Abbott must heed past mistakes, not repeat them

When it comes to changing his paid parental leave scheme or “rebooting” his Government’s image, Tony Abbott seems incapable of learning from past mistakes.

Yesterday the Prime Minister flagged, first through a favoured media outlet and later at a short press conference, that he would make further changes to his unloved paid parental leave scheme.

The initial news report mentioned a number of adjustment options, including a vague reference to money being channelled into home-based childcare, although PM Tony Abbott would not confirm if any of those options were being actively considered.

In short, Abbott’s non-announcement was little more than an attempt to be seen to be doing something about the PPL while the Government tries to tease out from voters how to change the scheme to get public approval. In essentially shaping the policy by focus group, Abbott hopes to end up with a PPL that will have enough support to get through the Senate.

The problem for Abbott is that the PPL is now permanently branded in the public’s view as an inequitable scheme for millionaire mummies. No fine-tuning will change that. Just as John Howard discovered with WorkChoices and Kevin Rudd with his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, you can tie a bow on an albatross and call it a puppy but it’s still an albatross.

The Abbott team’s inability to see this truth is only one example of how the Government seems incapable of learning from such past mistakes.

If a policy with a tarnished brand is to have any chance of being implemented, it first has to be dumped altogether (remember Workchoices being “dead, buried, cremated”?), and its component parts reconfigured into something that in no way resembles its predecessor. This is what Abbott should be doing with the PPL.

Instead of using the Productivity Commission report into childcare to refine a parental leave scheme, Abbott should have announced yesterday that he would recast his initiative for getting women back into the workforce to focus on the provision of better and more affordable childcare.

Even if Abbott’s intention was to maintain elements of his preferred PPL in such an initiative, by turning the focus from parental leave to childcare the PM could have scored a major brownie point by responding to the number one issue that concerns working women. Instead, Abbott goes into the summer break being seen to be stubbornly out of touch.

This latest policy misadventure is only one example of Abbott’s inability to pay close attention to the lessons of the past. The PM’s supposed “reboot” media conference last week is another case in point.

Abbott may well have been trying to emulate a tactic used to good effect by his mentor Howard, but he forgot (or ignored) that in order to reset a policy or political impasse there must be a genuine admission of having got things wrong along with an authentic willingness to change.

Abbott failed to deliver on either of those requirements at the lengthy press conference, insisting instead on having delivered a year of progress, making no real concessions on the reasons for his truth-and-trust deficit, and showing no inclination to modify his approach, which he believed voters would better “appreciate” over time.

It’s little wonder a new opinion poll today suggests voters rate Opposition Leader Bill Shorten ahead of Abbott on competency and trustworthiness, as well as the preferred PM.

If indeed the former PM Howard is the current PM’s confidante and guide, then Abbott seems to be paying little attention to him either. There is very little evidence to suggest Abbott has learned anything from the Howard years.

Or if the rumours are true, the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin is indeed preventing external advice from Howard and other wise heads reaching Abbott.

As we saw earlier this year, Howard had to resort to giving a public speech at the National Press Club to remind Abbott about the importance of being seen to be fair and to not treat the Australian public like fools. Similarly, the Liberal Party’s longtime pollster Mark Textor appeared on Lateline just last week to deliver some very diplomatically couched advice to the Government on trying to do too much too fast with the budget, and the need to broaden its communication effort.

It’s bad enough that Abbott seems to be quarantined from advice based on experience that could help restore the Government’s standing. What is perhaps even worse is that this isolationist approach is encouraging Coalition MPs to indulge in internecine squabbles that ignore the greatest lesson ever learnt in politics. That is, disunity is death.

Party disunity is how the Coalition remained in opposition for 13 years before being brought back from the wilderness by Howard. And it was one of the main reasons Labor was thrown out of office after only six years by voters in 2013. Self-indulgent skirmishes over ministries and other power plays could well relegate the Abbott Government to a similar fate in an even shorter timeframe.

Somewhat conveniently, the only lesson PM Abbott seems to have taken from recent history is that voters tend not to take well to parties that ditch their prime ministers mid-stream.

That may be so, but by ignoring most other lessons Abbott and his Government have taken a number of credibility hits that may not be reversed with policy resets, reboots or refinements. In doing so, they run the risk of becoming just another mistake for the next generation of Coalition MPs to ignore.