Abbott must learn from the PMs of old

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.

“Canny Clive” takes credibility hit

Anyone still kidding themselves that Clive Palmer is a political sophisticate merely disguised as a buffoon would have had to abandon that thought last night as Palmer launched a politically dumb attack on the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.

During debate on what has been dubbed by detractors as the “millionaire mummies’ bonus”, namely Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, Palmer accused Credlin of instigating the policy for her own advantage:

“Why should Australian citizens and businesses be taxed, and working women discriminated against, just so the prime minister’s chief of staff can receive a massive benefit when she gets pregnant?”

Palmer dug the hole deeper this morning, showing a breathtaking lack of self-reflection in justifying his criticism of Credlin with the exhortation that policies should be formulated in the party room and not handed down from the leader’s office. One can only imagine the wry smiles on the faces of Palmer United Party senators-elect when they heard that pearl.

Proving to be not exactly a wily, old political operator Palmer has made a considerable misstep by combining two populist past-times – demonisation of Credlin and denigration of the PPL – to make a splash during the parliamentary debate.

For a start, Abbott’s support for paid parental leave pre-dates Credlin joining Abbott’s staff. The PM has been promoting the idea since it was mentioned in his book Battlelines in 2009. Credlin joined his office at the end of that same year.

Secondly, Credlin won’t benefit from the PPL because she’s already covered by the Australian Public Service’s maternity leave scheme. Ironically, Abbott has used the fact that such a generous scheme does not extend to non-public servants to demonstrate the equity of his scheme. It should defy even the type of logic that exists in Palmer-land to conclude that the extension of an employment benefit to women in private small and medium businesses that don’t currently have it, somehow equates to discrimination against them.

So Palmer is doubly wrong on the facts. He’s also wrong on the politics.

The general consensus in the conduct and reporting of politics is that anyone with a decision-making role, and those who influence those decision-makers, should be open to public scrutiny, criticism and accountability.

There is no question that Credlin falls into this category. But Palmer’s attack steps way past the bounds of political propriety. His comment was needlessly cruel, considering the very public knowledge that Credlin has been unsuccessful so far in having a child and has resorted to IVF (which for those who’ve participated is a trial in itself). And by attacking a prominent woman to make a political point, Palmer’s behaviour has a strong sexist undertone.

By making an overly personal attack on Credlin, Palmer may have won some brownie points with those who consider her to be the devil incarnate. Unfortunately for Palmer, those types will still be unlikely to vote for him. Meanwhile, Palmer has earned opprobrium from every corner of the political arena. And his credentials as a canny and credible politician have taken a big hit.

The second coming of Malcolm

Less than 12 months into the job as Australia’s 28th Prime Minister, Tony Abbott is facing questions about the security of his tenure.

Such speculation is not unknown this early in a new government’s term, and perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising considering Abbott’s deep unpopularity.

But the real driver of leadership talk is the behaviour of one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. It’s been hard not to notice Turnbull in recent times as he goes about his duties as Cabinet Minister, Liberal parliamentarian and servant of the people of Wentworth.

And because he does it with an engaging style that cannot help but be compared with that of the dour Prime Minister, the question inevitably arises – at what point do Turnbull’s activities become less about performing his current job and more about angling for Abbott’s?

Part of the issue is that it’s hard to understand why Turnbull remains in Parliament. Having lost the Liberal leadership, arguably to the social conservative MPs who arranged Abbott’s one-vote victory over him, and departed from the parliament only to be convinced by supporters to return, it’s unclear what Turnbull hopes to achieve by staying on.

Granted, the public service ethos appears to run deep in his family, with wife Lucy having also served in a public role as the Lord Mayor of Sydney. But surely Turnbull’s medium-term plans involve more than flogging a less-than-optimal broadband network to a resentful populace?

It doesn’t take a student of Machiavelli or member of the tin-foil hat brigade to see that Turnbull is playing the long game. In doing so he’s taken a few pages from both the Howard and Rudd playbooks, and then added his own inimitable flair.

Like Rudd, Turnbull plays directly to the Australian people and has built a fan base that spreads way beyond the borders of Wentworth. He appears in a regular breakfast television spot with Deputy Labor Leader, Tanya Plibersek, just like Rudd used to do with Joe Hockey.

He uses social media to show voters what a diligent local member and man of the people he really is, despite being an Abbott Government minister and multi-millionaire.

Of course it’s not the voters that would have a say in making Turnbull Liberal leader again, but his parliamentary colleagues. So Turnbull is working on them too, showing his leadership credentials in Question Time by providing cuttingly entertaining rants to raise the spirits of embattled backbenchers, and last week demonstrating his impressive and hitherto unknown Clive-wrangling skills.

Whether the now infamous “secret” dinner with Clive Palmer was indeed spontaneous, and whether or not they talked only about the duck and coconut ice-cream, Turnbull used the event to show his party room colleagues that he has the access and ability to negotiate outcomes with Palmer that the PUP Leader is threatening to withhold from Abbott.

Cracker speeches in Parliament and the ability to get a few things through the Senate may make a few more of his colleagues more amenable, but on their own these elements will not be enough for Turnbull to prevail.

Turnbull will also need, like Howard did before him, for the times to suit him.

During Abbott’s ascendancy the times did not suit Turnbull at all. Abbott and his hardline patrons were able to exacerbate, exploit and translate the Australian community’s inherent conservatism into a very healthy majority at the 2013 federal election.

While strong public support remains for the Government’s extreme right agenda, Turnbull and the moderate agenda that he represents will continue to be shunned in the Liberal party room. In these circumstances he will never have the numbers to win another leadership ballot.

But now voters are beginning to wonder whether the Abbott Government is the same as what was shown on the outside of the box. Voters have begun to realise Abbott’s agenda is not just about stopping the boats and axing the tax but the wholesale removal of government support, the unleashing of free market forces and an often petty rebalancing of the ledger on social, cultural and environmental matters.

Nevertheless, Abbott can still turn this around. Lost among the ongoing gnashing of teeth over the federal budget was a recent poll showing that while only 28 per cent of voters thought before the budget that it would be good for the economy overall, this number increased to 40 per cent one week after the budget was announced.

If, and this is a big if, the Government can fix its communication of the budget and salvage it in the Senate in a politically acceptable way, this “acceptance rating” of the budget being good for the economy would likely increase.

If not, community support for the Government’s whole conservative agenda may begin to unravel. Such an unraveling is the final factor needed for any second coming of Malcolm.

Only with complete voter rejection of the extreme right approach, and the attendant threat of political oblivion to any party that espouses it, would Liberal MPs choose Turnbull over electoral defeat.

It wouldn’t be pretty, but the path to political leadership rarely is.