Like a dead fish, a paralysed government soon flips upside down in the water. What is important becomes trivial and what is trivial takes centre stage. Lenore Taylor nicely points out how issues that the public cares about have been side-lined in favour of an issue about which the public does not, the timing of the election.

While a double dissolution was supposed to be the means to get blocked bills passed, we now have Parliament being called back so it can block bills as a means of getting a double dissolution. The move has been hailed as a masterstroke. But it is risky because everything is being managed for internal reasons and so appears to everyone else upside down and makes no sense. It might be true that any equivocation from Turnbull on calling the date might threaten his leadership but what does it say about his leadership and the government he leads?

This is a government, and leadership, in paralysis and more fixated on managing internal pressures rather than external ones. No wonder some are comparing Turnbull’s “Continuity and Change” to Gillard’s “Moving Forward”. Both might be ways of justifying internal messes to themselves, but mean nothing to anyone else.

Niki Savva’s book shows us how we got here. Savva repeats many of the explanations that have been given for the short life of the Abbott government, but the revelations in the book show how little sense they make.

Savva’s puts most of the blame for what went wrong on internal reasons that will appear trivial to those outside Capital Hill, especially the dysfunction of the Prime Minister’s Office, and between Abbott and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin.

But what, say, about the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who very quickly came under pressure as well? This is not usual. Those like Swan and Costello could last in the job for years. Given its central role, the Treasurer running into trouble is usually a sign that the whole foundation of the government is starting to fall apart, as happened with Kerin in the last months of the eight year Hawke government. But here we had the two key offices of the government falling apart in a matter of months – something that can’t be just explained by Credlin.

Much of the blame is put on That Budget, which Savva reminds us was a disaster:

The budget on 13 May [2014] bent or broke almost every promise the Coalition had made … As an equity measure, there was a deficit levy of 2 per cent on people earning $ 180,000 or more. There was a predictably ferocious reaction to the budget, including from premiers and chief ministers over the projected health and education cuts.

It not only damaged Hockey, but the rest of the government as well. Ministers, like Peter Dutton, for example, were left with “the impossible task of trying to sell the co-payment/ Medical Research Fund.”

There’s been an awful lot of re-writing of history about the Budget, not least by Savva herself. A few days after the Budget, Savva was much kinder about it in The Australian:

Conscious of the fragility of the economy, Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann correctly opted for early use of a scalpel rather than a chainsaw, and have done what they could to spread the burden.

As for the co-payment/Medical Research Fund idea, which was supposed to be an “impossible task” to sell, Savva seemed to have not too much trouble selling it herself:

The fund is smart not only politically, but as an investment in an area where Australia has traditionally excelled. If we are unable to build cars the world wants to buy, we have proved repeatedly that we can develop the vaccines or treatments it needs.

If it goes ahead, linked as it is to the Medicare co-payment, the fund will sustain high-end jobs with the potential to earn billions in export dollars long after this government has gone.

Savva did acknowledge such a tough Budget might not be popular, but a few days later on Insiders seemed relaxed about that as well – noting that while the voters thought it made them worse off, she pointed to the 40% of voters thinking it good for the country as being good news for the government.

This confidence that voters would put aside their own personal pain for the good of the country was spelled out by Savva in The Australian piece:

At its core, the budget is the most concerted effort by a conservative government to change the country’s culture. The government has done what it had to do to begin the process of arresting and reversing the notion that it is possible to have the best of everything, all of it, from birth to death, at little or no cost.

Now, in Road to Ruin, far from the government having “done what it had to do” to change the culture with the Budget, we find instead:

everything about the first budget was simply bad: there was no consistent, coherent explanation of the problem before the budget.

What was supposed to provide that coherent explanation was the Commission of Audit released a couple of weeks before, which advocated the biggest overhaul of the welfare system for 70 years. It was supported by those like Gerard Henderson as “good for the conversation”. This was part of the softening process that was supposed to be part of the government’s first Budget, such as Savva pointed out for that of her former boss Costello in 1996.

To be fair to Savva, she was hardly alone in being sanguine over the Budget. She was reflecting the orthodoxy across the political spectrum, especially in the right, that the public could be educated over what was necessary for the good of the economy, like they were under Hawke/Keating in the 1980s and in Costello’s first Budget in 1996.

Such education of the voters is a myth. The electorate wasn’t “educated” in the 1980s over economic reform, they simply had nowhere else to go – except drift away from Labor during the Hawke years, with the only tick up being when Labor took an “anti-reform” position in 1993. As for the Coalition, while the first Costello Budget went down reasonably, the government then barely scraped back two years later, then languished even further until early 2001 when Howard did a U-turn and Costello became one of the biggest spending peacetime Treasurers in Australian political history.

On top of this delusion about the public’s appetite for cuts, the first Abbott Budget was especially a car crash that neither the government nor much of the political commentary saw coming because of a confusion over the government’s mandate that Savva shares. For example, she repeats the explanation given at the time that one big problem with the Budget was that it was seen as breaking the promises made before the election. For Savva, instrumental to this was the interview Abbott made on SBS a few days before the 2013 election when he promised no cuts in education, health, pensions etc.

But those promises hardly changed public perceptions or drove the government’s mandate. As Savva noted, “probably the only people watching SBS news that Friday night were the dozens of operatives housed in the campaign headquarters of the major parties.” And neither Labor nor the Coalition had an interest in publicising it. There was a widespread expectation that the new government would bring in cuts (which is why Labor made its campaign around it) and that the mild cuts detailed by Robb before the last election were not what was coming.

So if the public were expecting cuts, why did it go so wrong when they were made? Because expectation of cuts is not the same thing as a mandate. In reality, the government was not given a mandate to do much at all, rather it was a negative mandate against Labor and reflected the electorate’s deeply negative view of both parties at the time.

This confusion between a negative mandate for Labor with a positive one for the Coalition is unsurprising for someone like Savva who is close to the Coalition and would like to interpret the 2013 victory in a positive way and so needs to rewrite her view on the Budget to explain why things went wrong. But it is most sharply seen in the central premise and confusion of the book, the relationship between Credlin and Abbott.

Savva repeats the line that Abbott (and his partnership with Credlin) was a highly effective force in opposition, but did not adapt in government. Let’s just look at this idea of Abbott as the brilliant opposition leader a little more closely.

We are seriously being asked to believe that a Minister of mediocre political skills in the Howard government (especially, as Savva reminds us, during the 2007 election campaign), who then became an equally unimpressive front bencher in opposition – so much so that he was persuaded by his colleagues to withdraw his candidacy for the first leadership race in 2007, didn’t bother with the second in 2008, then persuaded to withdraw his candidacy again for the third in 2009, before then doing a U-turn and putting his hat in the ring when Hockey wobbled on the ETS, because the Liberals were in such crisis they turned to one of its least effective politicians to protect the brand. Then suddenly this mediocre politician emerges like a butterfly from the chrysalis as a highly effective opposition leader seeing off two Labor leaders, before finally winning an election and then – lo behold! – re-emerging once again as politically tone deaf Tony.

If this scenario is true, then we must truly be in the Golden Age of Opposition Leaders because after having “seen off” two Labor leaders, Abbott has now been succeeded by Bill Shorten, who “saw off” Abbott in the shortest time of any Liberal leader after Harold Holt, making Shorten the most effective Labor opposition leader ever, second only to the Portsea rip.

Here’s an alternative explanation: that the story of 2009 – 2013 was not the brilliance of Abbott as an opposition leader but the implosion of Labor, not only in the dumping of Rudd but, more importantly, in the failure of the power brokers and faction leaders that got rid of him to make a case for government and so remind us why they had to hide behind Rudd to get into power in the first place.

From this point of view, suddenly everything becomes clear, and what appears a rather unseemly relationship between Abbott and his Chief of Staff becomes much more explicable. For what we have is a mediocre politician floating to the very top, firstly because of the crisis in his own party, then in Labor, and a Chief of Staff who had to manage him tightly as a result.

In fact Savva frequently notes what Credlin had to do to manage a mediocre performer:

The tenor of their working relationship was set early. Unusually for a chief of staff, she accompanied him almost everywhere. Normally, chiefs of staff stayed back in the office, ensuring that policy formulation was proceeding. Political and press staff usually formed the travel corps. The reason, according to one former senior staffer, was simple. She did not trust him out on his own. Nor could anybody else be trusted to make sure he stayed disciplined and on message.


A number of times, in typical fashion, she would yell at Abbott that without her he would not have gotten where he was, or that he would be nothing without her. Those who witnessed it said she was in his face, wagging her finger. Those who heard it — well, they could hear loud and clear. The truly sad part was that he believed it.

What is striking is how Savva refuses to take this spelling out of the nature of their political relationship at face value, because to do so would require acknowledging that the Coalition is in government essentially by default. It is unsurprising that Abbott’s Liberal colleagues might be reluctant to admit the same, and some can only fill in the gap by surmising they are having an affair.

The importance of Credlin’s role comes not just from having to manage a weak politician. Barrie Cassidy noted recently that the overweening control of Abbott’s PMO was similar to that of Rudd, which is not surprising as there were similar problems.

While Rudd was a far more effective politician than Abbott, he was detached from the party, as Savva shows Abbott was from his. Abbott’s ideological bent naturally distances him from a party that has almost always been run on much more pragmatic lines. But Abbott’s taking the leadership over an ideological issue is a sign how much it is now looking for some glue that will bind. What is also striking is how much that glue is needed, with Savva highlighting casual acts of disloyalty (such as Brough on co-payments) and skipping over the more serious ones, such as the later Cabinet leaks (where Morrison is notable in absence). Such detachment from a fragmented and disunited party necessitates the type of tight central control seen in both Abbott and Rudd’s offices.

Despite having been published a few weeks ago, there is already an air of redundancy about the book. Abbott, Credlin and Hockey, who were all supposed to be the cause of the Coalition government’s problems, have gone, but those problems remain. The absence of any positive mandate has meant that Abbott’s fumblings have been replaced by Turnbull’s drift. Turnbull has inherited Abbott’s detachment to an undisciplined party and it is no surprise that we are seeing the re-emergence of a “tight circle” that doesn’t even include the Treasurer. Like Rudd in 2010, Turnbull has neither the strength in the party nor in the public to take on his internal detractors, and it is unlikely that an election will change that.

In this becalmed state, no wonder once again Abbott’s presence is seen as awkward, and a role for a mediocre politician must be found in a campaign that he was dumped for because his own party thought he would lose. Whatever Abbott’s lack of people skills, it seems the Liberals, and Australian politics, are just stuck with him.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 28 March 2016.

Filed under Political figures, State of the parties

Tags: , ,


14 responses to “Book review: Niki Savva’s Road to Ruin

  1. Marilyn on 28th March 2016 2:16 pm

    With all the brutalising of Rudd no-one seems to remember the GFC which made his position rather unique because before the GFC when he had the economic committee only to deal with he was all inclusive with the introduction of the community cabinets.

    Honestly, writers and scribes need to remember this important difference, plus the fact that Rudd did good stuff even during the GFC – like increase pensions, start the NBN (which Malcolm trashed), got us out of Iraq, computers for schools and so on.

  2. Andrew Elder on 28th March 2016 9:27 pm

    The redundancy comes from being smart after the event.

    Savva, and people who have shilled hard for this book like Cassidy and Laurie Oakes, should have foreseen what Credlin-Abbott would have been like in government. They’ve had decades of experience, they’d seen Gotto-Gorton and Morosi-Cairns in real time, and they have no excuse for at least raising questions about Credlin-Abbott.

    The press gallery had wanted a government with a clear majority. After the Coalition had a clear majority in 2004, and Labor had a clear majority in 2007, the 2010 result came as a rejection to the political class and to the press gallery’s ability to not only forecast but tip the result. Laura Tingle explicitly asked for a clear majority for either party a few weeks ago.

    By 2011-12 the gallery realised Labor would never deliver a clear majority in 2013. Had they scrutinised the Coalition closely in 2011-12 the public may well have returned another pox-on-both result.

    They overlook the fact that a clear Coalition majority since 2013 hasn’t delivered good or stable government. They can’t quite believe Labor would deliver such a result, but some in the gallery are warming to the idea; if they do, they will run hard in favour of Shorten, not examining him too closely because any majoritarian outcome is to be preferred over a hung parliament.

    As you point out, the decay of the major parties’ support bases means clear and strong majorities are less likely going forward. This also makes the assumptions under which the press gallery, and the media’s relationship with politics, unstable. It is complicated by the fact the media aren’t holding up their end of the bargain in delivering the mass audiences the politicians need.

    All of this makes Savva’s work seem petty indeed. I’ve put in a reservation for it through my public library: I am 22nd in the queue.

  3. Puffy TMD on 28th March 2016 10:49 pm

    Savva is supposed to be an insider as a member of the Canberra Press Gallery, so why did she not tell us about Abbott’s shortcomings and disfunction?

    Savva, and the rest of the CPG and the ABC political reporters, were too busy swooning over Abbott when he was Opposition Leader to do any credible analysis. The lot of them should be sacked for deriliction of duty

  4. Stan Ryan on 29th March 2016 6:31 am

    Interesting analysis of the last decade of Australian politics, shame we don’t get this in real time. Many people could see Abbot was a mug playing Australia for mugs, yet he still won. Many blame this on the “dysfunction” in the Labor party, yet their legislative record proves otherwise. I blame the febrile nature of the press gallery and their failure to provide insight into Rudd’s personality disorder and the fact that Gillard was too polite to do so.

  5. Dianne on 29th March 2016 7:13 am

    Well done Shrike.

    Savva missed the story: the state of our political parties and media. Instead Credlin has been rammed in the stocks.

    I would have been more interested to read Savva’s personal account of why she first welcomed that deeply ideological budget as an engine for cultural change only to criticise it so ferociously in her book. And not so much later.

    Why did she change her mind? A reflective account may have shed light on why the press gallery, with a few exceptions, failed to notice that Tony Abbott may not have been PM material. Or if they did they were not letting on. As Andrew Elder has pointed many times, some of the gallery members have seen Abbott up close for decades. Alarm bells anyone?

    Andrew, I am interested in your comments about hung parliaments but I wonder if our contemporary infatuation with The a Individual, particularly colourful ones, usually manufactured for easy consumption, also plays a larger role. A surfing, cycling, trainee priest who eats raw onions, with the skin on and who says odd things provides good and easy copy. Certainly there were a lot of ‘look-over-here’ moments during the Abbott era which you have recorded in your blogs.

    As usual what is happening in the US primaries is brighter, noisier and more colourful than our Canberra capers.

    I am struck though by the constant reference by disaffected Republicans to the ‘Washington cartel’. I am reminded of language used by millenarian cults of the 1970s.

    It seems to me that political parties have destroyed themselves. In effect they have told us for 30 years that they are bad for us and that we should embrace ‘small government’ and then ‘much small government’ and that they should ‘get out of the way’ because private industry is much better at running things. Whoops.

    Tax of course is a very bad thing. A very bad thing.

    They don’t believe in themselves why should we?

  6. Carolyn van Langenberg on 29th March 2016 7:32 am

    The road to ruin showed that we are poorly served by Canberra – as if we didn’t know.
    Stan is right in saying that many people saw Abbott as a mug before he was elected. ALP lost government, Abbott winning by default. ABbott was incapable of being a pragmatic and insightful leader when he was elected President of SRC at Sydney Uni, and he has not changed. He is pugilistic, a waste of time.
    My criticism of The road to ruin is Niki Savva’s irritating opposition to a future ALP government, asserting repeatedly that that would be disastrous. I fail to be convinced that an ALP government will be worse than LibNat governments that don’t realise we live in the 21st century and aren’t all Christian fundamentalists afraid of our adult genitalia.

  7. Ross Martin on 29th March 2016 10:46 am

    I don’t understand why people are saying the press gallery should have forewarned us about Tony Abbott. The warning signs were there for years. Anyone remember when he challenged Beazley to slog it out in the boxing ring? As mentioned in the article ,his own party never had much faith in him. It was always going to end this way.

  8. Tony Warton on 29th March 2016 11:36 am

    All of the above comments, and the interminable review itself, demonstrate the truth of the saying that we get the politicians we deserve.

  9. Book review: Niki Savva’s Road to Ruin :The Piping Shrike | lmrh5 on 31st March 2016 7:17 pm
  10. Riccardo on 5th April 2016 3:25 pm

    “It seems to me that political parties have destroyed themselves. In effect they have told us for 30 years that they are bad for us and that we should embrace ‘small government’ and then ‘much small government’ and that they should ‘get out of the way’ because private industry is much better at running things. Whoops.”

    A very good point but I will add: People confuse Money and Power. Both are good to have, and of course each one can agenda the other – to a point. But they are not the same thing. And the difference between the two can be more acutely felt in this Convict-Agricultural-Mining Colony than in the Old World.

    In societies like the US room is explicitly made for people to be ‘entrepreneurial’ or just plain greedy. Either way, accummulating massive amounts of wealth is not seen as socially harmful because the game is not seen as zero sum.

    But power is always zero or negative sum.

    Arguing for market solutions is fine when your polity is framed around enriching all, the already rich and the yet-to-be.

    But in our polity, it doesn’t serve this purpose, and is only seen to be about enhancing the power of the already powerful.

    Hawke and Keating took the ‘quick wins’ and plucked that part of the goose with minimum hissing, but now you come up against real power. Arguing for ‘reform’ just means arguing for the powerful to become more so.

  11. Riccardo on 5th April 2016 3:26 pm

    above – engender, not agenda

  12. Mercurial on 10th April 2016 7:15 am

    Oh I dunno Dianne, why Savva changed her mind. Something to do with her employer, perhaps?

  13. Dianne on 10th April 2016 8:23 am

    I have just listened to the latest expose of Australia’s rorted vocational training industry. Catch up with Paddy Manning’s report on Radio National. Astonishing stuff.

    We are being governed by ideological zealots who believe that the Market is an all powerful God. A Golden Calf.

    In my opinion Savva’s Road to Ruin better describes the trajectory this country is on.

    Riccardo I agree with you.

  14. Frosty on 11th April 2016 11:25 am

    Good points by PS and commenters. I agree with Dianne – why do people who don’t believe in Govt want to be part of it? Hockey was so frightened of going back to the law that he wangled the Washington job. Abbott, Morrison, Abetz, Andrews – none of them have worked outside politics in decades. Ditto Pyne, Briggs and Minchin – all coddled through SA Lib Party admin jobs. New arrivals include IPA proxies Wilson and Paterson. Hunt and Frydenberg have barely worked in the private sector and they all want to be in govt to make it smaller – makes no sense to me.
    Meanwhile, the “Leave it to the Market” school seeks ways to explain and excuse the rorts by the banks, the Arrium/Whyalla failure from gross mismanagement, the tax evasion by multinational parasites, the rorting occasioned by replacing govt TAFES with private “for profit” businesses and so on.

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