The Liberal Party’s decision about its leadership will be decided before most will have read this essay. Nonetheless, like everyone else who has an interest in this issue, I have views. I have been responding to Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise since I read the book, and what is happening today is in keeping with what he predicted in that book, as is the LNP’s crashing losses in Queensland, even if it manages to hang on to power.
I start with one remark of Bill Shorten’s the other day, which I caught on television. I think I have it correctly: ‘A party that cannot govern itself cannot govern Australia!’ At the time, I wondered had he forgotten the dreadful years of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd period — or was he rather pointing out to the Liberals, in a kindly fashion, that they needed to remember how disunity had crippled his own party?
There is a great truth in Australian politics — that political disunity is electoral death. The ALP is much more often the exemplar than the Liberal Party. It suffered during and after the Great War, in the Depression, and because of the Split, from 1954 to 1978. It is only 19 months since Kevin Rudd regained the Prime Ministership after a second coup, and only 16 months since Tony Abbott led the Coalition to a decisive electoral victory. Now a group within the Liberal Party is seeking to replace its leader.
How can this have happened? One plain answer is that Tony Abbott is not as effective in leading the Government as he was in leading the Opposition. He doesn’t communicate well, and it appears that he doesn’t listen intently enough, or perhaps that he trusts his own judgment more than he ought. A second plain answer is that while neat short slogans can work well in Opposition, they don’t work well in Government, because government is a complex and messy business. A third is that the opinion polls have been consistently bad for the Government and its leader.
It may be the case that Mr Abbott is not right for the top job. I don’t know. It has to be said that being effective in Opposition doesn’t necessarily translate. Nor does having been an effective Minister. The most effective PM is one who understands those who are his Ministers, and works to get the best out of them. A PM cannot be on top of everything, and he has to trust his colleagues. If they seem not up to the job, the PM has to decide whether or not to support them or sack them.
But above all, the PM has to understand, comprehend and articulate, what it is that the Government is about, and why that ought to be important to everyone. He or she is the looked-up-to voice of the Government, and doing that well, and often, is the most important task for the PM. Being a great chairman of Cabinet and other meetings is a fine asset too, as is avoiding having favourites, kitchen cabinets and inner groups.
I am not close to anyone in either the Government of the Opposition, and I cannot say how well or how badly Mr Abbott fits these requirements. But what I do not hear, and have not heard since the Coalition won office, is a consistent message about what they are there for. Stopping the boats. OK. Abolishing the carbon tax. OK. But what now? What sort of Australian society does the Coalition want for the future. What are its priorities? Why are they so important? Yes, the Senate has been a problem. But I think it would have been less of a problem had there been a consistent message.
I have the feeling that many inside the Coalition thought in 2013 it would just be a matter of rolling Labor back, and then getting back to the business of governing, as had been the case when John Howard was PM. But a lot has changed since then, and will change again. To steer the ship of state one really does have to have a sense of direction, if not a home port.
If this seems a bit harsh, I would have to say the same about the Labor Opposition. I have no idea of what it is about, or what would happen if it won power in late 2016. Again, it seems to me that the old party system is declining in its hold on us all. If that is the case, and I have argued it in recent posts, then it is even more important for the leader of a government to be confident about what the government is for, and able to say that persuasively and often.
If Mr Abbott holds on to his job, I hope that he has the wit to realise that what he has been doing simply isn’t working, and that he himself is not a confidence-inspiring speaker on its behalf. He might do a lot better through allowing his Ministers to say what they have to say, and encourage them to do it. The senior ones do this pretty well, it seems to me. He could restrict his appearance to short and formal occasions, and stay away from questions as far as he can.
If he is replaced, presumably by Mr Turnbull, we will have the paradox of a leader of the government who lost his post because the majority (a slim one at the time) disagreed with him about what he thought was a crucial element of current politics: trying to deal with greenhouse gas emissions through a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.
And I do not look forward to the next elections with any hope that things will be much better after them. The move to have private offices, which started with the Whitlam Government, has created a ‘political class’ whose members learned their trade by working for an MP, graduating to working for a Minister, and then finding a seat that might be won. What is meant by ‘political representation’ has changed its character and meaning, mostly, I think, to our cost.
I don’t see any useful or immediate solution, really. It could be done in one electorate after another, through citizens saying that they have had enough of this, by-passing the parties and finding the best local person to represent the electorate. Alas, our electorates are pretty large, and most of the metropolitan ones aren’t natural communities. Anyway, most people just aren’t interested enough. They’re involved in single-issue groups, if they’re involved in politics at all.
A final thought. Once again, you can see how important the media have been in this issue. It is hard not to see a consistent anti-Abbott sentiment in what has been reported, and how it has been presented — not his policies or positions, but just the man himself. If he survives, and that looks like a coin toss to me, dealing with that sentiment has to be a major task for him for the remainder of this Parliament.