Please. Not childcare too.

Through hubris and a seeming inability to get the politics right on pretty much anything, Abbott has managed to destroy any chance of his PPL policy ever seeing the light of day. Even more concerning is that the PM’s poor political instincts may also hinder the development of future childcare policy.

Post for The Hoopla.

Abbott must heed past mistakes, not repeat them

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.

Are pollies’ kids fair game in political journalism?

We already know the line between public and private has become impossibly thin since the advent of the internet and our avid uptake of social media.

Potential employers can not only check the veracity of jobseeker claims, but also what they do after hours, the “type” of people they associate with, and the extent to which they’re more diligent at skolling beers than getting to work on time. The same goes for people looking for that one special person (or not, as the case may be) and parents checking up on their kids or keeping in touch with extended families.

Enhanced privacy settings have certainly helped to reduce any unwanted snooping that this online exposure can invite, but selective access to one’s social media profiles can be a two-edged sword if you’re a politician trying to engage online.

Any parliamentarian worth their salt knows online engagement is a two-way exercise. It’s not just about broadcasting the latest press release or speech on Twitter or Facebook, but making a genuine connection with voters. This interaction requires participating in real, unscripted conversations, which is a risk in itself. However the more savvy MPs seek to heighten the authenticity of their online presence by posting photos of themselves – often accompanied by their families – doing “normal” things to demonstrate how in touch they are with the “real world”.

This of course exposes politicians’ family members to a level of accessibility and scrutiny unknown before our lives went online. During John Howard’s time as PM, we barely saw his children other than on the podium on election night.

The tendency of Rudd and Abbott (or their campaign strategists) to impose their families on voters has been grasped by some elements of the political media as justification for treating politicians’ partners and kids as fair game.

This changed as political strategists on both sides of the fence, increasingly enamoured with US-style politics, started to emulate the Yanks’ habit of wheeling out politicians’ wives and children to increase their candidates’ “family credentials”. Hence the appearance of Kevin Rudd’s wife Therese spruiking her husband’s wares at a Labor campaign launch. The Rudds took this tactic even further during one of Rudd’s non-challenges against his successor Julia Gillard, when voters were treated to magazine articles and social media blitzes from both Therese and their daughter Jessica.

To date, only Tony Abbott has emulated the Rudds’ family-campaign efforts, rarely being seen on the election campaign trail without one or more of his telegenic daughters in an apparent effort to improve his standing with female voters.

This tendency of Rudd and Abbott (or their campaign strategists) to impose their families on voters has been grasped by some elements of the political media as justification for treating politicians’ partners and kids as fair game.

So we were treated during the last federal election campaign to an “expose” based on a Facebook photo of Rudd’s son smoking a cigar, apparently undermining the increase in cigarette tax that had ostensibly just been imposed to offset the burden placed by smokers on the health budget (as opposed to being a relatively painless tax grab).

And the intrusion into Frances Abbott’s private academic files (at the encouragement of senior colleagues and a media outlet) could arguably have had much less media cachet if she’d not been an almost permanent fixture alongside Tony Abbott during the election campaign, thereby becoming a proxy for attacks on her father.

In both these instances, a case can at least be made for the private lives of political children to be exposed to media scrutiny in the name of the public interest.

Yet there is no similar justification for the splashing of a toddler’s photo in the news media today simply because of the colour of her dress. The photo was apparently sourced from the public Facebook page of Greens Senator Larissa Waters, and published in order to demonstrate Waters’s alleged hypocrisy by equating her concern about gendered toys to being a “war against pink”.

While the photo was indeed in the public domain, its use in this way bordered on the irresponsible.

The actions of a child do not invalidate the political positions of their parents and it is nonsense to suggest so.

To reduce any future temptation to make that allegation, perhaps it is time to reconsider the role of MPs’ children when it comes to election campaigning and ongoing political life. Even US President Barack Obama may be inclined to rethink the merit of including his daughters in “benign” photo opportunities since the Thanksgiving Turkey incident.

Having a politician for a parent is tough enough: parliamentarian parents are rarely at home and even when they are home they’re either on the phone, glued to the television, or simply tired and cranky. MPs’ kids shouldn’t have to contend with specific media attention because they’ve been used to enhance their parent’s political brand, nor should they be used in an attempt to bring a politician down.

It’s time to end the use of kids as political props, and for campaign strategists to concede the value of doing so is outweighed by the additional burden it places on politicians’ families.

Chief of staff job too big for one person

According to last week’s political commentary, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin is to blame, at least in part, for the Abbott Government’s woes.

Credlin is not always named in these articles, with the less courageous mostly referring to her euphemistically as “the Prime Minister’s office”.

So we read in the weekend wrap-ups of what was arguably this Coalition Government’s worst week that much of it was apparently Credlin’s fault. The selectively leaked and then disavowed decision to drop the Medicare co-payment was due to “a unilateral decision taken by the Prime Minister’s office”, and the Dead Man Walking Defence Minister David Johnston would remain in Cabinet only because Abbott “and his office stubbornly insist that there is no need for a reshuffle”.

Another commentator went so far as to suggest that the biggest barnacles weighing down the Coalition ship of state were Abbott’s “deep unpopularity and predilection for listening to his office’s advice rather than that of his parliamentary team”.

And that’s the nub of Credlin’s problem, which is pretty much the same as that faced by most other contemporary prime ministerial chiefs of staff: MPs resent an unelected staffer playing gatekeeper and being the Prime Minister’s principal confidante. So when their access is limited or their pearls of advice are not acted upon, disgruntled MPs whinge to the media that the “prime minister and his office don’t listen”.

That’s not to say there mightn’t be some substance to the complaint. Aside from her capacity to ruthlessly hose down the ambitious manoeuvrings of ministers and wannabe ministers, Credlin is indeed said to be resistant to seeking or taking advice from experienced parliamentarians and strategists, as well as wise heads in the business community. She’s also known to excommunicate individual journalists or whole media organisations that she’s deemed to have crossed the Government in some egregious way.

But whether Credlin can or should be held responsible for the Government’s woes is another thing altogether. One former chief of staff, or CoS, in the recent book The Gatekeepers, says attacks on the person occupying that role are proxy attacks on the leader, and that it’s a fundamental part of the CoS’s job to be the lightning rod for those complaints.

On that measure, it’s Credlin’s job to take the blame.

However, one of The Gatekeepers’ authors, Anne Tiernan, said recently that prime ministers get the staff they deserve. Tiernan was referring to the tendency of successive modern prime ministers to draw organisational functions away from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), because they want these functions to be managed within their own office, but that the offices are ill-equipped for management.

Tiernan noted this mismatch has been exacerbated by the attendant tendency of prime ministers to personally appoint their CoS, instead of the role being filled from the public service, as often used to be the case.

The need for a CoS to fulfil both the traditional political support role and this additional organisational management role can lead to bottlenecks and logjams, such as that identified by a more courageous political commentator on the weekend, who named Credlin as “the chokepoint through which every decision must pass … according to the universal accounts from inside the Abbott Government”. Apparently this includes setting strategy, making appointments, and deciding policy, and extended to logistics for the recent G20 meetings.

Well, fair enough, that’s Credlin’s job, but it may be too much of a job for one person to handle.

It may be true, as one columnist noted on the weekend, that it was Credlin who drew up Abbott’s successful strategy in opposition, and that the perception in “the prime minister’s office” right now is that a panicking party has forgotten “who put it in power”. But a great strategist in opposition does not necessarily make a competent CoS or one that is able to adequately perform all of its functions.

During much of the Howard years, different aspects of the role currently being performed by Credlin were divided among a trusted few. During the time he was Howard’s CoS, Arthur Sinodinos was the political strategist and confidante who worked with the Cabinet Office on policy development, while Tony Nutt was the political enforcer. Sinodinos brought to the PMO a fundamental understanding of how government works – being a former Treasury official – while Nutt, the impeccably credentialed political fix-it man, did what he does best. Their good cop/bad cop routine maintained discipline while ensuring that everyone felt valued and consulted.

Howard’s best years were arguably when this arrangement was in place.

The arrival of Michael Thawley as the new head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet may signify Abbott’s recognition of the need to do something similar. Thawley is an experienced bureaucrat and diplomat, with almost a decade’s experience in the US investment industry, and as PM Howard’s former international adviser is also an experienced senior staffer.

Thawley’s arrival may see for the first time in recent history a return of some of the functions that successive prime ministers have taken from PM&C, thereby theoretically lessening the load on Credlin.

Media reports today suggest Thawley’s first task will be to get the Government’s economic strategy back on track. So, in this sense, it appears Abbott has realised he IS ultimately to blame for the Government’s misfortunes and in appointing Thawley has done something about it.

Meanwhile, ministers are already making mischief in the media, saying there are high hopes for Thawley being able set effective strategy “unless he meets an immovable object”, which apparently is the new code for Credlin.

Whether the PM intentionally or not brought in Thawley to meet a deficit in Credlin’s skill set, she will at least be partly responsible for whether her working relationship with Abbott’s new man is a harmonious one.

And if it turns out to be obstructionist or acrimonious, then at least this will be something for which Credlin most definitely should take the blame.