Abbott must learn from the PMs of old

At first blush, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has very little in common with his Labor analogue Kevin Rudd.

But as one looks closer, the similarities emerge and the lessons for Abbott from the Rudd years become clear.

The athlete-turned-almost-seminarian trod a very different path to federal politics than the bookish nerd. Both were unlikely prospective leaders of their parties, and yet both suddenly found themselves in the top job.

Both men had run destabilising campaigns to get to that point, but mainly they owed their ascendancy to the pragmatism of right-wing colleagues. In both cases it was the Right who adjudged Rudd and Abbott to not necessarily be prime ministerial material but able to get their parties back onto the Treasury benches.

Their colleagues’ desperate determination to win afforded both opposition leaders displays of party loyalty and discipline they had been incapable of showing their own leaders. And as a result, the voting public perceived the alternative governments offered by the two as benign enough to limit the risk of throwing out the incumbents.

As it turned out, neither the Rudd nor Abbott alternative governments were what they promised to be.

Prime minister Rudd’s seeming determination to oversee every government decision while at the same time initiating a plethora of new reviews, studies and reports, ground his office into political and policy gridlock.

Prime Minister Abbott’s style is no less command and control, although more focused on political and media strategy. This is evidenced by the much grumbled-about edict that all media requests for ministerial appearances must be coordinated (and by inference, approved) by the Prime Minister’s office.

Perhaps in an extension of the command and control model, both prime ministers surrounded themselves with a Praetorian guard of close confidants, through which parliamentary colleagues find it impossible to penetrate.

For Rudd this was the Gang of Four (or Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of Cabinet) comprising Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner, as well as his coterie of young-gun staffers such as Alister Jordan and Lachlan Harris. For Abbott, the chosen few are Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

John Howard signaled a very public warning to Abbott last week about the political perils of selective deafness, and its cousin, the presumption of knowing what’s best.

Rudd’s inability to listen to colleagues beyond his inner circle was one of the factors that contributed to his eventual downfall. His political deafness to a broader range of political voices almost certainly resulted in Rudd effectively abandoning the commitment to an emissions trading scheme rather than taking it to a double dissolution election.

And now Abbott is showing the same limited receptiveness, demonstrated perhaps most starkly by the federal budget, which is turning out to be a wholesale misjudgment of what the community is prepared to accept for the sake of national economic health.

The admirable fidelity and restraint shown by Coalition MPs while in opposition is now becoming tenuous as they face the possibility of a one-term Abbott Government. Rumours and leaks are emerging as the various players seek to deflect blame either from Abbott, or towards him, and fanciful putative alternatives like Malcolm Turnbull suddenly begin to look a tad more realistic.

Some MPs are using political commentators in the media to warn Abbott that he needs to be more consultative.

Even former prime minister John Howard signaled a very public warning to Abbott last week about the political perils of selective deafness, and its cousin, the presumption of knowing what’s best.

Without alluding directly to the Abbott Government’s first budget, Howard noted that politicians had sometimes “lost the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument”.

Howard emphasised that the community would respond to an argument for change and reform if they’re satisfied it’s in the national interest and that it’s fundamentally fair.

He also stressed the importance of having a dialogue with the public, which he pursued mainly through talkback radio in his day.

You never presume that you have an elite capacity to say what’s good for people … I think constant dialogue with people is fundamentally important – listening to people.

Perhaps the biggest single difference between Rudd and Abbott is the former was once Australia’s most popular prime minister while the latter remains among the most unpopular.

Rudd’s fate was determined once he squandered much of his political capital on a dysfunctional government, over-ambitious talkfests like the 2020 summit and the ETS backflip.

Abbott has significantly less goodwill to work with, and it is vested almost entirely in his assurances that the Coalition is a competent and adult government with the best interests of all Australians at heart. But with the budget, ongoing political stumbles and Abbott’s own indulgences, it won’t take long for the well to run dry.

As Abbott moves into the negotiation stage with senators over the budget, he has the opportunity to heed Howard’s warning and learn from Rudd’s mistakes.

Abbott must broaden the scope of advice that he seeks, and listen to what the Australian people really have to say, if he is keep the Right’s next political contender from tapping on his door.

Tough reform from the Coalition playbook

Despite confected howls of indignation from the Opposition and the labour movement, the Abbott Government’s mooted Productivity Commission inquiry into workplace laws is an election promise kept, not broken.

The PC inquiry was foreshadowed prior to the 2013 federal election, partly to placate those in the business community and media clamouring for IR reform. But it’s also part of a bold plan to take WorkChoices Mk II to the 2016 federal election and secure the people’s mandate in order to deliver what the business community wants.

Not that the Coalition’s new IR policy will be called any such thing – for WorkChoices is dead, buried AND cremated. Abbott’s campaign to make WorkChoices-by-another-name electorally palatable will closely follow the blueprint created by his mentor, John Howard, when he successfully took the GST to the 1998 federal election, paving the way for the tax to be established in July 2000.

Keeping in mind that, following John Hewson’s humiliating loss to the unpopular Paul Keating in 1993 predominantly because of the GST, and that he himself had vowed to never, ever propose a GST, Howard didn’t just plonk it on the table during the election campaign and ask voters to trust him. Instead he spent more than a year preparing the ground and shaping voters’ expectations to ensure the new tax had the best chance of success at the ballot.

To counter its rocky past and reputation as a partisan plaything, the GST was first considered and then recommended by a taxation taskforce established by the government to prepare options for tax reform. (Said taskforce was chaired by Treasury official and former Keating staffer, Ken Henry).

Exactly one year after establishing that taskforce, Howard’s treasurer Peter Costello presented voters with a package of tax reforms that included not only a GST but also personal income tax cuts, an increase in the tax free threshold and pensions, and the scrapping of wholesale sales tax, as well as the elimination of nine other taxes imposed at the state and territory level. Then the government blitzed voters with a controversial advertising campaign before immediately plunging the nation into a moderately early federal election.

Abbott is wise to be treating industrial relations reform as carefully as Howard did the GST. While he hasn’t explicitly gone back on an undertaking in the way Howard did, Abbott will be subject to that accusation right up until the next federal election and it has a good chance of getting traction.

Like Howard, Abbott is trying to create a sense of vision, momentum and inevitability around a vexed policy that obliterated one of his predecessors. Instead of sending it to a bureaucratic taskforce, Abbott has chosen to launder the policy by sending it to the economically dry (and therefore reasonably predictable) Productivity Commission, which will simultaneously bestow a sheen of objectivity on the essentially predetermined recommendations to urgently reform Australia’s workplace laws.

The media scandals and union angst generated by the Royal Commission into union governance and corruption are intended to build complementary support in the general community for Something To Be Done and soften resistance to the Government reigning in union power. This should create a favourable environment for the PC recommendations to be handed down in April next year, leaving a year for the government to release its workplace relations policy in response and perhaps run a controversial advertising campaign before calling the 2016 election.

It’s a matter of record that Howard narrowly won the GST election, securing less than 50 per cent of the vote and shrinking his majority from 40 seats to 12. Less certain is whether the GST dragged Howard down or propped him up.

At this early stage it’s equally difficult to determine whether IR reform will be a bane or bonus for Abbott. He has only a majority of 30 seats and consequently less scope for failure than Howard.*

The key is likely a rarely discussed element of the successful GST campaign. Political scholar Richard Eccleston pointed out that particularly influential opponents of the GST in the 1993 election – namely welfare advocates – joined with the business community after the regressive indirect tax increases announced in Keating’s 1993-94 budget in 1996 to find common tax reform objectives. These ultimately included agreement that a low rate, broad-based consumption tax should be part of a wide tax reform package. According to Eccleston:

A combination of changing economic conditions, the Keating government’s consequent deceit in relation to indirect taxation, and the disciplined promotion of the need for reform by the welfare-business coalition from 1996 convinced a majority of voters that indirect tax reform was necessary.

Abbott is going to need a similar convergence of traditionally disparate interests to get his IR reforms across the line in 2016. He’ll need to bring workers and employers together to support workplace reform in the same way that ACOSS and ACCI jointly supported tax reform in 1996. Demonising the union movement and creating a common “foe” for employees and bosses appears to be the chosen way.

Yet 55 per cent of Australians say they’re concerned about job security, 61 per cent think unions are important, and 45 per cent say workers are better off with stronger unions. So it will be interesting to see how Abbott fares with the IR reforms he is prepared to make during this parliamentary term.

The Government introduced legislation last month to implement the Coalition’s Fair Work Laws election policy. The bill aims to amend the Fair Work Act to tighten right-of-entry rules for unions, allow employees to trade penalty rates for more flexible hours and close “strike first, talk later” loopholes.

Of course that won’t occur any time soon because the legislation won’t be passed by the current Senate. Instead the legislation is little more than a platform upon which the parties, unions and employer groups can continue to wage their industrial relations battle.

Abbott and his Employment Minister Eric Abetz may have introduced the legislation purely to create this opportunity to further denigrate unions in the eyes of the public. But if voter sympathy for the labour movement is generated instead, Abbott’s bold plan may well be dashed before it’s even really under way.

Anatomy of a broken promise

Broken vaseWhether we like it or not, 2013 is going to be the year of the broken promise.

While it’s hard to believe there remains even one voter not yet reached by Tony Abbott’s campaign to brand Julia Gillard a venal oath-breaker, there still remain enough politically disengaged Australians to decide the election. And we can be confident that Abbott won’t leave their ultimate voting decision to chance.

An oft-quoted campaign idiom is that only once you’re sick of hearing your own voice can you be confident your message is starting to cut through. So even though political observers are heartily sick of the Opposition Leader’s mantra, he’ll keep chanting about the broken carbon tax promise confident in the knowledge that it has yet to lodge in the brains of the politically disengaged.

Whether this strategy will bring voters to Tony Abbott is another matter altogether.

Prime Ministerial broken promises are hardly a new phenomenon; throughout contemporary Australian politics they’ve often been considered a necessary evil. Promises made, particularly during election campaigns, have routinely been discarded as economic or political circumstances have changed.

In the 1970s Malcolm Fraser undertook to keep Medibank, then dismantled it. The 80s saw Bob Hawke vow that by 1990 no child would live in poverty. Paul Keating retracted his L-A-W tax cuts promise in 1993, resulting in the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister (now equal lowest with Julia Gillard), but still dragged that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders.

John Howard swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister successfully took one to the 1998 election. Howard also backtracked on commitments made during the 1998 campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises, but won the following 2001 election with an increased majority and prevailed again in 2004.

So when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to discard her vow to never have a carbon tax (as the price for securing minority government with the Greens and Independents), she could have been forgiven for thinking she’d get away with it. But in Australian politics one does not simply break an oath; one must play the game of expectations in order to get away with it.

Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, learned this the hard way in 2010 when he backed away from his election promise (made in opposition) to quickly establish an emissions trading scheme.

This change of heart shouldn’t have been as difficult for Rudd as it proved to be. Community support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was fading following the disappointing shemozzle that was Copenhagen and the Senate’s refusal to pass what the Greens considered to be a substandard trading regime. New Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s “great big tax” campaign had started to get traction. And business leaders were expressing doubt the CPRS would provide the certainty they needed.

Even having dubbed climate change as “the great moral and economic challenge of our time”, Rudd could have emerged relatively unscathed from the CPRS back-down in April 2010 if he’d better managed the community’s expectations.

But if there was one thing Rudd proved singularly incapable of doing, it was to live up to the extraordinarily inflated community expectations that he’d created as Opposition Leader. Having cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices, Rudd initially proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. But people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be a better version of Howard ultimately proved to be empty.

In fact a defining feature of Rudd as Prime Minister was to promise big but deliver small. In February 2010 Rudd told his MPs there could be no backing away from the CPRS commitment. But in April, on advice from his kitchen cabinet comprising Gillard, Swan and Tanner, Rudd decided to postpone it. The clumsily leaked broken promise caught Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and other ministers unawares. Rudd then fumbled the explanation, and in doing so extinguished what little voter faith in him that remained. As it was later reported, the decision “galvanised the fastest collapse of support for a Prime Minister in the 20-year history of Newspoll and one of the two sharpest recoils from a Prime Minister in the 40 years of the Nielsen poll.”

Prime Minister Gillard should have heeded Rudd’s CPRS downfall when faced with having to disavow her pre-election rejection of the carbon tax. Voters were already unsettled by the coup and resented being denied the opportunity to cast Rudd out themselves. Gillard’s Rudd-like commitment to resolve priority issues such as asylum seekers, the mining tax and climate action proved to be equally Rudd-like in their emptiness. And a sense of anxiety and uncertainty overhung the minority government negotiations.

It’s little wonder that latent voter unhappiness fomented into outrage once the disavowed carbon tax was publicly re-embraced by Gillard. Abbott’s aforementioned sloganeering whipped that outrage into the phenomenon we know today as JuLIAR.

In contrast, the twilight hours of 2012 saw an exemplary display of how to break a political promise AND get away with it, when the Prime Minister and Treasurer deftly broke their Budget surplus commitment.

The government first created a community expectation that dropping the surplus promise was a sensible and necessary thing to do. This was done in stages, first by floating the possibility in off-the-record discussions with credible journalists and economists who in turn championed the need for the about-turn in the media. The next stage was to convert the “idea” into “a proposal” and leak it to an esteemed journalist whose credibility would provide reflected validation.

Thus, Laura Tingle revealed (the week after parliament concluded) that the surplus commitment would be dropped. Following months of public discussion about this being the right thing to do, Tingle’s article added a sense of legitimacy and urgency to the proposal.

From there it was simply a matter of announcing the decision in the week before Christmas, when most Australians were thinking more about barbeques and beaches than the state of the Budget. The few who had not entirely switched off might have thought “and about time, too”, having vaguely recalled calls for such action. Then Australians would have turned to the post-Christmas sales and the cricket.

Such is the anatomy of a broken promise. Tony Abbott would do well to study it as he deploys the next stage of his election strategy. Most likely he’ll rely heavily on the worst-handled of the Prime Minister’s broken promises – the carbon tax – and the best-handled, being the surplus. But as we have seen with the surplus, not all rescinded commitments generate outrage, and even those that initially inflame – like the carbon tax – can lose their volatility over time.

2013 will undoubtedly be the year of the broken promise: Tony Abbott will make sure of that. But Abbott should be wary of assuming the community will become indiscriminately outraged about any and all oath-breaking. If the Prime Minister has learned from the successful reversal of the Budget surplus commitment, and continues to deftly manage community expectations, it’s likely her broken promises will be seen as nothing more than a necessary evil and something that all Prime Ministers occasionally have to do. And in doing so, she will make redundant one of her opponent’s most valued pieces of artillery.

This post first appeared at the King’s Tribune.

Latham’s ghost will hover over Abbott

And so today Tony Abbott has launched an attempt to reinvent himself, in an effort to convince voters he’s more than the extraordinarily successful wrecker he’s portrayed since becoming Opposition Leader in November 2009.

That means Abbott plans to dispel over three years of entrenched negativity in only seven to ten months*. Coalition spinmeisters are already hard at work, backgrounding senior journalists on the transition secure in the knowledge that if the media can be convinced about its effectiveness then so can the public.

Early results of this strategy are not particularly encouraging. Despite being quite comfortable telling the Prime Minister last year to resign, Michelle Grattan is currently more circumspect about Abbott. With an initial cursory nod to the likeliness that he will be in the PM’s office by the end of the year, Grattan then goes on to qualify this by questioning whether Abbott can successfully make the metamorphosis to Mr Positive:

He is obsessed with discipline though seemingly unable to avoid periodic lapses. He knows he can be his own biggest risk.

His deep personal unpopularity and his negative branding are problems to which he will apply his usual diligence. But can he change his image? And how much will it matter in the end?

The social researcher Hugh Mackay believes Abbott’s brand – being negative, destructive and dismissive – has been unchanged for so long that it has become ”indelible” and it’s hard to see him being able to break out of it.

But one of Abbott’s senior colleagues argues: ”He’s strong on the tangibles. He’s an Alpha male. Alpha males are runners, jumpers. They build things.” He believes Mr Positive will be convincing.

I heard a ghost of leaders past rattle its chains as I read those words: an echo of another Opposition Leader who successfully buried his past reputation as a thug and a bully, only to have it lurch from the grave at the election campaign deathknock and pull him back into electoral oblivion.

Gary Ramage, Daily Tele 6 Feb 2013
Photo: Gary Ramage, Daily Telegraph

The moment we saw Mark Latham aggressively shake the hand of the smaller, frailer John Howard we knew Latham would not prevail at that election. The gesture pushed other memories to the surface of our consciousness: allegations of punch-ups at the Liverpool Council, images of a taxi driver’s broken arm, and echoes of pugnacious language such as arse-licker and conga-line of suckholes.

Those memories dispelled the positive views we’d developed about Latham’s suite of hokey but popular policies, and brought into sharp relief the doubts we’d already harboured about his economic credentials.

That’s all it took, just one handshake, to finally shatter the public’s faith in the strongest electoral alternative produced by Labor at that point against John Howard. Despite starting the election behind the Labor Opposition, and trailing them at various stages in the six-week campaign, the Government was then re-elected with an increased majority in the House of Representatives and a slim majority in the Senate (the first since 1981).

The Coalition’s current attempt to paper seven months of positivity over three years of Abbott negativity is a highly fraught endeavour. Recent political history suggests that Abbott’s Mr Positive will prove as brittle and short-lived as Latham’s Mr Congeniality. All it will take for the facade to be shattered will be an ill-considered remark or an unguarded moment.

Mark Latham’s despair will hover over Tony Abbott this election like the ghost of Banquo, providing an insubstantial but insistent reminder of past misdemeanours and their potential to bring ambitious leaders down. Whether Abbott heeds this salutary warning or dismisses it as the mere rattling of chains may well determine the outcome of the 2013 election.

*3 August 2013 is the earliest possible date to hold an election for both the Senate and the House of Representatives. An election for the House of Representatives only can be held at any time up to 30 November 2013.

Glasshouses, stones and the problem with player journos

Sometimes I feel like the political equivalent of Methuselah. I really shouldn’t, because I can only remember back to the latter days of the Hawke Government. There are plenty of others around who can remember even further back than me, to the Fraser and Whitlam years.

Aside from feeling extraordinarily old, the benefit of being able to remember back that far is that contemporary political events don’t feel unique but part of an evolving continuum. For those of us who’ve been watching politics a long time, it’s not often that one hasn’t seen something similar happen before.

The most striking recent example of this is the role that Steve Lewis played in the Slipper saga.

There was a lot of comment on Twitter that cast Lewis as the villain; accusing him of actively plotting with the protagonists on one side of the political drama to bring down the players on the other. In bringing down his perspicacious judgement on the matter, Justice Rares said that Lewis was simply doing his job.

Former SMH Chief of Staff and National Editor, Bernie Lagan, now writing for The Global Mail, casts a sharp but pragmatic eye over that part of Justice Rare’s finding:

If, as the judge finds, the whole of the Slipper affair was a calculated effort by James Ashby to politically damage Peter Slipper by abusing the court process, then some might say that Steve Lewis and News Ltd were remiss for going along with it by relying on the protection of court filings for their stories; that indeed Lewis should have seen through Ashby’s motivations from the outset.

But that would be naïve. More likely was that Lewis was well aware of Ashby’s motivations and those of other players, such as Mal Brough. Sources have all sorts of motivations for giving up information. What matters to the reporter is whether the material offered is newsworthy, factually correct and can be defended once published. The facts of the various sexually charged exchanges between Slipper and Ashby aren’t in question (what can be drawn from this most certainly is). And Lewis had waited to publish with the legal cover that came once Ashby had commenced his court action.

Looking at it from this perspective, one can easily think of other examples where journalists have published newsworthy stories in the knowledge that it may be damaging for the opponent of the person who furnished the story in the first place.

Laurie Oakes’ Walkley Award winning story on Cabinet leaks unfavourable to Prime Minister Gillard during the federal election campaign immediately come to mind.

As does the running commentary that Peter Hartcher provides against the Prime Minister in favour of the vanquished Rudd.

So the journalist as political player, to the extent that knowingly publishing harmful information makes one a player, is not exactly new or even considered to be unprofessional.

Unless you’re a self-styled journalism vigilante like Margo Kingston. Yes, that’s the same Margo Kingston who, while still working as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, published Not Happy John, which excoriated the Prime Minister of the day, John Howard. Following her retirement from journalism, Kingston also became actively involved in the campaign run against Howard in the seat of Bennelong, which claimed its genesis in her book.

Not surprisingly Kingston’s Wikipedia entry says she may be seen as part of the larrikin/ratbag Australian journalistic tradition which also encompasses Alan Ramsey and Stephen Mayne. “This tradition is characterised by a willingness to break with convention, espouse controversial opinions and intervene in the events which the journalist is reporting.”

I can attest first hand to this: I clearly remember being a wide-eyed newbie media adviser sitting with Kingston and her SMH colleague Mike Seccombe over coffee one day, listening to them discuss what else they could do to help Paul Keating oust Prime Minister Bob Hawke. From that day on, I knew that some political journalists saw their role as shaping political stories, not just reporting them. (See comment from Margo Kingston below that she was no big fan of Keating so this might have been spoken in *irony font*).

Right now Kingston is shaping another narrative, running a campaign this time against Tony Abbott based on him misleading the Australian Electoral Commission about a slush fund back in the late 1990s. I wish her the very best in that endeavour.

Kingston has so far refrained from accusing Lewis of being a player, retweeting without comment the Lagan piece mentioned above.

She’s been less restrained in accusing other sections of the media from taking a side, railing on Twitter about the editor of the Daily Telegraph burying Justice Rare’s findings on page 17 and Latika Bourke not asking about Ashby in a recent interview with Julie Bishop. In the latter case, Margo even implicitly encourages others to lodge a formal complaint against Bourke:

Those cheering the actions of Margo Kingston now and in the past as some sort of journalistic white knight need to think carefully about how her actions are different, or not, from those of Lewis, Bourke, the Daily Telegraph, Oakes or Hartcher.

In covering the points raised by Kingston in her latest campaign on Abbott’s slush fund, Michelle Grattan recently wrote:

Obviously, there were clear differences between Abbott’s slush fund, which was aimed at a broad political purpose (the destruction of Hanson and One Nation) and the limited self-serving objectives of the AWA body, let alone the vehicle for illegal behaviour that it became. But the point is, Abbott does not bring an unblemished record to the argument.

Next time Margo Kingston is tempted to accuse a journalist of being a political player, she should remember that she does not bring an unblemished record to the argument either.