A Very Bad Start

I set out my reasons for thinking that Abbott would not gain a majority in his own right at the next election in a previous post. At that stage he wasn’t experiencing a honeymoon in the polls, but they had yet to really turn against him. I’ve been thinking about the extent to which what has happened since re-enforces my view. I think the answer is a little complex.

On the one hand, there is very little correlation between polling so early in a government’s term and the eventual outcome. I’m watching the polls closely because they are significant for a WA Senate by-election, should it occur, or the contest in Griffith. I also think they are important for killing off the already slim chance Abbott might have had for rushing to a Double Dissolution, but on face value I don’t think they are that much guide to 2016.

However, I think the reasons for things going wrong so early may provide a clearer picture. I can think of six main reasons why governments screw up: Arrogance, Corruption, Ideological Extremism, Incompetence, Inexperience and Internal divisions. These can off course overlap. Governments may also lose as a result of bad luck, but I’ll put that to one side.

Most new governments suffer from inexperience, and this is obviously the easiest one to overcome. If this was all that ailed the Abbott government I think they would be well placed to recover. Incompetence, on the other hand doesn’t go away unless you have a bunch of talented backbenchers who can be brought in to replace your worst liabilities. The others tend to fall in between in terms of the capacity to recover.

The problem for Abbott is that it is hard to argue that inexperience counts for much of the problem here. Having been only out of power for 6 years, this is one of the most experienced new governments we have seen. Most of the senior ministers had positions of some responsibility in the Howard Government, in many cases for quite a while. It is really hard to see how these problems can be put down to rookie errors.

Corruption and Internal divisions are both things that usually get worse as governments age, not better. In particular, internal conflict tends to come to the surface when other things are not going so well. Howard’s capacity to keep a lid on such things for most of his time in government was possibly his greatest strength. It will be a stunning achievement of Abbott can match this if the polls are still bad in the new year, particularly if the by-election(s) results worry MPs.

A taste for power can diminish Ideological extremism, but when your backbench is as choc-full of wing-nuts as this lot I question whether that will occur.

The best hope this government has, other than a sudden outbreak of major good fortune, is for their problems to be largely the consequence of arrogance and for them to get over that before they become terminal. I’ll leave it to readers to decide how likely that is.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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