Illustration: John Spooner.
What would an Abbott government be like? Last week our probable prime minister gave us clues with two surprising statements: an Abbott government would cut off funding of public transport projects, and allow the earnings of retirees with millions in super funds to go untaxed.
It was surprising, because Abbott had been focused on making himself a small target, and his poll rating has shown the benefit. By contrast, these expose him to new lines of attack.
Abbott's loyalty is to private schools, private hospitals, private transport and to private provision of government services.
People in the cities want public transport improved. Since the Commonwealth has all the money, they want it to pull its weight in financing new projects. And when Abbott plans to scrap Labor's tax breaks for 3.6 million people with low super savings, there's a whiff of class warfare in him simultaneously defending a tax exemption for those with very large savings.
By and large, Coalition policies remain a work in progress. Few details have been released. Even the book Abbott waves on television, Our Plan: Real Solutions for all Australians, is mainly a statement of aspirations. It sets out very few concrete policies, and most of those come from his 2009 book Battlelines.
Abbott rightly points out in that book that we rarely know in advance what a new government will be like. Few in 1975 would have expected the Fraser government to keep as much of Whitlam's legacy as it did; few in 1983 would have tipped the Hawke government to become the path breaker for micro-economic reform. He might have added that few anticipated the global economic slumps that helped undermine the Whitlam and Rudd/Gillard governments.
But Battlelines (soon to reappear in a new edition), and Abbott's years as Opposition Leader, provide strong leads on how he might tackle the challenges he would face as PM.
Like John Howard, Abbott is a mixture of tribal ideologue and political pragmatist. Howard's success came from his remarkable ability to balance the two. As I wrote in 2005, he was ''a man of extraordinary self-discipline and patience, who listens to critics, weighs up arguments carefully, and judges shrewdly how far he can push things''. His tribe was small business, but part of him was the tracksuit-wearing patriot who wanted to be (and was) prime minister for all of us.
Abbott is different. His tribe is a smaller one: affluent Catholic traditionalists. Since student days, he has defined himself more by what he is against than by what he is for. He is for the monarchy, and the church, and traditional values, but he decided long ago not to tie his political career to them. Howard once called him an ''arch-pragmatist'', and he is. Rule one for an Abbott government will be: do no harm to his chances of winning the next election.
Where Howard and Abbott also differ, however, is that, as yet, Abbott has shown no desire to be a leader for all of us. If he had that instinct, he would have handled the superannuation and public transport issues differently. With one important exception - indigenous Australians - he has shown no empathy with the groups Labor and the Greens represent. If they propose doing something, such as tackling global warming, his natural instinct is to oppose it.
Abbott too is a work in progress: he has grown into an informed, discriminating supporter of tackling indigenous problems, and he has the ability to develop other empathies if he chooses to. But as Battlelines reveals, he sees issues through a prism of private sector good/public sector bad. His loyalty is to private schools, private hospitals, private transport and to private provision of government services.
The most startling proposal in his book is that the federal government should unilaterally take over state schools and state hospitals, and turn them into privately run institutions handed out by tender, much as he privatised employment services through the Job Network.
But state governments actually built and paid for those schools and hospitals. They own them, and if Canberra were to take them over, it would have to pay massive compensation. Second, the constitution clearly provides that education and health are run by the states.
Abbott proposes getting around that by a referendum to authorise Canberra to take over any area it wants to. Battlelines even includes a draft bill to do so. He is serious.
Abbott would not be the first PM who wants to get rid of the states. Whitlam, Hawke and Howard all wanted Australia to have one government, backed by regional authorities. Rudd and Gillard at times treated state governments with contempt. But none would have termed the federal system ''Australia's biggest political problem'', as Abbott does, or proposed such a high-handed solution.
Flash forward to Real Solutions. It pledges: ''We will put local communities and experts, not unaccountable bureaucrats in charge of [hospital boards] … We will put parents, principals and school communities, not unaccountable bureaucrats, in charge of [school boards].''
We'll see what the states, their owners, have to say about that. And would we elect hospital and school boards, as in the US, or would they be political appointees, perks handed out as payola in return for favours?
The Coalition's economic policies remain largely a blank sheet; it has had nothing to say about the high dollar, the two-speed economy, the collapse in the revenue base, or what will follow the mining boom. Yet these issues could dominate its term in government.
It has pledged to cut income tax and company tax, and repeal the carbon tax and mining tax - while spending more on parental leave payments for higher-income workers, and beefing up Work for the Dole and the Green Corps, etc. Yet the only savings I spotted in Real Solutions are to cut under-30s off the dole if there are labouring jobs vacant in their area, and to throw people off disability benefits if their disabilities are ''unlikely to be permanent''. That won't get the budget back in surplus.
If Abbott holds back his policies until the campaign, it leaves the way open for Labor to run its own scare campaign by filling in the blanks for us.
Tim Colebatch is economics editor of The Age.