A three-point plan to get Abbott back on track

Running a government isn’t meant to be easy. It necessarily involves protecting and maintaining the well-being of millions while responsibly managing a budget of billions. And like some prime ministers before him, Abbott has been judged by voters as not having done a particularly sterling job in the first year of running his.

Like those predecessors, Abbott still has time to turn things around. But it will take him tapping into qualities that we have not yet seen present in the man.

Article for The New Daily.

Abbott follows the Howard blueprint on GST

More than a decade after the Howard Government introduced a goods and services tax, political pundits remain divided over whether the accompanying GST campaign was effective.

Some point to Howard’s re-election after proposing the new tax as proof of the campaign’s success, while others claim Howard almost lost because of it.

Despite the lack of consensus it appears the Abbott Government is using the same campaign blueprint, this time in an attempt to create public acceptance for increasing or broadening the GST.

Back then, Howard was saddled with an earlier promise to “never, ever” introduce a GST but was being pressured to introduce one. According to one account, senior members of the business community were openly questioning Howard’s economic reform credentials, while the press gallery were asking why he wouldn’t lead (or at least follow).

So the then PM created a situation where journalists and economists, business and welfare organisations and even voters called for him to “reverse” the never-ever promise for the good of the nation. Howard did this by focusing the numerous fragmented commentaries into one national discussion: one that centred on Australia’s “broken” tax system and how it could be “fixed” by scrapping a bunch of inefficient taxes and replacing them with just one.

The mechanism Howard used to focus the conversation was a taxation taskforce (incidentally chaired by Treasury official and former Keating adviser, Ken Henry). It was established to prepare options for tax reform, and recommended that a consumption tax be part of the mix.

A year later, following much public discussion, the Howard government presented voters not only with a proposed GST but an entire package of tax reforms. The package included personal income tax cuts, increases in the tax-free threshold and pensions, and the scrapping of wholesale sales tax. Nine other taxes imposed at the state and territory level were also slated for elimination. Most importantly, all the money raised by the GST was to be provided to the states and territories, supposedly ending their dependence on the federal government’s largesse.

Howard then blitzed voters with a controversial advertising campaign before immediately plunging the nation into a moderately early federal election, which he either cleverly won, or foolishly almost lost, depending on whose analysis one finds more convincing.

PM Abbott is clearly banking on the campaign having been a success for Howard, because his “increase the GST” campaign looks eerily familiar.

A bevy of Treasury boffins is currently developing a tax reform paper, while the general public’s awareness is slowly being raised through discussion in the media about the need to broaden or increase the GST.

Comments such as those made last week by government backbenchers and ministers serve to kick along the public discussion while keeping the PM’s hands clean of the debate until the Treasury report is released later this year.

Those Treasury findings will shape a tax reform package that Abbott will – like Howard – take to the next federal election, which is due in mid to late 2016. Unfortunately for Abbott, even if one accepts the Howard GST campaign blueprint was a winning strategy, his is unlikely to deliver similar dividends.

For a start, the Abbott Government’s “budget emergency” narrative is a harder sell than the “broken tax system” one used by the Howard government to justify its tax reforms.

Back then, voters could see the impact of inefficient taxes on their everyday lives, such as the balance on their bank statements being whittled away by a debit tax AND a credit tax. They also took quickly to the notion that wholesale sales tax was illogical and expensive to administer. In short, voters understood the proposed tax reform was for the public good.

In contrast, the Abbott Government has singularly been unable to explain the budget emergency or what it means for voters. Not long after the budget was announced, 32 per cent of voters remained unconvinced there was a budget emergency, and while another 24 per cent accepted the need to fix the budget they didn’t think the new measures would help.

This lack of a compelling narrative is going to make it considerably harder for Abbott to focus public attention and discussion on the benefits his tax reforms would bring.

It should also be remembered that much of Abbott’s GST conundrum is of his own making. He is hindered by the voter perception that new and increased taxes are bad – largely created by him in opposition – and by the expectation that his would be a low-taxing government.

This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the main tax in people’s lives these days (other than income tax) IS the GST. While Howard offered to scrap 10 taxes and replace them with one, Abbott will be constrained to offering what is essentially an increase to an existing tax, perhaps with modest income tax cuts and compensation for those on low incomes.

Lastly, Abbott’s Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann has helpfully placed the bar particularly high in identifying the level of support the Government will take as being permission to change the GST. According to Cormann, any proposed change will have to have broad support across the community and the parliament as well as the unanimous support of all state and territory governments.

That will be no easy feat, particularly with a contested strategy, a distrusted salesman, and a dubious product.

It is said by those who favour Howard’s tax reform campaign that it rejuvenated his electoral prospects by giving the then PM a new purpose and stature in the eyes of voters. Even if this were true, it’s hard to imagine any reform proposal involving the word “tax” endearing estranged voters to Abbott or making him more electable.

Abbott has six months to get it right

There’s a question that’s been rolling around the minds of political pundits over the summer break: can Tony Abbott make it through 2015 to argue the case for his Government’s re-election in 2016? Or has the Prime Minister squandered the political capital gained from scrapping the carbon tax and stopping the boats, leaving him with an irretrievable credibility deficit in the eyes of voters?

Trade Minister Andrew Robb – who as federal director of the Liberal Party ran the losing campaign in 1993 for John Hewson and then the winning one in 1996 for John Howard – was at least putting on a brave face in November last year, saying there’s still a long way to go until polling day.

And indeed that’s true. At this point there’s almost two years until the next federal election. And if we’ve learned anything this past year it’s that political fortunes can turn on a dime – just ask former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell or his Labor counterpart John Robertson.

Robb’s words imply Abbott has time to turn his political fortunes around, yet the voting public seems far less confident; 51 per cent of respondents to an Essential Poll in December indicated they didn’t believe Abbott would be PM at the next federal election. While this result was due in large part to the non-Coalition supporters in the survey sample, even only 50 per cent of Coalition supporters thought Abbott would survive as PM to the next election.

Abbott’s lowest approval rating* so far is 30 per cent, recorded in the weeks after the federal budget. He is yet to sink to the depths of Paul Keating in August 1993 (17 per cent), Julia Gillard in September 2011 (23 per cent) and Bob Hawke in December 1991 (27 per cent). While Hawke and Gillard were replaced as PM, in Hawke’s case immediately after that poll, Keating battled on until the 1996 election, which he lost to John Howard.

On this measure, the portents don’t speak well for Abbott. So it is perhaps not surprising that in an end-of-year interview he essentially argued against a change in PM, citing voters’ apparent punishment of Labor for the Rudd coup.

What Abbott conveniently forgot to note is that the Gillard ascension came as a complete surprise to the broader community, and there was no understanding of the need to remove Rudd. Gillard’s perceived illegitimacy, paired with party instability caused by Rudd’s campaign of revenge, were as much to blame for Labor’s poor polling as the initial ruthless removal of the presiding PM.

This scenario has no analogue with the hypothetical removal of Abbott. If it were to happen, the voting public would be under no illusion as to why the Coalition ditched an unpopular and accident-prone PM who failed to listen to his colleagues or make a connection with voters.

Of the four prime ministers with higher disapproval ratings than Abbott’s 62 per cent – Keating with 75 per cent, Gillard with 68 per cent, John Howard with 64 per cent and Hawke with 64 per cent – only Howard went on to win the next election (with a little help from the Tampa incident and the September 11 attacks).

Does this mean Abbott is doomed to the ex-prime ministerial scrap heap?

Well, not yet. The man does have the capacity to transform himself if he puts his mind to it. We saw this after the summer break in 2013, when Abbott emerged resplendent in trust-me navy suits and regulationpale blue tie. This was following months of media and commentator speculation about whether the opposition leader could drop the brawler persona that had served him so well in opposition for the more statesmanlike approach that voters expected of their alternative prime minister.

Abbott started the new year in 2013 with an address to the National Press Club, reminiscent of the “headland” speeches that John Howard favoured to refresh or reset a political or policy agenda. Having unveiled a “fresh” approach at the NPC, Abbott’s new wardrobe was matched with a different tack in parliament too, in which he remained above the fray and delegated the attack dog duties to shadow ministers instead.

This approach worked, and by March Abbott took the lead as preferred PM. That is, until Gillard was replaced by Rudd in June 2013.

So Abbott has demonstrated the capacity to change his approach, but the transformation he must undergo this summer to secure his political survival will necessarily involve much more than getting new designer duds. Regrettably, it’s a challenge to sort through the inches and hours of advice being gratuitously provided to identify which is well meant and which is ideologically driven.

For mine I will offer only one suggestion: repair the Government’s relationship with voters before trying to prosecute any reform agenda.

In reality it’s too early to tell whether Abbott will make it through 2015 as Prime Minister but there are three – maybe four – upcoming tests of his survival.

The first will be a likely “headland” address to the National Press Club later this month. The second and third will be the state elections in Queensland (expected by end of March) and NSW (on March 28). And the last will be the budget in May.

Each of these events provides Abbott and his Government with the opportunity for political success as well as the seeds of their own destruction. The NPC address can kick off the Government’s apparent new focus on jobs and children, but if Abbott uses it to tell voters they must listen or don’t understand the importance of budgetary reform then it will entrench voter resentment.

Such antipathy will be compounded if Abbott shows the same disregard for his colleagues in the Liberal heartlands of Queensland and NSW as he did for Victorian premier Denis Napthine in November. Unrest within the federal Coalition’s party room is also at least partly due to the impact that Abbott’s poorly timed petrol tax announcement had on the Victorian election, and similar misjudgements in the other two state elections could foment the unhappiness of MPs with marginal seats in those locations.

And finally, there is the budget, of which little needs to be said other than it must be seen to be fair. The chances of that happening are minimal if the Government’s aforementioned relationship with voters is not first repaired.

Abbott is by no means Australia’s most unpopular prime minister, but it would be unwise of him to assume Labor’s Rudd experience will stop the Coalition party room from removing him if he becomes a political liability. There are enough former Howard ministers in that party room to remember the cost of not moving on him before they were subjected to electoral oblivion in 2007 – and it’s not likely to be an experience they want to repeat.

The next election is indeed two years away, but Abbott’s reckoning will take place within the next six months. He has only until then to repair his relationship with voters and turn his electoral prospects around.

*All opinion poll results are from Newspoll, except for the Essential Poll result where noted and linked.

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.

Coalition needs a better budget, not better PR

It’s hard to know why some of the Abbott Government’s biggest and most vocal media supporters have chosen the past week to complain about its abysmal performance.

Other than the Government’s abysmal performance, of course.

Last week’s Newspoll shows Labor has a 10-point lead on the Coalition once notional preferences are distributed, and that any increased approval rating for the Government from the national security issue has been short-lived.

This deterioration confirms the trend highlighted by polling analyst Andrew Catsaras on yesterday’s Insiders program, in which the Abbott Government is consistently faring less well than it did at the federal election. This is in stark contrast to the first-year polling performance of the previous Howard and Rudd governments:

… for the first 15 months the Howard government averaged a vote of 55.5 per cent, 2 per cent higher than the election. The Rudd government averaged a vote of 57 per cent, over 4 per cent higher than the election. Whereas the Abbott Government has averaged a vote of 48.5 per cent, 5 per cent lower than the election.

Catsaras also emphasised that polls are reflective, not predictive, so it’s curious why members of the Government’s conservative media cheer squad have turned into nervous nellies two years out from the next federal election.

Yet rightwing shock jock (and staunch Coalition supporter) Alan Jones berated the PM last week for failing to meet the “pub test” on the free trade agreement with China. Conservative blogger (and arguably the nation’s biggest Coalition fan) Andrew Bolt followed swiftly with a 19-point deconstruction of the Government’s woes entitled “The Abbott Government must now change or die”. And then The Australian newspaper, which has unambiguously nailed its colours to the Coalition mast, joined the lament with an editorial insisting that “The Abbott Government is doomed without narrative”:

Limply, the Prime Minister is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why. At stake is his political credibility, no less. Mr Abbott risks becoming a “oncer” if he allows his opponents to constantly control the agenda.

Amongst this litany of complaints, the common thread is that the Abbott Government’s problem is one of poor communication; that the Coalition’s less than sterling performance would be remedied with better media staff, a more strategic approach to communications, and a narrative.

These could help, but as former prime ministers Rudd and Gillard could attest, a slick media strategy or strong narrative are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable.

The Abbott Government is not lacking a narrative, as claimed by The Australian, but saddled with one that is not of its choosing. Having been presented with the Government’s weasel words and black-is-white recasting of commitments and lies, voters have taken a lead not from its rhetoric but the Coalition’s actions to identify its narrative.

In its own words, The Australian’s editorial best encapsulates that narrative:

Voters are left with the impression that Mr Hockey’s May budget was a litany of broken promises, designed to inflict severe pain on low-income workers and the poor, and that the deficit crisis was not as acute as the Coalition presented it.

Well, yes.

And there is next to nothing, in the Government’s words or deeds, to suggest that voters should think otherwise.

Voters did feel more receptive to the Prime Minister when he was fulfilling his “protector of the realm” role after the MH17 tragedy and in response to the heightened terrorist threat from Islamic State, but that perception took a hit at the G20 when Abbott ended up looking cowardly and weak through no-one’s efforts but his own.

This has increased the pressure on Treasurer Joe Hockey to successfully “sell” the budget and the Government’s broader economic reforms in order to protect its only remaining perceived strength – that of superior economic management. Hockey’s next best chance to retrieve this sales job is the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook report, which is due in December.

The Government could roll out a shiny new narrative at that time, which more successfully pitches the prosperous Australian future that will emerge as the result of everyone taking on their “fair share” of the burden created by the necessary economic reforms.

And Coalition MPs could refrain from foolishly drawing attention away from that message with political self-indulgences like cigars, Knights and Dames awards, whining about being unloved, or Gonski-type triple backflips.

But none of this will be enough.

As Abbott’s mentor, former PM Howard, made clear when he spoke at the National Press Club earlier this year, the community will only respond favourably to the type of change envisioned in the Coalition’s budget if it is satisfied the reforms are in the national interest and fundamentally fair.

And there’s the rub. The Abbott Government won’t be able to satisfy this fundamental requirement. The budget is neither in the national interest nor fair, and no compelling narrative or fine media strategy will be able to fix that.