Abbott’s survival relies on knowing when to fold’em

The key to political survival is knowing when to hold ’em or fold ’em, or creating a distraction when needed. The Government tried all three last week, to varying degrees of success,.

Political longevity comes, in no small part, from a government’s ability to survive its mistakes – the self-inflicted stumbles, dramas and crises that diminish it in the eyes of voters.

The key to survival is often a matter of knowing the right time to stick to one’s guns and when to cut one’s losses and move on.

The third approach is to create a diversion. A well-executed diversion can take the heat out of an issue by drawing the attention of the media and public away from the troublesome matter at hand. This creates space in which to find the necessary course corrections.

The trick of course is to know what is the right approach to take at any one time.

Over the past week the Abbott Government executed these tactics with varying degrees of success. In what is anticipated to be the first in a series of concessions over the coming months, the Prime Minister cut adrift the proposed amendments that would have watered down the Racial Discrimination Act.

The extent of the loss for supporters of free speech was writ large on the face of the Attorney-General, George Brandis, as he stood stonily beside the Prime Minister at the media conference announcing the backdown.

Both men knew this was undeniably a big win for the progressive side of politics, which had campaigned in concert with the representatives of ethnic communities for the retention of curbs on hate speech. Pairing the announcement with the declaration of new counter-terrorism measures was therefore meant to be a diversionary tactic to convince the media that the security changes were a bigger news story than the progressives’ win on 18c.

This manoeuvre proved more distracting than likely expected when it transpired the new measures also included the mandatory retention of information on Australian citizens’ telephone and internet use. Progressives who were one moment celebrating the overturn of the 18c changes, were then raging about the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

In effect Tony Abbott swapped one leftist soapbox for another, and while it’s true the Coalition’s core voter base enjoys seeing the Left prodded into outrage every now and then, they will have marked Abbott down on the anti-terrorist measures because of the associated “spine-weakening” on free speech.

So by the end of the past week, Abbott was getting no credit for taking the hard decision on 18c or protecting the nation with the new security measures. And following what looked very much like self-sabotage on Brandis’s part when he botched the explanation of metadata retention during a media interview, there was a growing need to stem the flow of outrage exacerbated by the exceedingly poor marketing of the security initiative.

A Machiavellian might be forgiven for thinking it was at this point the Government decided it needed a diversion from its diversion. Indeed, can there be any other explanation for the Liberals’ dour arch-conservative, Senator Eric Abetz, agreeing to appear on the commercial light-news program The Project on Thursday night?

Abetz’s subsequent comments on the link between abortion and breast cancer provided just the circuit-breaker needed to reset the outrage machine on social media and provide a whole new story arc for its limpet media.

This theory is not so far-fetched if one considers the times when other members of the Liberals’ extreme right have also seemingly been wheeled out to perform distraction duties. Senator Cory Bernardi’s comments on same-sex marriage and bestiality, albeit in opposition, are a particular case in point.

The added benefit of extremists like Abetz and Bernardi taking the stage in this way is that their behaviour and views tend to normalise those of less extreme conservatives, thereby dragging the “centre” of politics even further to the right.

As the past week closed, it could be argued that Abetz’s intervention had succeeded: it certainly seemed as if the mainstream media had moved on to other fare. And so as the new week begins, the polity awaits the arrival of the next bandwagon to clatter through the echo-chambers of Twitter.

What does seem clear is that the Prime Minister will have to cut his losses on a range of other measures if he is to get some semblance of the budget through the Senate. The time for stubbornness or diversion is well past.

This means finding ways to accommodate the crossbench’s opposition to changes to payments for families, eligibility requirements for welfare recipients, the GP co-payment, and changes to higher education charges.

In reality, the best way to demonstrate his willingness to negotiate on the budget would be for Abbott to formally set aside or scrap his paid parental leave scheme. Having already justified his broken promise on the 18c changes as being in the national interest, this would be the logical next step.

Letting a good PPL be buried in the name of fairness

The Prime Minister’s refusal to negotiate or give ground makes it unlikely that he’ll ever deliver working women with a paid parental leave scheme that can be supported by all Australians.

A report emerged over the weekend that Tony Abbott’s singularly unloved paid parental leave policy has been “shelved”, perhaps indefinitely or perhaps until the more pressing budget bills have been shepherded through the Parliament.

Senior Liberals have since denied that their PPL policy has been delayed. Should the postponement eventuate as seems likely, this would be a belated recognition that the PPL battle is not one the Government needs at a time when it is exposed on numerous other fronts.A report emerged over the weekend that Tony Abbott’s singularly unloved paid parental leave policy has been “shelved”, perhaps indefinitely or perhaps until the more pressing budget bills have been shepherded through the Parliament.

Senior Liberals have since denied that their PPL policy has been delayed. Should the postponement eventuate as seems likely, this would be a belated recognition that the PPL battle is not one the Government needs at a time when it is exposed on numerous other fronts.

By the time Parliament resumes later this month, the Government will need to have found ways to bring either Labor, the Greens or the Senate crossbench around on key budget measures – such as changes to welfare arrangements for unemployed people under 30 and the introduction of a $7 GP co-payment – or these too will have to be placed on the backburner.

In some ways, the PPL represents everything the Government has done wrong in formulating and selling the budget. It’s a poorly conceived policy that was peremptorily delivered with no attempt made to explain or build support for it.

The PPL was doomed from the start by being seen as a ploy by the new Opposition Leader at the time to counter what was emerging as Tony Abbott’s “women problem”.

Abbott does appear genuinely supportive of paid parental leave, having flagged support for the idea in his book Battlelines in 2009. But in an early game of one-upmanship with then PM Kevin Rudd, Abbott unilaterally announced his version of the PPL in 2010 in response to Rudd’s commitment to the minimum wage PPL that we have today.

Despite the merits of Abbott’s pet policy, particularly the benefits it would bring to women working in small and medium businesses as well as the self-employed, its genesis has ensured the PPL quickly became a stand-in for Abbott whenever his opponents needed an effigy to burn.

And Abbott’s inability to explain the PPL has ensured any rational discussion of how the policy helps low- and middle-income single mothers and women who are sole family income earners is thrown aside for cheap attacks on the scheme due to it also being open to high-income earners.

Perhaps most troubling for Abbott’s supporters is that the Prime Minister has shown little willingness or capacity to negotiate or give ground on the PPL.

Other than dropping the upper limit for the payments to a total of $50,000 over six months to match that being proposed in a similar policy by the Greens, he’s shown no facility for finding creative solutions to criticisms. An obvious one would be to introduce a means test that rules out payments for the most wealthy.

Until such solutions are found and changes are made, the PPL, like many other unpopular policies and budget measures the Government is grappling with at the moment, will continue to be seen by the public as failing the fairness test.

This is what the self-proclaimed father of payments for stay-at-home mothers, John Howard, made very clear to Abbott when Howard appeared with former PM Bob Hawke at the National Press Club earlier this year.

Howard was speaking about the need to bring the community along when governments want to make major changes, and was referring indirectly to the budget, but his words could just as easily apply to the PPL:

“They will respond to an argument for change and reform,” said Howard, but, “they want two requirements. They want to be satisfied it’s in the national interest … They also want to be satisfied it’s fundamentally fair.”

Howard is better-credentialed than most to offer this advice, having not only lost his seat but his government in 2007 due to a self-indulgent industrial relations policy that was widely perceived by voters as unfair.

By comparison, there is now a commonly accepted ‘truth’ within the community that the PPL is a boon for millionaire mummies. This is making it considerably difficult for Coalition MPs to justify the hard measures in the federal budget to their electorates on any measure of fairness.

On this basis, the reported shelving of the PPL is likely as much about soothing unrest within the Coalition’s ranks as it is about focusing the Government’s efforts on salvaging the budget bills.

That is, if one could describe the Treasurer’s recent efforts as “focused”. One moment Hockey’s talking tough by threatening to find “other ways” to raise revenue through funding cuts that don’t require legislation; the next he’s on a spread-the-love tour around the country, doing the walk of shame in front of the media after lavishing attention on individual crossbench senators.

That’s not to mention Hockey giving Clive Palmer a free kick by suggesting the asset recycling measure could be forced through Parliament as an appropriation bill, which Palmer promptly said he would block in order to bring on a constitutional crisis and a fresh election.

Clearly the future success of the PPL should be the very least of Abbott’s worries right now.

By his own doing, he’s saddled with a deeply unpopular budget, an intransigent Senate and a disgruntled party-room. Abbott’s number one budget salesman has lost his mojo and many of his other ministers are duds. And he’s either getting bad political advice or ignoring those strategists to which he should be listening.

In apparently setting aside the PPL, the Prime Minister has perhaps taken the first step in addressing this litany of mostly self-inflicted problems. Whether Abbott is able to retrieve his position or not, his early and continued mishandling of the PPL regrettably makes it unlikely that he’ll ever deliver working women with a paid parental leave scheme that can be supported by all Australians.

By the time Parliament resumes later this month, the Government will need to have found ways to bring either Labor, the Greens or the Senate crossbench around on key budget measures – such as changes to welfare arrangements for unemployed people under 30 and the introduction of a $7 GP co-payment – or these too will have to be placed on the backburner.

In some ways, the PPL represents everything the Government has done wrong in formulating and selling the budget. It’s a poorly conceived policy that was peremptorily delivered with no attempt made to explain or build support for it.

The PPL was doomed from the start by being seen as a ploy by the new Opposition Leader at the time to counter what was emerging as Tony Abbott’s “women problem”.

Abbott does appear genuinely supportive of paid parental leave, having flagged support for the idea in his book Battlelines in 2009. But in an early game of one-upmanship with then PM Kevin Rudd, Abbott unilaterally announced his version of the PPL in 2010 in response to Rudd’s commitment to the minimum wage PPL that we have today.

Despite the merits of Abbott’s pet policy, particularly the benefits it would bring to women working in small and medium businesses as well as the self-employed, its genesis has ensured the PPL quickly became a stand-in for Abbott whenever his opponents needed an effigy to burn.

And Abbott’s inability to explain the PPL has ensured any rational discussion of how the policy helps low- and middle-income single mothers and women who are sole family income earners is thrown aside for cheap attacks on the scheme due to it also being open to high-income earners.

Perhaps most troubling for Abbott’s supporters is that the Prime Minister has shown little willingness or capacity to negotiate or give ground on the PPL.

Other than dropping the upper limit for the payments to a total of $50,000 over six months to match that being proposed in a similar policy by the Greens, he’s shown no facility for finding creative solutions to criticisms. An obvious one would be to introduce a means test that rules out payments for the most wealthy.

Until such solutions are found and changes are made, the PPL, like many other unpopular policies and budget measures the Government is grappling with at the moment, will continue to be seen by the public as failing the fairness test.

This is what the self-proclaimed father of payments for stay-at-home mothers, John Howard, made very clear to Abbott when Howard appeared with former PM Bob Hawke at the National Press Club earlier this year.

Howard was speaking about the need to bring the community along when governments want to make major changes, and was referring indirectly to the budget, but his words could just as easily apply to the PPL:

“They will respond to an argument for change and reform,” said Howard, but, “they want two requirements. They want to be satisfied it’s in the national interest … They also want to be satisfied it’s fundamentally fair.”

Howard is better-credentialed than most to offer this advice, having not only lost his seat but his government in 2007 due to a self-indulgent industrial relations policy that was widely perceived by voters as unfair.

By comparison, there is now a commonly accepted ‘truth’ within the community that the PPL is a boon for millionaire mummies. This is making it considerably difficult for Coalition MPs to justify the hard measures in the federal budget to their electorates on any measure of fairness.

On this basis, the reported shelving of the PPL is likely as much about soothing unrest within the Coalition’s ranks as it is about focusing the Government’s efforts on salvaging the budget bills.

That is, if one could describe the Treasurer’s recent efforts as “focused”. One moment Hockey’s talking tough by threatening to find “other ways” to raise revenue through funding cuts that don’t require legislation; the next he’s on a spread-the-love tour around the country, doing the walk of shame in front of the media after lavishing attention on individual crossbench senators.

That’s not to mention Hockey giving Clive Palmer a free kick by suggesting the asset recycling measure could be forced through Parliament as an appropriation bill, which Palmer promptly said he would block in order to bring on a constitutional crisis and a fresh election.

Clearly the future success of the PPL should be the very least of Abbott’s worries right now.

By his own doing, he’s saddled with a deeply unpopular budget, an intransigent Senate and a disgruntled party-room. Abbott’s number one budget salesman has lost his mojo and many of his other ministers are duds. And he’s either getting bad political advice or ignoring those strategists to which he should be listening.

In apparently setting aside the PPL, the Prime Minister has perhaps taken the first step in addressing this litany of mostly self-inflicted problems. Whether Abbott is able to retrieve his position or not, his early and continued mishandling of the PPL regrettably makes it unlikely that he’ll ever deliver working women with a paid parental leave scheme that can be supported by all Australians.

The vexed issue called ‘leadership’

Without political leadership built on respect, we’ll continue to be distracted by populist politicians and resentful of those who try to force worthy but unpalatable solutions upon us.

Of all the qualities our political leaders strive to embody, the nebulous characteristic called “leadership” is ironically the hardest to achieve.

Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his opposition counterpart Bill Shorten have discovered there’s considerably more to the leadership task than striding forward shouting “follow me!”

Leadership requires striking what is usually a precarious balance between reflecting what voters want, and convincing them to accept what the nation needs. The consequences of getting the balance wrong usually amounts to electoral defeat.

Voters are hard taskmasters when it comes to leadership. The quality can inspire respect, sometimes admiration and even less frequently, awe.

But it is a title and a role that only we can bestow; we generally only see figureheads as leaders if, in our estimation, they reflect our own values, thoughts and motivations.

We want our leaders to be an extension of us; to lead, but in reality, to follow. We favour those who ascribe to the apocryphal motto attributed to both the fictional British PM Jim Hacker and the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “I am their leader. I must follow them.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that Abbott’s reflection of our shock, grief and grim determination following the attack on MH17 initially resulted in his leadership credentials being considered in a more positive light.

Abbott has since managed to dim that glow by overreaching on the tragedy. His attempt to appropriate the retrieval of the dead as another “national security” issue, by dubbing it Operation Bring Them Home and announcing the deployment of armed police and defence personnel to the site, quickly leached much of the goodwill that previously unsupportive voters may have had for the PM.

Such is the risk of straying from the song sheet that is the collective consciousness.

There are of course other inherent dangers for leaders who follow the pack. It’s one thing to channel the nation’s collective ebullience, as Bob Hawke did on the morning Australia II won the America’s Cup, or our deep regret, as Kevin Rudd did when he apologised on our behalf to the Stolen Generations.

It’s yet another to move like a weathervane as the winds of public opinion shift from one direction to another. Voters prefer their leaders to be reliable and dependable, and usually lose respect for those who prove to be otherwise.

The greatest risk, however, is in succumbing to voters’ baser instincts such as the xenophobia, if not outright racism, embodied in the current majority view that condones the harsh treatment of asylum seekers in the name of “national security”.

Likewise the voters’ hip-pocket rejection of climate action, which has shaped both the Coalition and Labor’s abandonment of the carbon “tax”.

In these cases, a different type of leadership has traditionally been used; one that involves stepping forward from the pack and setting an example to be followed.

There is a good reason this type of leadership is less favoured; our contemporary political history is littered with the remains of those who failed to lead Australians to accept unpopular political positions.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s inability to successfully prosecute the case for a carbon price is perhaps the most recently notable example. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s attempt to unite voters against “the age of entitlement” is another.

And Bill Shorten’s push to democratise the Labor Party, which is meeting considerable resistance from the union and factional influences within the party membership that he’s seeking to reduce, may yet prove to be another example.

A different approach to political leadership is needed if Australia is to tackle diabolical issues such as asylum seekers and climate change, as well as less pressing but nevertheless important matters like the federal budget.

It’s not enough for a leader merely to espouse what the Australian people want, or conversely to expect that voters will trust and follow them just because of the office they hold.

A necessary precursor must first be established – political leaders must earn the respect of the Australian electorate. Only those leaders who have secured that respect, and who can effectively make the case for change, will successfully bring the community along with them.

Without political leadership built on respect, we’ll continue to be distracted by populist politicians and resentful of those who try to force worthy but unpalatable solutions upon us. And the tough issues will either be buffeted by the winds of populism or simply consigned to the too hard basket.