A few weeks ago I found myself in conversation with a prominent conservative commentator. We disagreed on a lot, but on one thing we were in consensus: Tony Abbott was settling into the job.
This is the hardest bit of being prime minister. It is impossible to overstate the gap between that role and any other position in public life.
Because of the huge leap required, most prime ministers make a hash of their first few months in office. What determines their success is how quickly they start to understand the demands of the office: the times you must let the limitations of the job shape your actions and the chances you get to shape the job.
I still believe what I said. But this week I began to suspect that Mr Abbott has taken the settling in too far. He has settled, and settled, and then he has settled in some more. The new Prime Minister has sat back in the big comfy armchair of leadership and let the cushions swallow him whole.
Prime ministers in their first six months are usually a little like first-years at university: lame and clueless, but with a winning enthusiasm you can’t help but like.
So yes, they might sign up to every club that exists, come up with some pretty wacky ideas, and maybe even turn up drunk when they shouldn’t, but at least they’re trying. It’s the overexcited awkwardness that makes them so adorable.
Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit was a great example. Even those who think it was a farce have to admit: it showed spirit.
And for that reason, it was welcomed by the public. It made clear there was a new government determined to do things in new ways.
Eventually the public begins to look at what you’ve actually achieved, but in the beginning there are a lot of marks to be picked up for effort.
The problem for this Prime Minister is not that he’s hopeless. He has so far done a lot of things, some of them well, some of them popular, and the left are kidding themselves if they think otherwise.
The problem for Abbott is that these are almost exclusively the things every government does: look at the obvious mistakes or omissions your predecessors made, and fix them. Labor did this after it was elected in 2007.
The apology to the Stolen Generations, signing Kyoto, beginning the process of establishing an emissions trading scheme – all were significant, and all were political successes.
They were also things that John Howard had conspicuously failed to do.
While these low-hanging fruit are being picked, a government looks active, but is in fact defining itself in relation to the previous government.
It’s a great trick, but it gets old quickly. It is only once that tree is bare that a government begins to define itself on its own terms, and that’s when the electorate really starts to pay attention.
So far the government has made big splashes with its efforts to abolish Labor’s carbon tax, abolish Labor’s mining tax, stop the boats that Labor let in, establish two Royal Commissions into Labor problem areas (unions and insulation), slash Labor’s National Broadband Network, and stop Labor’s schools plan (before agreeing to leave it in place). It was fine at first, but it’s getting tired.
This was the week we got our first taste of Abbott’s own agenda for the country.
I have always believed that Tony Abbott is smarter than people give him credit for
Those hoping for the thrill of new ideas would have been disappointed.
First there was the decision to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act, bringing twenty-year-old debates bounding gleefully back to life, having long since assumed their time for this world was over.
Then we got knights and dames, requiring the surgically challenging resuscitation of a thirty-year-old dead duck. And then finally the youngest idea – in the sense that Blanche was the youngest of The Golden Girls – selling off Medibank Private, proposed by John Howard back in 2006.
The Prime Minister needs to be careful. Political analysts talk about the concept of “plasticity” – how long the public are prepared to suspend judgment on a leader before they make their minds up and the mould sets forever.
Abbott was never going to get a long “plastic” period, having spent so long in the public eye already as Opposition Leader.
If he is going to reshape the public perception of him as a combative man only capable of soundbites and stoking division, he will have to act soon. With every passing day his government is looking less like a new government, energised by the opportunity to change the country for the better, and more like a tired extension of the twelve-year-old Howard Government, with the same tired faces and the same tired tricks – culture wars, ideological appointments – an old government comes to rely on when it’s out of puff.
In other words, a government that has settled in so far that it can no longer remember what it was to be excited.
Governments are judged by what they do, not what they say, and this government is going to have to show the Australian public it is capable of taking the country in new directions, that it has energy, drive and innovation to spare.
There is only one way to do that: announce new policy, stuff that captures the imagination, and do it fast.
I have always believed that Tony Abbott is smarter than people give him credit for, and more creative, too.
I have told people not to underestimate him, that he will be a better prime minister than anyone expects.
This week I began to think I might be wrong. You’re only seven months in, Mr Abbott. Time to get off the couch.