Tony Abbott’s promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was a signature pre-election pledge that delighted the conservative base.
Once in government, however, the untested promise ran into a tidal wave of opposition and united a broad coalition of ethnic and community groups, from Jews to Arabs and everyone in between.
Tuesday’s decision to, finally, dump the policy was a captain’s call by the Prime Minister after months of political pain, leaks, public protest and backbench backlash.
And, as the first anniversary of the Abbott government approaches, it is the clearest signal yet that a more pragmatic Prime Minister and government are emerging.
Abbott – the man who argued against Work Choices in the Howard cabinet – has form as a pragmatist rather than as the ideologue portrayed by his political opponents.
In a party room debate n May 2011, for example, the now Prime Minister and Liberal powerbroker Nick Minchin squared off over – of all things – a Labor-proposed excise increase on alternative fuels.
In the heat of the party room debate, Abbott declared that facing a choice between ''policy purity and pragmatic political pragmatism, I'll take pragmatism every time''.
The MH17 tragedy, too, allowed Australians to see the Prime Minister in a different light.
Rather than the political pugilist who burst out of the blocks a year ago, launching a Royal Commissions into trade unions, overseeing the exit of Holden and Toyota and stopping the boats, a different side of Abbott came to fore.
Long-time Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor, in a recent Australian Financial Review column, argued the false and divisive constructs of politics suited “shock-jocks on the right and outrage merchants on the left” but that this had led “many decent-minded conservative centrists to question their beliefs”.
He tells Fairfax Media that the political centre “should not be a vacuum, defined by the extremes at each end of political debate”.
“The centre must be defined by a visible presence in the middle, not by artificial extremes,’’ he says.
What Australians are now seeing is “the Prime Minister doing what he does best and staking his position in the ground. In this case, firmly in the centre”.
With $40 billion in budget savings and revenue measures yet to pass the Senate that pragmatism has come not a moment too soon.
Cranky upper house cross-bench senators, many of whom are still finding their feet in the upper house, are protesting or blocking everything from the winding back of mining tax spending measures to signature budget measures such as the re-starting of fuel excise indexation, the $7 GP co-payment, increased higher education charges and pensions changes.
Challenged on his decision to dump 18C during the week, Abbott said it had put offside migrant communities whose support his government needed as a raft of new counter-terrorism was prepared.
“Our intention is to work as effectively as we can with the communities of Australia to ensure we take a Team Australia approach,'' he said, referring to the counter-terrorism proposals.
But the PM brushed aside suggestions his paid parental leave scheme might be dumped, a scheme Fairfax Media recently revealed the government would delay legislating until early 2015, though the suggestion clearly touched a nerve.
''You're trying to say the current government is as bad as the Gillard government, we're not. We are a government that takes its commitments seriously,'' Abbott said.
If the PM can’t quite yet bring himself to admit his PPL scheme, which is widely disliked in the party room, could be delayed or dumped there are growing signs the Abbott government will compromise on other budget measures.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne told the National Press Club during the week his higher education package would be presented to the parliament in its entirety but that some aspects of it, such as tying students debts to the long-term bond rate and not indexation, may not survive.
Health Minister Peter Dutton has also indicated some groups, such as the chronically ill and nursing home patients, could be exempted from the $7 GP fee. Treasurer Joe Hockey, after taking a much-criticised holiday in Fiji during the first sitting of the new Senate, has spent the past two weeks criss-crossing the country meeting with the cross bench to make the case for his budget.
Those close to the PM, however, argue that Abbott the pragmatic politician never went away.
They argue that the unruly upper house will never be “clean” and point to the dispatch of Hockey, a phalanx of portfolio ministers and treasury officials to offer briefings to anybody who wants one.
“There is a plan but we aren't broadcasting it,’’ one says.
“We are prepared to make amendments, probably, as long as the majority of savings and revenue measures get through.”
Another minister observes that while “all the commentary has been there is no room to move, the reality is that you work through these things and engage with people. It's about working in a calm fashion to get through things.”
Some in the Coalition describe a shift away from “tactics” and towards “strategy”.
Whatever the case, the move to dump the repeal of section 18C could prove to be the first green shoots for a government that desperately needs to turn around its standing in the polls.