Dragon’s Diary: Too much of a good thing?

Picture06[2]

I’ve read a lot of posts over the past couple of weeks in which friends have reflected on 2014. For most of them it has been a pretty shitty year.

I feel somewhat guilty and very humble because the year has been good to me, particularly professionally.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in recent years it’s to be thankful for the good things in life.

And so I’d like to acknowledge 2014 as a good year, and recognise the people who made it that way. This is me, giving thanks for 2014…

Continue reading “Dragon’s Diary: Too much of a good thing?”

Will 2015 see the rise or fall of crossbenchers?

The ministry reshuffle earlier this month may help draw a line under the Abbott Government’s unedifying first year, allowing it to make a fresh start (of sorts) as it prepares for the 2015 budget.

No assistance in this renewal process will be offered, however, from the Senate crossbenchers. This motley crew of independent, micro and minor party senators, whose only connection is a shared resolve to achieve their disparate political objectives, will continue to play merry hell with the Government and its attempts to be seen to be back in control.

Voters whose views align with one or more of the crossbenchers’ niche agendas call this democracy in action. Those who disagree call it a perversion of the majority rule that is meant to underpin democracy. Either way, this is the Abbott Government’s political reality, and one that it must come to terms with in 2015.

Minor and micro parties have been a part of Australian politics since 1910. While more than 650 have existed at one time or another, only a handful have endured for more than a couple of elections.

Yet in recent times voter support for the two major parties has declined with an attendant rise in support for minor parties and in the number of people who vote informally or not at all.

This has involved a turnaround in community views about the role of minor and micro parties since the Gillard years, at which time the Greens and independents that had helped Julia Gillard form government were blamed for imposing a carbon tax on the economy as part of the deal.

Barely weeks after Gillard announced the details of the carbon price deal in February 2011 only 27 per cent of voters thought the independents and Greens holding the balance of power in Parliament had been good for Australia, while 41 per cent thought it had been bad. Three years later, that proportion had barely changed; just before the crossbench took up its new pivotal role on July 1, 2014 still only 28 per cent of voters thought the Greens holding the balance of power had been good (and 37 per cent bad) for the nation.

Even though voters had become more optimistic about the new minor party crossbench immediately after the 2013 election, they then became reticent as the time approached for the new Senate to commence.

And yet after all the shenanigans of the year just past, due in no small part to the antics of Clive Palmer and his PUPs in the Senate, a follow-up opinion poll earlier this month found 36 per cent of voters now see the crossbench having the balance of power as being a good thing, while only 26 per cent see it negatively.

This trend raises the question whether the Senate crossbench is a passing phase in protest against the dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott years or the beginning of a fundamental shift away from the two-party system.

Various theories are advanced for the major parties’ loss of electoral favour. One is that they have lost touch with traditional voters by adopting policies that are more attractive to mercurial swinging voters in the mortgage belts.

Another is that an influx of the professional political elite such as former political advisers, party apparatchiks and trade union leaders has infested the parliament with cookie-cutter MPs with little “real life” experience or associated empathy with voters.

And then there is the hollowing out of political communication, in which risk-averse politicians and their advisers reduce every public utterance to a glib sound-grab in the hope of getting traction in the relentlessly veracious news cycle without letting slip an opinion, fact or commitment that could be brought back later to haunt them.

These theories help explain the popularity of the colourful, outspoken and somewhat unpolished independent, micro and minor party senators who now make up the crossbench. Their shoot-from-the-hip approach to political strategy and refusal to mince words are seen as a refreshing change from what the major parties have served up even when the crossbenchers’ (often extreme) policies are particularly disconcerting.

And it has to be said that many voters have enjoyed the spectacle of the Prime Minister having to contend with the disruption that an obstructionist crossbench has delivered. This in itself could be responsible for the lift in support of the crossbenchers.

But is it enough for the Parliament to provide entertainment for voters and wreak retribution on their behalf, particularly when this can be accompanied by horse-trading that make fringe policies a reality? Or do voters ultimately want the stability and predictability that major parties bring?

If the trend in favour of the minor parties and independents is more a transient protest against the instability and poor behaviour of the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott years, voters may be prepared to return to the major parties if they can actually act like grownups. This may be a factor in the positive turnaround of federal Labor’s support since the election.

The expectation that voters would prefer to return stability to the Senate may also be the reason why the prospect of a double dissolution election is still being kept alive.

Whether one chooses to call the current state of play democracy or its warped and shadowy cousin, something in Australian politics will have to give in 2015: either the Government’s hardline approach to economic reform, Labor and the Greens’ equally uncompromising style, or the crossbenchers’ hold on the balance of power.

The outcome will depend entirely upon whether voters’ fascination with the non-major political players is a relic of the past or a sign of the future.

Whether we return to the major parties’ status quo or to the permanent disruption of minor and micro parties, this will be an authentic renewal that will shape what our future democracy looks like.

Ministry reshuffle built on paranoia not progress

A full 12 months earlier than it’s customary to do so, Tony Abbott has reshuffled his ministry. This is what governments usually do one year out from an election to prove they’re not stuck in a rut but capable of the regeneration that brings vigour and fresh ideas.

PM Abbott brought the activity forward a year as part of his attempt to scrape off the Government’s barnacles before Australian voters turn their attention to the beach and the barbie.

The move finally brought to an end the PM’s insistence that the ministry’s continuity was necessary to create a sense of political stability, a stubbornness demonstrated by 20 members of Abbott’s ministry having served in the last ministry of the Howard government.

The most intriguing thing about the reshuffle is not Abbott’s belated recognition of the need to do it, but his concession to the demands of critics while handing poisoned chalices to dud ministers and potential competitors.

The young guns in the Victorian Liberal MPs have essentially been rewarded for their years of agitation and complaint about having to cool their heels on the backbench. This group is responsible for a proportion of the grumbles about the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, particularly her reported resistance to an early reshuffle.

While it could be argued that NSW Liberals benefited most from the reshuffle by getting another MP into Cabinet, they also lost a spot in the outer ministry with the resignation of stood-aside Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos. In fact, the Victorian young guns gained more than any other state, with two of their MPs being promoted.

Victorian MP Josh Frydenberg was elevated from parliamentary secretary to Assistant Treasurer, while his Victorian colleague Kelly O’Dwyer was brought from the backbench to the rank of parliamentary secretary. In doing so, the PM has made considerable concessions to the ambitious Victorians, even going so far as to make Frydenberg Assistant Treasurer instead of Hockey’s preferred candidate, the Queenslander Steve Ciobo.

Whether this will be enough to quell the Victorians’ noisy agitation over Credlin is yet to be seen.

Many of the other ministerial changes are better understood if viewed through the lens of Abbott’s leadership.

While the PM made no changes to the stellar Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s portfolio, he did remove her friend and ally, the poorly performing David Johnston, from Cabinet. That leaves Bishop with only one Western Australian colleague, Mathias Cormann, at the big table.

No changes were made to Turnbull’s portfolio either, suggesting Abbott is content with leaving the former Liberal leader to disappoint his progressive fan-base with the Government’s cut-rate NBN.

And then there is Scott Morrison’s promotion from Immigration and Border Protection to a revamped Social Services portfolio, which the PM says is essentially a ministry for economic participation. Morrison is also tasked with producing a holistic families package that Abbott described as being “an important part of our political and economic agenda in the first half of next year”.

Political commentators are calling this a big win for Morrison, who is keen to broaden his experience with an economic portfolio, thereby strengthening his leadership credentials. But a closer look at the appointment does not bear out this interpretation.

Much of Morrison’s success in the Immigration portfolio was built on the Australian community’s antipathy for asylum seekers. His willingness to do whatever it took, and unwillingness to talk about it, essentially gave Australian voters permission to turn a blind eye to the human cost of border protection while giving him kudos for “solving” the asylum seeker issue.

However, Morrison will not be able to deploy the same tactics in Social Services. While asylum seekers are for most voters a distant concept, pretty much everyone knows someone who is dependent on the welfare system. As a result, the impacts of welfare reform are seen, felt and known, and there will be no glory for Morrison having “stopped the dole” in the way he “stopped the boats”.

It’s therefore likely Morrison’s promotion is a poisoned chalice, and a way for Abbott to push through one of his toughest reform agendas while also reducing the appeal of one of his competitors.

Curiously, Morrison was not the only minister to receive a dubious and potentially career-limited promotion in the reshuffle.

Kevin Andrews’ move to Defence will likely see him begging to be let go by the next election, for the Department is known for chewing up and spitting out their civilian “masters”. The future doesn’t look particularly rosy for former Health Minister Peter Dutton either. Dutton may be a retired policeman but it’s difficult to see him bring the same steely resolve that served Morrison so well in the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio.

And then there is the welcome appointment of NSW’s Sussan Ley to Cabinet, thereby doubling the number of women to two. Clearly the representation of women in the Cabinet is unacceptably low, and not due so much to a lack of merit as the arcane balance of states, factions, and parties that make up the Coalition’s ministry. Abbott at least did the right thing in appointing two more women as parliamentary secretaries, so they can become ministers-in-training.

Prime ministers usually reshuffle their ministry to provide a fresh aspect on their government while hopefully also evoking a sense of stability through the regeneration. But with one or two exceptions, like the promotion of Ley, Abbott’s reshuffle is characterised by concessions to antagonists, throwing competitors in the deep end, and leaving the deadwood to atrophy.

Abbott’s reshuffle may superficially appear to be a reset in preparation for 2015, but in reality it is more about the PM’s paranoia and tenuous leadership than it is about his Government’s rejuvenation.

Does the ministry ‘stability’ border on stagnation?

During the Howard government years, the prime minister often took the opportunity to refresh his ministry by reshuffling it just before or after the Christmas break.

When done before Christmas, the reshuffle gave new ministers time to familiarise themselves with their portfolios and reduce the chance of newbie mistakes once the Parliament resumed in February.

Reshuffles conducted in January helped give a sense of renewal without upheaval, using the dawning of the new year as a way of drawing a line under the previous year and looking ahead to new and fresh perspectives and approaches.

As we approach the end of the Abbott Government’s first full year in power, the pressure is on for PM Tony Abbott to similarly reshuffle his ministry. The PM may be pitching 2014 as a year of achievement for his Government, but ambitious backbenchers and even some restless ministers are advocating a reshuffle as a circuit breaker from the blunders and woes of 2014.

To date, Abbott has resisted calls to refresh the ministry he inherited in opposition after beating Malcolm Turnbull by one vote for the Liberal leadership. Only minimal changes have been made since that time, mostly to fill vacancies created by the retirement of MPs.

Abbott’s stated rationale for resisting wholesale change has been to provide continuity and a sense of stability. His unstated motivation has been to provide a stark comparison with the instability that wracked the Rudd and Gillard governments.

But this desire to maintain the status quo also suggests Abbott is concerned that his hold on the party room could be fragile and at risk of being fractured by the dissatisfaction that a reshuffle would inevitably produce.

In some respects it was a smart move on Abbott’s part to keep MPs with previous ministerial experience on his first frontbench. No less than 20 in Abbott’s ministry served in the last ministry of the Howard government. They were therefore familiar with how government works and had limited teething problems in taking over portfolios from their Labor predecessors.

The downside to such a cautious approach is that Abbott remains saddled with some of Howard’s deadwood, including ministers who have been decidedly uninspiring since their return to government such as Defence Minister David Johnston, Health Minister Peter Dutton, and Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Meantime a bunch of talented backbenchers have been cooling their heels, not always containing their impatience to try new approaches and inject fresh ideas. Some of these young guns have been biding their time since being elected more than a decade ago, while others have only been in parliament for half that time.

A fair proportion of this up-and-coming talent comes from Victoria, where the federal Coalition is doing less well than in other states, and the Liberal state government recently received a drubbing thanks in no small part to badly timed and unhelpful announcements from the Abbott Government.

Even before Abbott hung the Victorian state Liberals out to dry, the young guns had been restive and agitating for change. Some of the complaints about the PM’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, have come from these quarters.

Other calls for a reshuffle are coming from within the ministry itself, where ambitious ministers such as Scott Morrison are looking for fresh challenges and opportunities to consolidate their power.

Abbott is right, however, to be cautious about yielding to pressure for a reshuffle, and to be concerned that it could prove to be destabilising. He knows that not everyone can be satisfied with a rearrangement of the deck chairs.

Even on the conservative side of politics, ministerial positions are apportioned according to a range of factors. While it would be fair to expect only the most competent MPs to be appointed, the ministry composition must also take into account the proportion of seats held by the Liberals and Nationals, the number of seats held in each state and territory, and the sharing of ministerial positions across the Senate and the House of Representatives.

This would require Abbott having to sack or demote (which can be even more demoralising) existing ministers from Victoria in order to promote any of the young guns from that state. The same applies for ambitious MPs from any other state or territory looking to move up the ministerial hierarchy.

So even if a poorly-performing minister such as Western Australia’s David Johnston were to be counselled out the door, he would likely be replaced by another Western Australian. This is why noises are being made that it is time to tap longtime Victorian MP and Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, on the shoulder.

It’s important to note that Howard usually reshuffled his ministry in the 12 months leading up to the next federal election, whereas Abbott is barely 12 months into his first term. If the PM were to follow the Howard template, he’ll have to make do with the ministry he has for another 12 months.

This of course presupposes that Abbott is still in a position to do so. It’s too early to gauge the true extent of combined party room angst over Peta Credlin’s management style and the unshuffled ministry. Ultimately, it will be a different concern – that over the Government’s poor electoral standing – that leads to the most destructive type of party room unrest.

Abbott’s defence of Credlin a career-limiting move?

In the political style the Prime Minister has managed to make his own – namely tumbling from frying pan to fire – Tony Abbott has exacerbated the hostilities simmering between his chief of staff and colleagues by accusing the MPs of sexism.

In doing so, he may have made a career-limiting move.

In the face of ongoing criticism about the operational style of his most senior adviser, Peta Credlin, Abbott made the extraordinary suggestion today that she would not be “under this kind of criticism if her name was P-E-T-E-R as opposed to P-E-T-A”, and that “people need to take a long, hard look at themselves with some of these criticisms”.

This proposition involves a lack of self-reflection that is breathtaking even for Abbott.

Not that long ago, certainly within the memory of most voters, Abbott accused the then prime minister Julia Gillard of playing the gender card when she suggested some of the criticisms levelled against her were due to sexism. Abbott denied there was any inherent sexism in the community, stressing that any and all criticisms of Gillard were based on her competency and not her gender.

By this logic, Abbott has placed himself between the rock that is Credlin’s incompetency and the hard place that is a sexist parliamentary wing. That’s sure to go down well in the party room.

Ambitious backbenchers and sidelined ministers have grumbled to the media for months about Credlin’s centralised micromanagement style. This has flared into several spot fires over past weeks as opinion polls continue to look dire for the Coalition and ministers angling for promotion (or simply to save their skin) have ratcheted up the blame game.

To an extent, such behaviour is par for the course. It’s the chief of staff’s job to support and protect the Prime Minister, and being the gatekeeper necessarily involves being the flak-catcher too. Credlin is not the first or last PM’s chief of staff to be met with resistance or agitation from the parliamentary wing.

But concerns expressed about Credlin have flared dangerously beyond what is the norm, evidenced by the astonishing story published earlier this week suggesting the Liberals’ most senior elected woman, the Foreign Minister and Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, is at loggerheads with the adviser and unwilling to continue “taking orders” from her.

This revelation comes after weeks (and, in some cases, months) of claims from conservative columnists and commentators, as well as journalists with strong Liberal or business connections, that no advice is getting to the PM other than that permitted by Credlin. Former PM John Howard and the Liberals’ campaign strategist Mark Textor have even taken to the airwaves in apparent attempts to get through.

And now to dismiss these criticisms as mere sexism, and therefore without foundation, Abbott is essentially pulling down the shutters.

Former Howard government minister Peter Reith is reported to have cautioned against this, saying it was “a bit of a mistake on Tony’s part to throw in the gender claim”, and that Abbott “would be wise to put to the side gender issues and focus on genuine concerns and worries people have had, generally on the backbench but also some ministers”.

On this occasion Reith is absolutely right. This is anything but a wise move for a party leader to do when his MPs are feeling demoralised and pessimistic about their future electoral prospects.

Abbott has rightly noted that Coalition MPs would be disinclined to change prime ministers mid-stream in light of the voter wrath brought down on Labor for doing the same. But Abbott ignores the fact that he is more unpopular than Rudd was at the time of being deposed, and by refusing to countenance any suggestion that Credlin is either incompetent, or just not managing the role effectively, Abbott is inviting dissenters to conclude that the only way to get rid of Credlin is to get rid of him.

Ultimately, the Prime Minister is responsible for the staff appointed to his office and the advice he decides to accept and act upon. By deflecting criticisms of Credlin, which are in fact de facto criticisms of him, and calling his own people sexist, Abbott is causing himself an almighty problem – he’s disregarding and provoking the very people who can remove him (and Credlin) from the Prime Minister’s office.