Voters forgive leadership change, but not disunity

Only days since returning from a short summer break, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is struggling with the issue he left unresolved before Christmas – the Government’s litany of policy disasters, its rejected budget, and his own failure to deal with his increasingly alarmed ministers and backbenchers.

Admittedly, the PM made some half-hearted attempts to ‘reset’ matters at the end of last year. He reshuffled the ministry without offloading most of the dead wood, held a press conference in which he failed to nominate any policy for resetting, and then went on to ‘give ground’ on policies such as the Medicare rebate and the paid parental leave scheme without actually giving any real ground.

Not surprisingly, this fooled no one, leaving ABC 730’s Leigh Sales to be the first to ask the PM whether he would consider stepping aside in order to give the Coalition the best chance of holding on to power. Abbott’s response was to evoke the deposing of Rudd as justification for his retention, arguing “the one fundamental lesson of the last catastrophic government was that you don’t lightly change leaders”.

This rationale has become almost an invocation, most recently uttered by the PM today in response to questions about the viability of his leadership:

“If there is one lesson to be learned from the fate of the former government in Canberra – maybe even the former government in Victoria – is you do not change leaders. You rally behind someone and you stick to the plan, and we’ve got a good plan.”

To make matters worse, the PM was then treated to a serve by a talkback caller describing himself as a Liberal voter, who said Abbott was “on the nose with Liberal voters” and “the world’s worst salesman”, and that “people don’t know where you are going and business is saying there are roadblocks because there is no direction and no leadership”.

Once one gets past the irony of Prime Minister Tony Abbott citing the coup against Kevin Rudd as the main reason not to dispense with him, it’s worth examining whether it’s actually true that voters don’t like parties who change leaders midstream.

In fact, several Australian governments have changed leaders and gone on to win the following election.

After stalking and then knocking off Australia’s once most popular PM Bob Hawke, Paul Keating went on to beat Opposition Leader John Hewson at the 1993 federal election.

At the state level, a leadership transition was made from Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to Anna Bligh, who despite losing seats at the next state election still retained government. And after losing the confidence of his party room, South Australia’s Premier Mike Rann stood aside for Jay Weatherill, who scraped through the following election to form a minority government.

Sure, each of the governments took a hit in the polls, but they still managed to retain office.

And let’s not forget that despite PM Abbott using Rudd’s political demise as a cautionary tale, Julia Gillard actually managed to form government after the subsequent election, albeit a minority one, despite Rudd’s best efforts to sabotage Labor’s election campaign.

That’s not to say Labor voters weren’t unhappy with the way Rudd was treated. Firstly, they were shocked at the seeming swiftness of the rebellion, and then mystified when it became clear neither Gillard nor those who backed her would give a valid explanation for the coup.

That emotion later intensified to anger when Gillard failed to deliver on the fresh start she had promised voters, demonstrating the same political tin-ear and poor judgement that had plagued Rudd. Gillard’s perceived broken oath on the carbon tax combined with her various political mishaps and pratfalls had more influence on her poor electoral standing than the way she became prime minister.

Despite PM Abbott’s protestations to the contrary, there is no golden rule in Australia politics damning a governing party that changes leaders mid-stream to eternal political opprobrium.

Most of those that did manage to retain office after a leadership change occurred late in the life of long-running governments looking to extend their incumbency. And while some of the changes were orderly handovers, a couple were so well telegraphed they became inevitable.

There are messages in these facts for the current prime minister: governments that have an orderly transition of leadership can survive to fight and win another election. And the removal of a prime minister will generate less voter anger if it’s clear why the change is being made.

If there is a lesson for anyone in the Rudd-Gillard saga, it is actually for Abbott. Voters are more concerned about political disunity, incompetency and unmet expectations than they are about changes in the Government’s leadership.

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.

Friendship and war: Abbott should tread carefully

The last time Australia went to war, in 2003, the decision was as much about friendship as it was about peace.

The commitment of Australian troops to Iraq was a product of the strong political friendship between our conservative prime minister, John Howard, and the Republican president George W Bush – forged during the dark hours of September 11, 2001 – as much as the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Everyday Australians felt little connection at the time with the need to fight America’s war against the brutal oppressor, but Howard leveraged our shared horror of the tumbling twin towers and the bombings in Bali into a grudging acceptance that overthrowing Hussein would aid in the fight against Al Qaeda.

Eleven years later, it’s hard to see how that campaign or the broader war on terror has made the world a safer place. Howard admitted as much in his autobiography, acknowledging that the “liberating forces” did not adequately think through the consequences of their actions in Iraq, or what might fill the vacuum once they left.

The perpetrators of terror have proven to be as enduring as George W Bush once admitted they would be when he called the war on terror “a task that does not end”.

Al Qaeda spawned the Islamic State in the years that followed Iraq’s “liberation”, and now another conservative Australian Prime Minister has agreed to participate in a new American campaign to deliver the world from this latest manifestation of terrorism.

Democrat president Barack Obama may have called our PM Tony Abbott “my friend” when recently briefing him on the intended campaign, but there is no searing experience shared between the two men to reinforce the ANZUS pact in the way there was between Bush and Howard. Nor has there been a compelling event like the Bali bombings to generate public acceptance of the need for Australia to participate.

This is going to make it more difficult for Abbott to warrant putting the lives of Australian troops on the line. But justify it he will. By participating in this campaign Abbott aims not only to nurture our important strategic relationship with the US, but also to strengthen the only card he has left to play on the domestic front – the protection of national security.

One advantage Abbott does have over Howard in rationalising our involvement in foreign military action is a greater awareness on the part of the general community of the role that terrorism is playing in international events. The downing of MH17 (although by insurgents and not terrorists) first drew the eyes of usually disengaged Australians to foreign shores, and the beheadings by IS of two American journalists and a British aid worker have kept them there.

However, such awareness is only the pre-cursor to public acceptance. Australians must also feel they have a personal stake in the outcome, as they did after the events in Bali.

Similarly, public support for the extreme measures taken to “stop” the boats is grounded in a vague but real concern that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are a threat either to our safety, our predominantly western culture, or to our job security and standard of living. Involvement of defence force personnel and the use of military terms such as Operation Sovereign Borders deliberately reinforce that concern while also presenting the Government as protection from the perceived scourge.

That’s why Abbott and his senior cabinet members have made so much of the “home-grown” terror that could be lurking in our own doorways if we are not prepared to act.

Nor is it a coincidence that the Commander In Chief of Operational Sovereign Borders, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison – the second most popular minister amongst Coalition supporters – was wheeled out on the weekend to make the connection for us, saying that:

We need to act in our interests, we can never be intimidated by terrorists and extremists, and I know that the Australian community strongly supports a very strong stand on this in standing up for our values and our way of life.

That’s not to suggest the threat isn’t real, or that it hasn’t increased in recent times. It is clear, however, that the Government is leveraging the prospect of Australians facing terrorist acts from their own countrymen to justify a range of security initiatives including the mandatory retention of metadata as well as the joint action with the US against IS in Iraq.

The results of this tactic are likely to be mixed. While it may be eminently logical to bolster security measures to deal with the rise of organised and lone wolf terrorists at home, it makes little sense to participate in a military campaign similar to the one that caused home-grown extremists to arise in the first place.

And while Abbott may not really be able to claim the US president as his friend, he should listen closely to the last Australian PM who could. Howard now concedes the folly of entering into an open-ended war in Iraq; Abbott should think carefully before doing the same.

Prime Ministerial half-truths will not save the climate

Not that long ago I wrote that Julia Gillard could regain control of her carbon price campaign by adopting a four-part strategy. While I don’t think for a minute the PM actually read my advice, it seems someone within her camp independently came up with a similar strategy.

At least that’s how it first appeared on Monday night when the Prime Minister gave a confident, polished and personable performance on Q&A.

The first part of my strategy required the PM to be honest – to admit her broken promise and explain the constraints she had to work with in the minority government that Australian voters had imposed upon her.

That’s pretty much what she did:

“Now, I did say during the last election campaign – I promised that there would be no carbon tax. That’s true and I’ve walked away from that commitment and I’m not going to try and pretend anything else. I also said to the Australian people in the last election campaign that we needed to act on climate change. We needed to price carbon and I wanted to see an emissions trading scheme…. Now, if I’d been leading a majority government I would have been getting on with an emissions trading scheme. It’s what I promised the Australian people. As it is, in this minority parliament, the only way I can act on climate change by pricing carbon is to work with others and so I had a really stark choice. Do I act or not act? Well, I’ve chosen to act….”

It was an exciting moment; I thought the Prime Minister had taken a huge step in rebuilding her bond of trust with the community.

But then, two mistruths shattered the illusion.

Firstly, the PM claimed the carbon price would make renewable energy-based products cheaper, that consumers would react to this price signal, and this would drive innovation. She said:

“When you come to buy things, products that are made with relatively less carbon pollution will be cheaper than products that are made with more carbon pollution. So you’re standing there with your household assistance in your hand. You could still keep buying the high carbon pollution products if you want to or what you’re far more likely to do is to buy the cheaper, lower carbon pollution products. That means that the people who make those things will get the consumer signal, gee, we will sell more, we will make more money if we make lower pollution products. That drives the innovation. So I want you to have that household assistance in your hand but I also want you to see price effects which make cleaner, greener things cheaper than high pollution commodities. That’s why it works.”

This is patently untrue. Firstly, if the carbon price is set low (eg. $20/tonne as suggested), renewable energy-based products will still be more expensive than the coal energy-based products. As explained by renewable energy advocates Beyond Zero Emissions the carbon price would have to be set much higher to make the low emission products even price competitive with the high emission ones, let alone cheaper.

“Due to the nature of technology and the energy market, we would require in excess of $70/tonne even for wind power, the lowest cost renewable, to compete in the electricity market [without subsidies]. For baseload technologies such as concentrating solar thermal, the game changer we need to replace coal and gas, you would need in excess of $200/tonne for initial plants.”

If the low carbon price doesn’t make low emission products cheaper, then the Prime Minister is relying on the green consciousness of consumers to drive green purchasing. This won’t happen either; while people claim they buy green products their actual behaviour shows they don’t. In the absence of consumers changing their purchasing patterns, there will be little or no incentive for the “big polluters” to move to lower emission inputs.

This is also recognised by activist green groups such as Friends of the Earth (Australia):

“The demand for a carbon price is widespread in the climate movement. The Greens support a low carbon tax, leading to a fully fledged emissions trading scheme. But just as rising petrol prices have not lead to new investment in public transport, a carbon price will not in itself see renewable energy built. At best it is likely to make gas more competitive with coal.”

So, on the capacity for the carbon tax to change spending patterns and drive innovation, the Prime Minister could be said to be disingenuous, but I’d say she was deliberately misleading.

Similarly, the PM intentionally misled Q&A viewers with her comment about China. While scolding us for being climate recalcitrants, the Prime Minister misrepresented China’s climate actions to emphasise our tardiness:

“You know, China [is] closing down a dirty coal-fired power generation facility at the rate of one every one to two weeks.”

In reality, China is replacing its old coal-fired power stations with new ones. China is a long way from abandoning coal in the way suggested by the Prime Minister.

The International Energy Agency says China’s economic and social growth is so vast and so rapid that the nation will continue to use coal for electricity generation until at least 2035.

“The IEA estimates that China, which generates more than 70% of its electricity with coal, will build 600 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power capacity in the next quarter-century – as much as is currently generated with coal in America, Japan and the European Union put together.”

Also according to the IEA, China overtook the US in 2009 as the world’s largest energy user. The organization says:

“…the country’s energy demand is foreseen to surge a stunning 75% between 2008 and 2035, when it will account for 22% of world demand. China will lead the surge in electricity generation growth, and power demand in the country is expected to triple between 2008 and 2035.”

China is doing what‘s best for its people while it grapples with global issues such as climate change. The Gillard government is attempting the same, but doing a poor job of it.

Sleights of hand and half-truths won’t engender the community respect that the Prime Minister needs for us to follow her lead. Without such trust and willingness, there will be no effective climate action.

As I’ve said before, if the Prime Minister wants to bring Australian voters along with her in pursuit of a low emission economy, she must treat us like adults and start telling us the truth.

The truth, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook, is that global power generation is expected to grow by 75% between now and 2035. The truth is that fossil fuels will continue to dominate even though the proportion of renewable energy sources will grow.

The truth is that it’ll be tough to wean Australians from our country’s natural strengths, such as plentiful and affordable energy, and the comfortable lifestyle that comes with it.

And the greatest truth is that this process will require a transformation of the economy and of our lifestyles that we will have never seen before.

The full transcript of the PM’s appearance on Q&A is available here.

Hate mail may drown out real learning from Howard years

Judging by the early mail on Twitter, there could be a lot of pollie-hate brought to light this week by the launch of John Howard’s autobiography. The overturning of this slimy rock is likely to expose a mass of blind and seething hate that may momentarily mesmerise or repulse before it quickly disperses and plunges back into the shadows.

Anticipation of this event has led me to ponder why Australians love to hate politicians. Conversely, it’s occurred to me that not many politicians have ever been popular in Australia, and even less of them have been Prime Minister.

The esteemed journal Wikkipedia shows that, since 1972, only two Prime Ministers have enjoyed what we might call popular acclaim. Hawke’s peak approval rating was 75%, a record that remained untouched until Rudd’s heyday (74%).

Somewhat surprisingly Howard comes in third, with a peak approval rating of 67%. Keating (40%) comes last after Whitlam (62%) and Fraser (56%).

What does this say about Australian voters? Undoubtedly we are a cynical and pragmatic lot, so maybe this is why we don’t particularly like politicians.

Ironically, dislike of a politician doesn’t seem to prevent us from entrusting them with the Treasury benches. The popular Hawke is our longest serving Labor PM, and third longest overall, with 4 election victories under his belt and nearly 9 years in office. However, the fourth longest is the unpopular Fraser who nevertheless won 3 elections and served as PM for just over 7 years.

It’s no secret that Howard was not loved as Prime Minister, indeed at times he was loathed, yet he is the second-longest serving PM ever. Howard remained in office for nearly 12 years and won 4 elections. Why is that? I believe it’s because pragmatic Australians ultimately vote for the politician they think will best run the country.

For many years that politician was John Howard. While he was never a popular politician, Howard had the ability to secure the votes of people who didn’t like him or who didn’t usually vote Liberal. These people didn’t necessarily agree with Howard but trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. Admittedly Fraser also won elections while unpopular, but Howard did so after making some very unpopular decisions.

It’s a matter of record that Howard threw that trust away. He squandered the electoral asset that he’d carefully built over years in high office with acts of indulgence and hubris. People lost faith in Howard as they watched him put personal political philosophies ahead of the public interest, and refuse to consider succession planning in the Liberal Party.

As the hate mail starts to flow next week, it will drown out the real learning from the Howard years.

John Howard’s story should be a compelling and inspiring one. Having failed once as a leader and been assassinated by colleagues, he eventually rallied and brought his party back from nearly 14 years in the political wilderness. He then kept them in office for nearly 12 years.

Perhaps more importantly, Howard showed that a successful leader does not need to be popular, but must be seen to be making decisions that put the public interest first, on every occasion. Howard’s model was studied closely by Rudd but replicated poorly. It will be interesting to see if Gillard chooses to take a similar course.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.