In every policy area, the Coalition offered less than Labor at the last election: less money for schools, a lesser telecommunications system, fewer women in Cabinet, less overall. They won with this lesser offering because of the perception of competence: the idea that a Coalition government was more likely to deliver on what it promised, in contrast to a government that delivered less than it promised.
This government lives or dies by its competence. Rorting Travel Allowance is not a hallmark of competence. Traditionally, the fact that Labor MPs have also claimed travel allowance for things they shouldn't have would be enough to dispel this issue.
This government's entire reason for being is completely negated if the case can be made that it is no better than the previous government.
After Brandis and Joyce, and now with Abbott, it would appear that the government is trying to address the competence issue and defuse grubby questions of mere greed. They do this by including in their mea-culpa statement that they've sent reimbursement cheques in the hope that the damage to their reputations might be mitigated. I think it's worth checking that those cheques have arrived at their destination (never mind who guards the guardians, who checks the cheques? Is there a public service accounts clerk willing to risk becoming one of The Twelve Thousand sacked by this government by admitting the cheque the PM said he sent hasn't arrived?). It is possible that a statement issued by a politician may not check out in every particular, and this applies even to senior members of the Abbott government.
Abbott is using his own behaviour to excuse those who have been rorting the system, or who at least have been careless. This will blunt any discoveries about how bad the previous lot were. It also blunts his ability to build a reputation as a leader who can get people to tap into their better selves, and thereby get more out of them than they might have imagined.
It is true that politicians' work requires them to attend the sorts of events which are social events for the rest of us, and thus attending such events might fairly be regarded as work-related expenses. It is not true, however, that politicians can and must only be judged according to their own lights.
With the decline in full-time employment, fewer of us get employer-funded perks, and rules around their granting are much tighter than those available to politicians. When politicians complain that they are following the guidelines, and that the guidelines are hard to understand and very loose, they think they've answered the question when they've just opened up new ones. Self-employed tradies in western Sydney don't draw on perks like Abbott does.
This goes to the heart of what Liberals regard as Abbott's core strength: his discipline. He gets up early and rides his bike around: so disciplined. He hammers the same messages over and over again: so disciplined. Plundering politicians' allowances and encouraging your team to fill their boots too: very sloppy indeed, most indisciplined, and a better indication of how this government will go than wishful thinking about discipline.
Liberals think this government can impose its supposed discipline onto the country, and indeed the world. President Yudhuyono of Indonesia is no less disciplined than Abbott, and in their meeting it was Yudhuyono who set the terms, not Abbott. Abbott may have chosen not to lecture China on human rights, but it left him with nowhere to go when Russia's Putin shirtfronted him. He gave Malaysia a big shit-happens and embarrassed us before the Japanese, declaring them to be our third best friend this week. Australian media commentators who insist otherwise in praising Abbott simply have no basis on which to make their case, no understanding of foreign policy, and no perspective on how previous governments conducted foreign policy.
The Abbott government may not be able to impose its gay marriage agenda even with the force majeure of the Constitution. If Joe Hockey has another economic policy idea beyond the Greiner-era infrastructure bonds thing, it isn't clear what it might be.
This is where we are going to see tetchiness from this government: measures for imposing discipline within a party do not work for that party in imposing discipline beyond it. A government that made no attempt to be persuasive or to challenge prejudices cannot be trusted to do the slow, patient work of shifting public opinion where it needs to. It will, however, get frustrated at its inability to enforce its will despite having the necessary discipline to get into office. Opponents of this government should be prepared for laughter to be as effective in rebutting this government as concerted fire-with-fire opposition.
The most apparent and direct threat to this new government is in Ian Macfarlane's zeal for fracking. Australia does not have a shortage of gas like the US has. The government is sending mixed messages about the future of coal, it has not progressed nuclear or renewables, and nor has it made a strong public case why we need more gas (and why we should give up farmlands permanently to get a short-term fix of gas). There are at least a dozen rural electorates where an independent could go from a standing start to displacing a member of this government over such an issue, following the Cathy McGowan model (with Sophie Mirabella like a noxious gas in concentrated form).
Fancy a Coalition Agriculture Minister regarding non-coastal Australia as 'darkness', or lamely attempting to displace his rorts onto Australia's wealthiest person; if this government gets into real trouble this guy will only make problems worse. Macfarlane is probably the best minister this government has, but if he became a lightning rod for popular dissatisfaction then this government is in real trouble.
The government and its media advisors think they've built a bond with those who elect them when all they've done is widen the gulf. Laugh all you want at John McTernan, but like most veterans of the Gillard government he has the satisfaction of having been replaced by lesser people.
The usual tactic to deal with initiatives like this is to 'muddy the waters', to create sufficient doubt that any investigation goes nowhere and momentum is lost. George Brandis built his political career by water-muddying a Senate investigation into "children overboard" in 2001. Aside from moments of lucidity around the Asian financial crisis, the GST, and East Timor, Peter Costello and Alexander Downer did little else but water-muddying. That hasn't worked, it won't work now.
In the olden days, when there were investigative journalists in the press gallery, water-muddying just caused people to keep digging until they struck something solid. These days press-gallery journos reach the top of their profession when they're "on the drip"; just when the pollies had cowed the press gallery, journalists from outside Canberra and investigative writers in social media are basically doing the job they are nominally sent there to do.
Then there's the issue that these stories are many years old, and why weren't these stories run earlier? When Tony Abbott claimed allowances for competing in an ironman thing at Coffs Harbour, the local papers ran the story but the press gallery didn't (keep in mind that national media companies have taken over regional outlets expressly to "leverage synergies" like this).
There are two explanations for this. Either the press gallery have only just stumbled upon easily-verifiable facts that have been under their noses for years. Or, even worse, the strategic geniuses that have buggered our media overestimate their cleverness by sitting on stories.
Last Sunday the current editor of The Australian Financial Review, Michael Stutchbury, declared that travel allowance rorts by the then-opposition wasn't important as a story, but now that those same people are in government it has become very important. There seems to be a lot of this about: stung by the idea that they just waved these clowns into office without so much as a journalistic pat-down, let alone the scrutiny as to whether this lot might be less effective than those they eventually replaced, they are digging out the cliche of travel rorts and flinging it about as if to say: see, we dish it out to Both Sides! We're not biased!
So we have:
- a government made up of people who aren't very good at the details when it comes to spending public money, boding ill for its ability to deal with education and defence and the budget and all that government stuff;
- a PR machine for said government whose only tactic, water-muddying, will only make things worse; and
- a mainstream media that loses credibility - and ratings - when it tries to schedule scandals to its timetable.