Politics: one hundred days of ‘No Surprises’

Tony Abbott vowed that his would be a ‘no surprises’ government, but after the first one hundred days, the Australian public is struggling to come to terms with all the unexpected, and often remarkable, developments that have occurred under his Prime Ministership.

The ‘no surprises’ started just two weeks after the election with the startling confession that there would be only one woman in the Coalition cabinet. This was quickly followed by a Fairfax investigation into alleged expenses rorting involving senior government figures, including the nation’s highest judicial officer, Attorney-General George Brandis, and Prime Minister Abbott himself.

Scott Morrison then joined the ‘no surprises’ brigade in his attempts to control the information available to the public on asylum seekers. Introducing highly stage-managed weekly press conferences for ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, Morrison enlisted General Angus Campbell to facilitate his charade of pretending to keep the public informed. This explicit politicisation of the military was extraordinary from a conservative government that supposedly prides itself on its respect for our armed forces. What was not surprising was the speed with which the hapless Morrison was forced to reverse this particular miscalculation.

The next shocker from this no-surprises government was Tony Abbott’s speech in Parliament in response to the news that Australia had tapped the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. Rather than apologise or follow the more traditional practice of remaining silent on matters of national security, the Prime Minister said that he regretted the embarrassment caused to his Indonesian counterpart, essentially blaming the media. The bizarre suggestion that it was the Indonesian President rather than Australia that should be embarrassed by the revelation of Australia’s actions added fuel to the fire of Indonesian indignation and anger. Relations remain strained and could take some time to return to normal, undermining ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, the live cattle export industry and two-way investment.

Eclipsing all of these ‘no-surprises’, however, are two complete backflips in as many weeks on the Gonski reforms. It started when, without a hint of irony, the permanently smirking Christopher Pyne announced that the government would no longer be proceeding with Gonski after 2014. This despite shortly before the election Tony Abbott solemnly declaring ‘there is no difference between Kevin Rudd and myself when it comes to school funding,’ claiming that the Coalition and the Labor Party were on a ‘unity ticket’ on the Gonski model.

It now appears that this was no more than a cynical ploy to neutralise education as an election issue.

However, the immediate outrage that greeted Pyne’s announcement revealed the depth of the government’s misjudgment. The Coalition member, and NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, branded the government’s about face ‘immoral’, and Pyne faced a major revolt from the states and territories, the education sector and the general public. The Prime Minister attempted to repair some of the damage by completely reversing Pyne’s earlier announcement.

This is dangerous territory for the government. No one knows better than Tony Abbott the damage suffered by Julia Gillard when she introduced a carbon tax after having previously vowed that there would be ‘no carbon tax under the government I lead’, something picked up by the Coalition and used ad nauseum as the most powerful political weapon against her leadership.

At least Gillard had the wisdom to announce her policy change with a degree of seriousness. The Australian public is unlikely to respond well to the grinning smugness with which Christopher Pyne has delivered his various conflicting pronouncements. He seems genuinely oblivious to the spectacle he is making of himself, spending the government’s political capital at an alarming rate. He stands out, in a strong field, as the government’s greatest ministerial liability.

The next ‘no surprises’ bombshell was Joe Hockey’s decision to block the takeover of GrainCorp by an American company. This from a government whose leader proclaimed in his victory speech on election night that Australia was ‘open for business’ again.

To the contrary, faced with his first significant economic and business-credentials test, Hockey chose protectionism over the free market and openness, and peace with the National Party over Australia’s national interest and reputation as an attractive investment destination. This came as a nasty surprise to a business community that already had its doubts about the economic bona fides of the new government.

Several weeks later, that same community was further unnerved that a supposedly business-friendly government saw fit to communicate with Holden by screaming shrilly at it from the floor of Parliament, demanding an immediate explanation of Holden’s plans. The government got its answer the next day, albeit not the one it was looking for.

And the latest surprise?

The announcement that the government will not deliver on its promise to complete the first stage of its version of the NBN by 2016. Both the timeframe and the budget have blown out.

No surprises’ is increasingly looking like a ‘non-core promise’ from the man who once warned us ‘not to believe everything I say’.

What is not surprising is how far, and how quickly, support for the government has fallen in the polls.

So, we also shouldn’t be too surprised if, contrary to its earlier posturing, the government decides against a double dissolution election in the face of an uncooperative Senate.

An election now would likely deliver a very unwelcome ‘surprise’ to the Coalition.

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