Australia

Do Australians still want Abbott as PM?

PM Tony Abbott in Canberra (19 Nov 2014) Image copyright Getty Images

Australian voters have rejected Prime Minister Tony Abbott's "year of achievements".

The latest polling shows many people believe Mr Abbott is the least competent Australian leader in 20 years. He fares even worse when it comes to being trustworthy, according to a December Fairfax Ipsos poll.

And it is trust and competence that matter most to the public, say political pundits.

It is not unusual for prime ministers to struggle in their first term, says lecturer at the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, Dr Zareh Ghazarian.

Over the past 20 or 30 years in Australian politics it has taken most new prime ministers time to "find their feet", says Dr Ghazarian.

'Getting on with the job'

"One of Australia's most successful prime ministers in terms of winning elections was [conservative] John Howard but he had a horrid first term in government," he says. Mr Howard went on to be the second-longest serving Australian prime minister after Sir Robert Menzies.

"The problem for Abbott seems to be a bit deeper than that and it goes to issues of trust, credibility and competence," he says.

"What matters is that the government presents itself as competent and is seen to be getting on with the job."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mining benefitted from the scrapping of a 30% tax on profits in 2014

But after a series of economic and policy stumbles by the coalition government, opposition leader Bill Shorten is now leading Mr Abbott on six of 11 key attributes including competence, trust and having a firm grasp of social policy, according to the Ipsos telephone poll of 1,401 voters. The poll, taken between 4 and 6 December, has a margin of error of 2.6%.


Policy wins and losses for Tony Abbott in 2014

Wins

  • Repealing the carbon tax
  • Repealing the mining tax
  • Stemming the flow of refugees coming to Australia by boat
  • Free trade agreements with China, Japan, South Korea

Losses

  • Harsh budget cuts across the board; poor hit hardest
  • Senate rejection of university fee deregulation bill
  • Senate rejection of changes to financial advice laws
  • Backing down on generous paid parental leave scheme
  • Backing down on A$7 fee to visit doctor
  • Expected blowout in May budget
  • Increase in an unpopular fuel tax

The government started well. In July, it delivered on an election promise to repeal the former Labor government's levy on the country's biggest greenhouse gas emitters. It also dumped a 30% tax on coal and iron ore mining profits.

In cabinet, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has delivered on the government's promise to stop the flow of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Boats are now turned back and those who make it to Australia are detained in offshore camps with little chance of permanent settlement in Australia.

The government has also kept its promise of reversing most of Labor's climate change policies. Along with the carbon tax, it scrapped the Climate Commission and plans to halve the country's legislated renewable energy target.

This week, Australia was rated the worst performing industrial country in the world in terms of climate change in an annual analysis done by two European non-government organisations.

International criticism has had a small impact, with the government finally agreeing to contribute A$200m (£106m; $166m) to a UN-backed Green Climate Fund to help poor nations mitigate the impact of global warming.

But polls indicate the public is more worried about the economy than the environment.

The government's inability to explain why it delivered such a tough budget earlier this year and its failure to get all of the budget savings through a hostile senate explain the public's dissatisfaction, says Dr Ghazarian. The government does not have a majority in the senate.

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Image caption Treasurer Joe Hockey infuriated some Australians with his comments about people on low incomes

"I don't think the government has effectively explained why they have made the decisions they have made, especially regarding economic issues," he says.

There are rumblings of discontent within the coalition, too. After the Victorian coalition lost the state election in November, former conservative premier Jeff Kennett said the Abbott government was a "shambles'' and its performance a major factor in the defeat of the state government.

Coalition members say also that criticism of the government's own shipbuilding company, which is based in South Australia, by Defence Minister David Johnston, contributed to a 9% swing against the Liberal Party in a recent South Australian by-election.

Treasurer Joe Hockey has also performed poorly. Most notoriously, he said an increased petrol tax would not hurt low-income earners because they "either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far", a claim that was widely disputed.

But Michelle Grattan, professorial fellow at University of Canberra and one of the Canberra Press Gallery's most experienced political journalists, says a cabinet reshuffle could be dangerous.

"A reshuffle that was received badly publicly and internally in Coalition ranks would be a disastrous way to start the year," she wrote in an article for the independent news and analysis site The Conversation.

She said Mr Abbott's attempts to "reset" his government's rhetoric - in several instances he has conceded he has broken election promises - could also bring him undone.

"We're asked to swallow a distinction between his broken promises and Labor's," she wrote.

But is all of this enough to make his cabinet colleagues ponder a change of leader?

It proved disastrous for Labor, which ditched Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for Julia Gillard before switching back to Mr Rudd, only to lose the 2013 election. The Victorian government's leadership switch last year is cited as one of a number of reasons it lost the November election.

They have to tough it out with Mr Abbott, says Dr Ghazarian.

"Parties that change leaders are doomed."

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