Everyone has a piece of advice for Tony Abbott; some of it could even help
Accusations that the prime minister is not listening are coming from all quarters, including within the ministry
In the final sitting weeks of the winter session, Tony Abbott held
an unusual meeting of his full ministry during which he was asked by a
junior minister how the government was intending to deal with the
widespread view that it had broken election promises. The prime
minister’s response was forceful and absolute. The government had not
broken a single promise, he insisted. There was nothing to deal with, no
case to answer.
The meeting was obviously before this week’s
broken promise about changes to racial discrimination laws, but well and
truly after the government had, in the view of most people outside the
cabinet room and at least some in it, broken a raft of other election
promises on tax, health, education and pensions.
The story is
being told as evidence the prime minister isn’t listening, or at least
that he isn’t listening to enough people. The Racial Discrimination Act
backflip might be a sign of change, an indication that eventually, under
extreme political duress, he can change course. No one is quite sure.
easy to give governments gratuitous advice from the sidelines. Every
time politicians purse their lips and say something terse about
“commentators” you can almost see the thought bubble saying “I’d like to
see a bloody journalist do this job”.
But after almost a year it
does not seem gratuitous to observe that the Abbott government has
indeed broken several promises, has failed to deliver other policies and
is battling unnecessary ideological diversions and internal
It has axed the carbon tax, but has as yet no
alternative policy to reduce greenhouse emissions. It has (almost)
stopped the boats, but has paid an enormous price in the form of
strained diplomatic relations and human misery for those asylum seekers
who have become collateral damage in the crackdown. It has a better
record on foreign affairs and trade, but much of its domestic agenda
remains mired in the same bog of poor explanation and parliamentary
dissent that sunk much of the former Labor government’s agenda. And
that’s before you get to the bits that are, at least in the view of this
sidelines commentator, ideologically-driven poor policy.
immediate problem is the utterly friendless budget – but its political
failure leads straight back to the deeper problems.
outset there has been enormous disquiet within the Coalition about the
iron grip of Abbott’s office, and particularly his chief of staff, Peta
Credlin. The initial anger was about the centralised process for staff
appointments. Multiple ministers were angry that their choices for
senior staff were overruled by a central committee. But since the most
frequent sticking point was whether a proposed appointee had sufficient
experience, it seemed there could have been two sides to those stories,
particularly given the likely pushback against a woman exercising a
chief of staff’s considerable powers.
Since then, however, the complaints about the Abbott office have become broader and louder.
advisers and bureaucrats complain about backlogs of documents and
briefings requiring approval or decision. I made an FOI request to try
to substantiate these complaints one way or the other, asking for
workload reports from the prime minister’s office detailing the number
of outstanding documents for decision. After three months, the request
was rejected for reasons including that releasing the figures “would not
significantly contribute to any debate on a matter of public
importance” but would have “a substantial adverse effect on the
management of workflow in the prime minister’s office.”
from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade complain that public
servants have not been taken into many important prime ministerial
meetings, sometimes not even note-takers, leaving DFAT to try to piece
together what happened by asking political advisers, who have not taken
detailed notes. The secretary of the foreign affairs department, Peter
Varghese, reportedly flew home early from Abbott’s trip to China. And
eyebrows were raised when, before Abbott’s crucial meeting with US
president Barack Obama, numerous newspapers reported an observation from
“within the prime minister’s travelling delegation” that Obama was “the
lamest of lame duck” presidents.
Most critically, a chorus of
senior sources claim the prime minister’s office does not seek, take, or
listen to, political advice.
Some of the country’s best-known
conservative commentators are giving theirs anyway, echoing what members
of the government are saying privately about the budget dilemma.
has concluded that “as a result of its own poor planning and execution,
the government has pretty much lost every argument on the budget” and
advises that unless it ditches the paid parental leave scheme, the
policy will become the “loaded answer” every time opposition parties are
challenged to say where they would find alternative budget savings.”
Dennis Shanahan blames
the treasurer, saying “the leitmotiv of Joe Hockey’s first months as
Treasurer has become that of an aloof plutocrat puffing on a cigar,
well-off, politically distant from everyday life, indulgent and
Chris Kenny reckons
the government is “stuck in a fairness argument they invited upon
themselves but can never win”, arguing it is unreasonable to make
“dollar for dollar comparisons” because transfer payments to low and
middle income earners come from taxes paid by the rich.
government’s own budget strategy to date has involved endlessly
repeating the same argument, only loudly and much more slowly, kind of
like a gormless traveller trying to make themselves understood by
someone who doesn’t speak their language.
The argument – that
there is a serious need to take action now to rein in government
spending in the medium term – has serious merit. But it does not mean
that savings have to be made in exactly this way.
released last week under freedom of information confirmed economic
modelling by the national centre for social and economic modelling and separate modelling by the Australian National University,
and they all showed that low-income earners were hit hardest by budget
measures and high-income earners would feel very little pain, which you
could also work out pretty quickly just by reading the main points
Hockey took up the Kenny argument in response – arguing
that the budget should not actually be judged by the incremental
difference it made to people’s lives but rather by the whole
pre-existing tax and transfer system, including the fact that our tax
system remains progressive and elderly people still get the pension.
voters do not judge budgets in this way. They see a progressive tax
system and the pension as integral parts of our system and they have
already decided, quite decisively, that this budget is unfair. (That
judgement is now also tainting their view of Hockey. This week’s
Essential poll showed 35% approved of the job he was doing, and 44%
disapproved, a change in his net rating from +17 to -9 since the
question was asked last November).
The government does seem to
have realised its only option is to salvage what it can. Hockey is
travelling the country to speak to Senate crossbenchers and both the
education minister, Christopher Pyne, and the health minister, Peter
Dutton, have signalled the start of real negotiations.
ditched some ideologically-driven unpopular ideas (like the changes to
the Racial Discrimination Act) it grimly clings to other very bad ones
that are tainting perceptions of its budget and hampering its passage,
particularly paid parental leave and the plan for young unemployed only
to get unemployment benefits for six months of the year.
Abbott won respect in many quarters for his handling of the MH17
disaster, the government’s attempted segue into a continued national
security debate around anti-terror laws came badly unstuck when the
attorney general, George Brandis, got himself into a terrible muddle
It proves that even when politics is centred on a
traditional Coalition strength like national security, it can still self
harm with poor policy detail, explanations and political process.
the first year anniversary in less than a month, Abbott would dearly
like to add some successes to his political scorecard. But to do so the
government needs to deal with its underlying problems. And that’s a view
shared within its own ranks, not just advice from the sidelines.