Without change, Abbott’s a dead man walking

Tony Abbott’s long-awaited address to the National Press Club today has become much more about his own survival than a rebalancing of his Government’s wobbly electoral prospects, writes Paula Matthewson.

Today at the National Press Club, Prime Minister Tony Abbott will attempt to breathe life into the stumbling and battered figure that is his leadership.

Following fast on the heels of the weekend’s landslide election result in Queensland, this will be the first speech the PM has given to the NPC since winning government nearly 18 months ago. The speech was originally intended as another attempt to reset the parliamentary year for the Government, with the unveiling of a refurbished policy agenda focused on “jobs and families”.

Now, following Abbott’s latest self-inflicted wounds and the obvious similarity between his political approach and the one soundly rejected by voters in Queensland, the NPC event has become much more about Abbott’s survival than a rebalancing of his Government’s wobbly electoral prospects.

When the Newman LNP Government was elected in Queensland in 2012, it was considered a likely harbinger of an Abbott Coalition Government at the national level. As it turned out, Abbott closely followed the Newman blueprint, instigating a Commission of Audit to identify spending cuts, cutting a swathe through the public service, and taking an ideologically-driven austerity approach to budget repair.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both leaders also made the mistake of assuming their party’s credentials as better economic leaders would inoculate them against the community anger that grew over broken election promises and the harsh measures imposed “in the public interest”.

Following the deafening outcome of the Queensland election, it’s difficult not to see a strong connection between the reckoning delivered by voters to Premier Newman and what they’d like to do to Abbott at the next federal election. This future bloodbath was foreshadowed in yesterday’s Galaxy Poll, which indicated only 36 per cent of voters would give their primary vote to the Coalition if an election were held at this time, while only 27 per cent of voters nominated Abbott as their preferred PM.*

If replicated in Newspoll, this would give Abbott equal ranking with prime minister Paul Keating, who scored the lowest preferred PM rating of 27 per cent in August 1993.

This is getting close to being a politically irretrievable position for the PM, and one that is entirely his own doing. Abbott was closely involved in developing the disastrous budget that shattered voters’ expectations for a fair government, while the accumulation of the PM’s self-indulgences such as the knighting of Prince Philip has made him an electoral laughing stock.

The PM is also responsible for allowing his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to exercise wide-ranging power on his behalf, giving her the ability to shape and veto every policy decision, micro-manage the Government’s communication strategy, and determine who can and can’t get access to the man at the top.

According to one weekend media report, this unchecked power has allowed Credlin to excise any and all dissenters from the inner circle, thereby exposing the PM to the perils of groupthink. However, Credlin is a symptom and not the cause of the Prime Minister’s problems, and his colleagues have put him on notice to not only acknowledge those problems but do something about them.

Abbott’s address to the NPC today will be his best chance to do so. To an extent the PM will talk in code, acknowledging that he’s heard the message from Queensland and other voters but in reality, the PM’s audience in this instance will be his restive party room colleagues. One journalist has gone so far as to describe today’s event as Abbott essentially begging for his job.

The problem that will likely emerge from the PM today is that, despite saying he’s heard the concerns of voters, Abbott appears to have not “listened” to them at all. Nowhere in his acknowledgement of the Queensland election result has Abbott conceded that Newman’s reformist policies (and therefore those of his own Government) were part of the problem.

Conservative media doyen Paul Kelly perhaps best describes the lessons Abbott should have taken from the Queensland result:

The lessons are that broken political promises won’t be tolerated, leadership arrogance is fatal, the public does not accept the tough Liberal Party prescriptions on debt and deficits and, if sufficiently disillusioned, it will restore formerly discredited ALP governments after one term on the pledge they will “listen” and ditch the harsh medicine.

Yet according to comments made by Abbott yesterday, he believes the Government simply needs to plough on with its own reforms, no matter how harsh or unfair, and just needs to get its communication strategy right:

Obviously there are lessons from the result in Queensland. The lessons are not to give up on reform but to make sure that everything you propose is fully explained and well justified and obviously that’s a lesson we’re determined to learn in Canberra as well.

Some Queensland MPs beg to differ, with federal backbencher Wyatt Roy suggesting the Government not only needs to become “very good at explaining complicated ideas (and) painting a vision for the future of the country” but also must improve by “taking the public into our confidence and explaining how we can achieve that vision and the challenges that we face along the way.”

These words are uncannily like those delivered in a speech by Malcolm Turnbull over the weekend to an audience in Los Angeles.

Turnbull has been out of the country since Australia Day, participating in the G’Day USA trade promotion campaign held annually in the US. While this speech may have started out as part of Turnbull’s long-game, it’s quickly gained currency as Abbott’s leadership standing has crumbled.

Inconveniently for Abbott, Turnbull’s speech provides the PM with a model response to his current political woes. Arguing that it’s easy to describe how governments can maintain wage levels and social safety nets within first world economies, Turnbull went on to warn that the solutions are nevertheless hard to execute.

Turnbull agreed communication was part of the challenge, arguing that:

Leaders must be decision makers, but they must also be, above all, explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and why the Government cannot solve every problem.

He also noted the need to take “decisions which may not be popular but will be accepted because the public understands why they have to be taken.” This is Turnbull’s retelling of the “take the voters along with you” invocation that former PM John Howard tried to convey to Abbott at the NPC in June last year.

The need to BE fair as well as being seen to be fair is the message that PM Abbott is just not heeding. He didn’t listen to Howard, nor does it seem that he has listened to the people of Queensland. But Turnbull has listened carefully, telling the LA crowd:

It is vitally important, both as a matter of social justice and political reality, that structural changes are seen as being fair across the board. That means not only must tough decisions be justified, but that the burden of adjustment is not borne disproportionately by one part of the community.

It’s hardly coincidental that Turnbull now appears to be firming as the contender most likely to replace Abbott if the current PM is deemed by colleagues to be permanently damaged in the eyes of the electorate.

Four weeks ago, this column predicted Abbott had six months to turn his political fortunes around. Four events were identified as being the potential turning points. An unhelpful intervention in the Queensland election was one, and a poor performance at tomorrow’s NPC address was another, leaving the NSW election and 2015 budget as two other possible pivots.

State and federal LNP MPs are making no bones about the floating of the GST, Medicare cuts and industrial relations reform at the national level making matters worse for the party during the state election. Their disgruntlement adds to that of the Victorian MPs still seething over similar problems during their state election in December.

Yet there is still hope being held out by the PM’s ministry that today’s speech will revive what is increasingly looking to outsiders as an odorous leadership corpse.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, helpfully kicking along the leadership can, has given the PM only until the end of this week to save his leadership. According to Xenophon, nothing less than a massive turnaround in Abbott’s policies and approach to government will save him.

The expected announcement today of the Prime Minister’s new “jobs and families” package, including an anticipated repudiation of his own paid parental leave scheme, may well signal a change in the Government’s policies. And a newly-expressed willingness to consult and listen may well lead to an improvement in his approach.

But if the Prime Minister continues to ignore the need to fundamentally change – in the name of being a “strong” government – and uses today’s NPC address to simply dismiss his problems as nothing more than a communication problem, he will be a dead man walking, with very few left willing to save his political soul.