Commonly received wisdom says that there are not very may honest politicians and people have begun to expect their elected officials to lie. But Tony Abbott may have just proved why honesty is a necessity in politics. Last week, his coalition government released its first budget since the 2013 election and the fallout has been disastrous. Enemies such as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have been quick to jump on the prime minister for his broken promises and even allies such as Liberal Premiers Campbell Newman and Mike Baird have been highly critical, even combative towards a budget they see as unfair to the states and territories. But the reaction from voters has been one of the worst blows as people took to the streets to express their anger over being lied to, an anger that resulted in a catastrophic dip in approval ratings. Overall, determining what led to this situation is less a matter of policy and more a matter of integrity.
Integrity in politics may seem like too much to ask for, but it is exactly what Tony Abbott staked his political career on. As the opposition leader during Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s tenure, he repeatedly and vociferously attacked her credibility on matters of the truth. He was even ejected from Parliament for calling a statement made by her a lie, becoming only the fourth ever opposition leader to be kicked out. Famously, he gave a speech to a rally while standing next to a sign that called Gillard “Ju-Liar,” among other offensive language. That stunt played an important role in her famous rant on misogyny, which was a hit on YouTube for a while. Despite the claim of chauvinism, however, his abiding policy as Gillard’s political opponent was to point out time and again when she lied or when her statements did not meet criteria for being completely truthful or when she broke her promises to constituents, which she did with the introduction of the carbon tax.
Fast forward to his own time as prime minister and the twin issue of truth and honesty remains relevant to Australian politics. In fact, Abbott is receiving some of the same treatment he gave Gillard as current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten called the new budget one “based on lies.” Some political commentators in the media have also taken up the strain and one article begins with the direct sentence, “The Prime Minister is a liar.” People are sitting up and taking notice as protesters took to the streets over the weekend sporting signs that said, “Phoney Tony,” among other less family friendly verbiage.
It seems that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott may have believed in the necessity of honesty in politics but the man as prime minister has a looser view of the concept. For instance, during the election campaign in late 2013, he told voters that there would be “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS,” both of which are publicly funded news channels. That was a firm promise from the politician who meant to change the dearth of trustworthiness in the Australian Parliament. But his budget promised not only cuts to education, health, pensions and the ABC, but imposed a new tax on the Australian public, another breach of promise. There is no indication of the truth-slinging opposition leader from the Gillard era.
As if in attempt to prove just how much honesty is worth, the voting public in Australia have responded to what they see as the betrayal of their trust. Abbott’s dramatic drop in poll popularity was faster than any other prime minister to date. The prime minister has responded by saying that he is not in politics to win a popularity contest, an ironic turn of phrase when one considers that elections are, by and large, political popularity contests, but opinion on the budget itself is equally as bad. A huge majority of the Australian public said the budget did not adhere to principles of fairness, a key component for the land of the Fair Go, nor did the public think the budget would be good for Australia. Even Abbott’s policies do not get any approval from constituents becoming the cherry on top of his unpopular-opinion-sundae.
There is one small glimmer of hope, however, and that is that the budget may not be as bad for the country as everyone believes. The budget will be saving the government money and minimizing the deficit and national debt. Many of the reforms the budget effects will be seen in the medium or long-term rather than the short-term, but that is not the primary focus of analysis, despite Abbott and his ministers’ attempt to insist on it. The budget could magically put the budget in the black and it would still be unpopular with the people. This is not a failing of focus on the part of the voters, but a reflection of Abbott’s own focus on political honesty and his consequent lack thereof.
Tony Abbott made honesty and promise keeping the central focus, not just of his campaign, but of his very political career. While he verbally highlighted why it was so important during his time in opposition, his short time as prime minister has provided an object lesson on that same topic. It is not just actual honesty that people care about, though that is certainly important. Instead, it is the appearance of having honesty that keeps people happy. Abbott has failed miserably to keep up the facade of following through on his promises or at least of shifting blame sufficiently onto his political foes to placate angry voters. No one is buying his pitch that the current budget is Labor’s fault, not because it is not true, but because the more important issue to them is the somewhat superficial picture of being able to trust their political leader’s word. Tony Abbott has only been prime minister for eight months and he has a few years left to go, but if he is smart he will remember this lesson in the necessity of honest or his future career in politics may be cut short at the next election.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury