Captain Abbott steers into choppy waters

With an ill-judged budget, errors on its detail and ongoing political missteps, Tony Abbott is losing what’s left of his colleagues’ respect.

Most parliamentarians enter politics because they want to make a difference. They soon find out the only real way to bring about change is to be in government.

There are exceptions of course, such as when MPs hold the balance of power in a minority government or the Senate, but in most cases the power to make and deliver policies lies in the hands of the politicians perched on the Treasury benches.

So having attained the golden prize, there is an understandable reluctance to let it go again. Even the faintest whiff of an electoral threat can be enough to set the hares racing.

This goes some way to explaining why anxious ministers and backbenchers are whingeing to the media about the deeply unpopular federal budget, and agitating for changes to be made to the way things are run on the Good Ship Coalition.

“A stinking carcass” and a “pollywaffle in the public pool” are two reported denunciations by Government members of their own budget. According to the same media report, even a leadership “shake-up” is being considered as an option sometime in the future.

This is because, like Kevin Rudd before him, Tony Abbott’s value to his colleagues is entirely measured by his capacity to keep them in government.

Both men were the begrudging choice of desperate MPs reduced to trying anything to find electoral success. Neither had a loyal following within their parliamentary parties, nor did their colleagues particularly respect them.

In Rudd’s case, any remaining regard vanished when, after presiding over an increasingly dysfunctional government, he mishandled the politics of the Copenhagen climate change meeting and abandoned action to address the greatest moral challenge of our time. The Rudd government’s opinion poll ratings plummeted, nervous Labor MPs began to chitter, and the rest is history.

Abbott too is losing what is left of his colleagues’ respect. Political indulgences like the Paid Parental Leave scheme and the reinstatement of knights and dames were unsettling at best, but now that lack of political nous is manifested on a grand scale with the internally contradictory budget (deep spending cuts AND excessive spending increases), its cack-handed PR campaign and avoidable stumbles on the budget’s details.

Yet instead of finding ways to right the ship, blame-shifting has become the Government’s new political past-time. One Liberal Party faction has been briefing the media that Treasurer Hockey isn’t up to the task or is captured by his department, while others have emphasised that Abbott presided over all the key budget decision-making processes.

One of the most pointed leaks has been the claim that Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin declared “this was a budget she would take to an election”, implying that she was complicit in the lack of political judgment shown in casting and selling the budget.

Critics of Credlin’s command and control style are also using the budget to discredit her centralised approach, most likely in the hope of dismantling it.

Former Costello staffer and now well-connected political columnist, Niki Savva, commented just after the budget that:

Overall, the budget has the mark of a prime minister who accepts he will never be popular, who will struggle to regain the trust of his fellow Australians and who should count himself lucky if, at the end of it all, he wins their respect … The pity of it is that the Coalition did not properly alert people to its intentions before the election. Abbott is paying the price now for a brutally effective campaign to destroy Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, a campaign orchestrated by those closest to him whose mission was to get him there no matter what, then worry about the rest later. [Emphasis added]

To make sure we were in no doubt as to her meaning, Savva said in a television interview this past weekend that Abbott is right to say the Australian people wouldn’t necessarily want to see another prime minister cut down by their own party, but that he should remember why Rudd and Gillard were removed.

Savva recounted that in addition to not living up to their commitments, Rudd had a dysfunctional office and government, while Gillard just wouldn’t listen.

She concluded by emphasising the leadership lessons Abbott should take from Rudd and Gillard’s political demise: change the way he and his office (Credlin) operates, and address his MPs’ anxiety and unrest.

The first test of whether Abbott is prepared to heed such advice will be this week’s sitting of the House of Representatives.

Ministers will be negotiating with the minor parties and other crossbench senators on legislation the Government believes has a better chance of being passed before the new Senate commences on July 1. This is when the balance of power shifts from the Greens to the broader crossbench.

It will be at this point that we see how many of the budget decisions are re-cast as mere ambit claims and negotiated into more electorally palatable forms.

Even if voter angst over the budget does subside over time, the real concern for Abbott should be the extent to which his perceived competence has taken a hit. The combination of an ill-judged budget, not being on top of its detail and ongoing political missteps like “winkgate“, could quickly add up to Abbott being seen as out of his depth if handled proficiently by the Labor Opposition.

This would be a significant political blow: the main reason the Gillard/Rudd government was rejected by voters in 2013 was because it was considered incompetent.

So it would be a mistake for the Prime Minister to dismiss talk of unrest and potential leadership challenges as mere backbench bleating because the water is getting a bit choppy.

Australia may still be two-and-a-half years away from the next federal election, but if a new leader was to be installed, he or she would need 18 months to establish themselves. That gives Abbott a year to pull things together.