Monday, 28 March 2016
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  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