As the Abbott government moves into its second year the unconventional absence of a so called honeymoon period continues to baffle no end of political observers. It therefore comes as a surprise to find precious little discussion as to why this government might reasonably have expected a honeymoon period in the first place. Somewhere along the way the idea that voters go to bed on election night as passionate socialists and wake up the next morning hardline conservatives has entrenched itself into the received wisdom and with apparently little justification. The swell of support for the government which conventionally follows an election win does not occur as a default response by voters to the result. The morning after they awake with the same old prejudices and preconceptions but then they resume observing the political players and are presented with a very different image to that which they were looking at before the election which in time comes to transform their political outlook.
The broader change that occurs after election goes to the actual roles which individuals are performing, the former opposition is now doing some actual governing, administering public services, performing ministerial duties etc. Foreign Ministers in particular benefit from this new set of circumstances, after months or perhaps years of arguing about either the petty or the mundane they suddenly start getting photographed all the time shaking hands with foreign powers and signing treaties -the results are very flattering as Julie Bishop recently discovered. That’s part of the equation but the preponderant factor in creating post election honeymoons is that most new governments take the clean slate with which they are presented and go to enormous lengths to try and preserve its cleanliness. The preening moral righteousness we tend to get from new governments can be nauseating but as an electoral perspective its irresistible.
The O’Farrell government was a classic example of a newly elected government that made a huge effort to present itself as the paragon of virtue, in fact it is the pious earnestness of O’Farrell circa 2011-2012 which now makes wave after wave of ICAC revelations all the more venomous. The O’Farrell government wanted the electorate to believe that they would be a Spartan government, no decadence, no frills, no feathering their own nests –in stark contrast to the gluttonous corruption that was endemic in the Kenneally, Rees and Iemma governments. When the Liberals won government they immediately set about trimming down politicians entitlements and oiling the wheels of government transparency, their legislative agenda was actually quite vapid but voters were enamoured with this parade of integrity from Premier O’Farrell. Poor John Robertson was boxed into a corner, being forced to join O’Farrell on a unity ticket against the party he was supposed to be leading, but the O’Farrell show was nothing compared to the first Rudd government.
O’Farrell was fortunate in that corruption was already endemic within NSW Labor so he was able to prosecute a highly partisan campaign against a universally unpopular phenomenon but Kevin Rudd’s attempt to model himself as a more ethical version of his predecessor was more sophisticated, and much more ambitious. Rudd appeared to be taking it upon himself to bury the old two party system and to invite all sides of politics to join him in a sort of grand coalition government –with him at the summit. Brendan Nelson, Peter Costello and Tim Fisher were all appointed to senior government posts while rumours of Kim Beazley being appointed Governor General were shut down with an urgency that spoke to Rudd’s zealous determination crush perceptions of cronyism.
The then Shadow Minister for Families Tony Abbott mocked Rudd as having “hit the ground reviewing” but this approach to government fed further into his popularity. Rudd was not pursuing a divisive, ideological agenda, he appeared to be sourcing opinions from far and wide, assessing the tide of evidence then synthesising the available resources into a mature policy response.
He also reformed the laws regarding political advertising and the parliamentary standing orders, in both cases to dramatically shrink the extent to which the pre-existing arrangements advantaged the government of the day. Political observers right across the spectrum were impressed with the way Rudd seemed to put selfless and fairness at the centre of his government and the political capital he reaped from it was enormous. Of course no government is perfect and when evidence of human error began to filter through to the surface his earlier attempts to present the government as impossibly pure began to unravel and Labor’s polling returned to planet earth but for two years the Rudd government was unassailable.
The Abbott government could not have began in a more different way to the Rudd and O’Farrell governments. Before the Governor General even had a chance to swear in the new cabinet there was an expenses scandal made all the more notable by the blasé lack of contrition shown by the implicated ministers. The government then terminated Steve Bracks’ commission as Australia’s Consul-General in New York before proceeding to appoint a never ending string of prominent former Liberals and conservative commentators to plum government jobs inspiring a deafening chorus of “nepotism” from the chattering classes.
A cabinet minister has since been forced to resign under a cloud of corruption allegations and the appointment of someone so partisan and so politically inept as Bronwyn Bishop to the speakership has been the source of grave embarrassment for Abbott and his team. This government is only a year old, yet it has accrued a reputation for being self serving and misleading the kind of which is normally reserved for ten year old governments desperately trying to cling to power at all costs.
At the heart of this reputation lies Christopher Pyne, the government’s chief tactician and congenital smart arse. Pyne is a politician who has never overly concerned himself with popularity. He conducts himself with a swaggering cheek that evokes memories of the fictitious Geoffrey Booza-Pitt, confidant of House of Card’s Franics Urqhuart. He scandalizes the left but his gift for mastering policy detail and verbal dexterity allows him to get away with it. Alas few of his colleagues go close to matching Pyne in the cleverness stakes and are left to flounder as they bumble their way through attempts to defend Pyne’s barely defensible regime.
None of this is to say that the government is especially likely to lose in 2016; elections are not won on niceness and fairness, they are typically won by whichever candidate presents his or herself as the more competent and pragmatic of the two but it does increase the governments vulnerability. An unpopular government, however competent people may believe it to be, will not get a great deal of latitude from voters to rectify its errors. The rigorous scrutiny currently being applied to the government both by the political classes and the general public will remain in place until after the next election and they only have themselves to blame.