Rough 2 years as PM for Abbott

Lack of clear goals, personal flaws plague Aussie leader

Australia's Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott, marked two years in office this week but it has hardly been a rosy anniversary. 

Despite sweeping Labor from power in a decisive election victory on Sept 7, 2013, Mr Abbott's future as leader is in doubt, with his ruling conservative coalition racked by infighting and leaking. 

His government has been behind in the opinion polls since April last year, with  just 30 per cent of people satisfied with his performance. A total of  63 per cent are dissatisfied and 7 per cent are uncommitted, according to a Newspoll survey published on Monday. Analysts believe Mr Abbott has failed to set a clear or positive direction as leader and has not pursued a consistent economic agenda. Many believe he will be toppled by his party if he cannot craft a well-defined  message for voters before the next election, due next year.

The immediate test for Mr Abbott will be a by-election in Western Australia on Sept 19 to replace a Liberal MP who died in July. If his party loses  the safe seat, currently held by a comfortable margin of 11.8 per cent, Mr Abbott is expected to be dumped as leader. Even a narrow Liberal victory - which is expected - would still threaten his job. 

So what has gone wrong?

Most commentators point to two main causes: the personal and the political. On a personal level, Mr Abbott, a former boxer, has long been known as a combative and highly effective political warrior. This was a quality that helped him land blows as opposition leader but, as prime minister, it has frequently appeared unbecoming and excessively negative. 

Veteran political commentator Michelle Grattan said this personal failing has been a severe drawback of Mr Abbott's.

She said Mr Abbott has pursued a "them-and-us tribalism", which has included strident attacks on perceived critics. 

Analysts believe the other great failing of his leadership has been a failure to set a clear goal or "narrative" for the government, particularly during a turbulent time for the Australian and global economy. This failing has largely eroded the impact of policy successes, particularly on the international stage, where he has gained credit for his unwavering response to the MH17 air disaster and for free-trade deals with South Korea, Japan and China.

An expert on Australian politics at the University of Queensland, Dr Ian Ward, said Mr Abbott's "relentlessly negative campaign" as opposition leader prevented him from setting a clear agenda. 

Dr Ward told The Straits Times  that Mr Abbott succeeded in "stopping the boats" - or stemming the flow of asylum seekers arriving by sea - and in abolishing Labor's carbon tax, but has otherwise struggled to find direction.

"The government is now focused on electoral survival rather than a policy focus for its first term," he said. "The problem has its roots in his time in opposition. The Liberals conducted a relentlessly negative campaign against the (former Labor) Rudd and Gillard governments but did not develop  a clear positive agenda for government."

Dr Ward said that the Abbott government trumpeted the need for fiscal austerity before its first, highly unpopular  Budget last year. But it then quickly abandoned its rhetoric and reversed course with a much gentler Budget this year. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2015, with the headline 'Rough 2 years as PM for Abbott'. Print Edition | Subscribe