look like.
But Battlelines was written well before he became opposition leader. In his current role, there has been little of the characteristic thought of his book.
Since the last election, Abbott has offered up a series of “Headland” speeches. They have been disappointing. He has just repeated his well-worn, itemised critique of Labor. It’s worth reading John Howard’s original 1995 Headland speech again – it’s about philosophy, not policy. Howard talked about what he stood for, not what he was going to do.
Abbott’s Headland speeches reveal little of what sort of prime minister he will be on his second day. But there is still time for him to reveal that necessary vision of what a “good government” looks like.