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Comment: Abbott needs to become less tribal

By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra


Tony Abbott hasn’t lost his opposition mentality yet.


AAP/Matthew Newton


We used to wait 100 days to draw up an initial report card on a government but now we’re down to 50 days. Today is that milepost (since the election) and Tony Abbott made something of it at the weekend, telling the Tasmanian Liberal council on Saturday the government had made a “strong start” and listing what it has done.

The Coalition wants to appear to be operating in a more orderly fashion than Labor did, but also to give the impression of much activity.

It can point to producing draft legislation for the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes. Four weeks of parliament, starting mid November, have been scheduled.

The Audit Commission has been announced, with the task of recommending savings that would get the budget to a surplus of 1% of GDP before 2023-24. (A smaller surplus is being promised for earlier. Abbott said in an interview with Andrew Bolt last week: “We will get back to surplus at least as quickly as the former government claimed that it would get back”. That was 2016-17.)

The new government is seeking to re-energise the negotiations for a free trade agreement with China in particular. It has started to re-orient the NBN.

Abbott has been to Indonesia to discuss the boats issue (apparently the Indonesians were quite impressed with him, but less so with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who followed separately).

So, 50 days and a reasonable amount started of its pre-election undertakings. But some uglier features are appearing too.

Abbott just after the election declared: “I am very conscious of the fact that opposition leaders are tribal chiefs but prime ministers have to be national leaders.”

Despite this fine sentiment he and his government are being very tribal.

It is not just that ministers spend much of their time harking back to Labor’s record when they are answering questions about the economy and the like. That’s standard operating practice for new administrations.

More unjustifiable is the sort of spray Abbott gave the former government in an interview with the Washington Post, published last week. The convention – and surely Abbott, who prides himself on being a conservative, would like to see himself as a man who recognises convention – is that politicians show a certain restraint in talking to an overseas audience about their opponents.

But Abbott was entirely off the leash. Asked about Labor wanting under its NBN to extend fibre to every household, he said “Welcome to the wonderful wacko world of the former government”.

When pressed he went on: “I thought it was the most incompetent and untrustworthy government in modern Australian history.

“They made a whole lot of commitments, which they scandalously failed to honour. They did a lot of things that were scandalously wasteful and the actual conduct of government was a circus.

“They were untrustworthy in terms of the carbon tax. They were incompetent in terms of the national broadband network. They were a scandal when it came to their own internal disunity. They made a whole lot of grubby deals in order to try and perpetuate themselves in power. It was an embarrassing spectacle.”

Tell us what you really think, Tony!

It is reported today that the government is drawing up terms of reference for an inquiry into the Rudd government’s home insulation scheme, which saw several deaths.

Obviously still grieving families would like further investigation. But inquiries have already been held, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a very political operation.

Even more political is the proposal raised before the election to have an inquiry into the old AWU scandal involving Julia Gillard’s former boyfriend, in which she gave legal advice (she has always maintained she did nothing wrong).

The Coalition moved heaven and earth last term to use this affair against Gillard. If there is anything more to be done, that should be left to the relevant authorities.

A new prime minister does well to avoid trying to hunt down his predecessor, in this case predecessors. The people have made their judgement on them – it is unfortunate Abbott is not willing to be satisfied with that.

Listen to Nick Xenophon on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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