Abbott must learn from the PMs of old

As Tony Abbott moves into the negotiation stage with senators over the budget, he has the opportunity to heed John Howard’s recent warning and learn from Kevin Rudd’s mistakes.

At first blush, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has very little in common with his Labor analogue Kevin Rudd.

But as one looks closer, the similarities emerge and the lessons for Abbott from the Rudd years become clear.

The athlete-turned-almost-seminarian trod a very different path to federal politics than the bookish nerd. Both were unlikely prospective leaders of their parties, and yet both suddenly found themselves in the top job.

Both men had run destabilising campaigns to get to that point, but mainly they owed their ascendancy to the pragmatism of right-wing colleagues. In both cases it was the Right who adjudged Rudd and Abbott to not necessarily be prime ministerial material but able to get their parties back onto the Treasury benches.

Their colleagues’ desperate determination to win afforded both opposition leaders displays of party loyalty and discipline they had been incapable of showing their own leaders. And as a result, the voting public perceived the alternative governments offered by the two as benign enough to limit the risk of throwing out the incumbents.

As it turned out, neither the Rudd nor Abbott alternative governments were what they promised to be.

Prime minister Rudd’s seeming determination to oversee every government decision while at the same time initiating a plethora of new reviews, studies and reports, ground his office into political and policy gridlock.

Prime Minister Abbott’s style is no less command and control, although more focused on political and media strategy. This is evidenced by the much grumbled-about edict that all media requests for ministerial appearances must be coordinated (and by inference, approved) by the Prime Minister’s office.

Perhaps in an extension of the command and control model, both prime ministers surrounded themselves with a Praetorian guard of close confidants, through which parliamentary colleagues find it impossible to penetrate.

For Rudd this was the Gang of Four (or Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of Cabinet) comprising Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner, as well as his coterie of young-gun staffers such as Alister Jordan and Lachlan Harris. For Abbott, the chosen few are Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

John Howard signaled a very public warning to Abbott last week about the political perils of selective deafness, and its cousin, the presumption of knowing what’s best.

Rudd’s inability to listen to colleagues beyond his inner circle was one of the factors that contributed to his eventual downfall. His political deafness to a broader range of political voices almost certainly resulted in Rudd effectively abandoning the commitment to an emissions trading scheme rather than taking it to a double dissolution election.

And now Abbott is showing the same limited receptiveness, demonstrated perhaps most starkly by the federal budget, which is turning out to be a wholesale misjudgment of what the community is prepared to accept for the sake of national economic health.

The admirable fidelity and restraint shown by Coalition MPs while in opposition is now becoming tenuous as they face the possibility of a one-term Abbott Government. Rumours and leaks are emerging as the various players seek to deflect blame either from Abbott, or towards him, and fanciful putative alternatives like Malcolm Turnbull suddenly begin to look a tad more realistic.

Some MPs are using political commentators in the media to warn Abbott that he needs to be more consultative.

Even former prime minister John Howard signaled a very public warning to Abbott last week about the political perils of selective deafness, and its cousin, the presumption of knowing what’s best.

Without alluding directly to the Abbott Government’s first budget, Howard noted that politicians had sometimes “lost the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument”.

Howard emphasised that the community would respond to an argument for change and reform if they’re satisfied it’s in the national interest and that it’s fundamentally fair.

He also stressed the importance of having a dialogue with the public, which he pursued mainly through talkback radio in his day.

You never presume that you have an elite capacity to say what’s good for people … I think constant dialogue with people is fundamentally important – listening to people.

Perhaps the biggest single difference between Rudd and Abbott is the former was once Australia’s most popular prime minister while the latter remains among the most unpopular.

Rudd’s fate was determined once he squandered much of his political capital on a dysfunctional government, over-ambitious talkfests like the 2020 summit and the ETS backflip.

Abbott has significantly less goodwill to work with, and it is vested almost entirely in his assurances that the Coalition is a competent and adult government with the best interests of all Australians at heart. But with the budget, ongoing political stumbles and Abbott’s own indulgences, it won’t take long for the well to run dry.

As Abbott moves into the negotiation stage with senators over the budget, he has the opportunity to heed Howard’s warning and learn from Rudd’s mistakes.

Abbott must broaden the scope of advice that he seeks, and listen to what the Australian people really have to say, if he is keep the Right’s next political contender from tapping on his door.