The real choice for the Coalition

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.

 

 

Join the discussion 29 Comments

  • Dasher says:

    I agree with most of this Don. A few points. I watched Tony Abbott in question time a couple of months back and he was a different man, confident articulate and persuasive, nothing like in say, a Leigh Sales interview. (Gillard was the same so i guess this is comfortable territory for them) . Abbott has made some bad calls including the knighthoods, dropping freedom of speech issue and PPL but on balance this has been a pretty reasonable government, sure they haven’t got their budget through but they are trying. I think Abbott is a very good man but there is no doubt that far more people have a visceral dislike of the man and his errors are magnified. The mantra that he is not explaining his policies well enough is partly true but how could any rational explanation get through to political neanderthals such as Lambie, Lazuras and Muir? How could it get through to Bill Shorten who is determined not to act whether or not it is in the national interest. Had the thrust of that relatively modest budget got through (and it should have) people would be moving on and the country would heading in a better direction. That said, for the sake of the country they must try and they must get their media coordinated and targeted. For example I would have expected the government to swamp the airwaves with the advice given by the Secretary of the Treasury, and Reserve Bank governor last week that we have a real budgetary problem. Incidentally that same week Wayne Swan on Q&A said talk about a budget emergency was a beat up! What hope do we have? I fear the sense of entitlement is now so entrenched in this country that real budgetary repair is more difficult than ever (even without a rogue Senate) and I am not confident that Abbott can turn things around having won his first leadership challenge but the only way is good policies, good media management and sensible sound government…surely this is not beyond them. I hope we don’t get to the point where our situation becomes critical and reform is forced upon us. If people think the present budget is unfair they may be in for a very rude surprise.

    • JMO says:

      “…his errors are magnified.” I agree. The first Abbott Government’s budget was not as harsh as the first Howard Government’s budget in 1996. The Abbott’s cuts to the ABC were no where near the savage cuts under the first term Howard Government. The additional number of public service sackings under the Abbott Government is 2500 (16,500 – 14,000 (announced and being implemented by the Gillard Government) = 2500) is far far less than under the first term Howard Government.

      But which government is taking far more flak? The Abbott Government!

    • dlb says:

      Regardless of the merits or otherwise of Liberal policy, I’ve been involved in community groups and have come across bloody-minded people like Abbott (and pompous ones like Rudd). I think I can relate to those who have a visceral dislike.

      • Dasher says:

        I am reliably informed that Tony Abbott is nothing like a bloody minded person, rather a thoroughly decent person. He is also a man with a history of community service, working with the underprivileged, strong moral values and a good family man which makes him a two headed monster in the topsy turkey world we live in. As I said above this bloke has definitely made some mistakes but in the greater order of things they don’t amount to much. Indeed this bloke could solve world hunger and he would be criticised for not doing it quickly enough. I would prefer a flawed leader who is doing the right thing than some vacuous twit who only tells people what they want to hear.

        • margaret says:

          I don’t really like ‘blokes’ as prime ministers. I wonder why Australian blokes become Rhodes scholars and then prime ministers.

          • whyisitso says:

            Am I allowed to call you a misandrist?

          • margaret says:

            Fair suck of the sauce bottle! Of course you are, this is Australia, land of the fair go – gotta zip.

          • Dasher says:

            Margaret, with respect, this is the sort of vacuous nonsense that passes for comment these days. People do not seem to want to engage in reality and default to puerile name calling and the politics of personality. Strewth!

          • Margaret says:

            Sorry to lower the tone Dasher. Just demonstrating the opinions of the ‘wo(Man) in the street’. If politicians didn’t speak down to them with platitudinous self regard at least some would then engage with more than their funny walks, voices and use of Aussie colloquialisms.

          • Dasher says:

            Margaret .Platitudinous self regard …for example?

          • Margaret says:

            Christopher Pyne.

          • Dasher says:

            Nope, still don’t get it what did he say?

          • Don Aitkin says:

            I think it’s his style. Hard to put a finger on it, but he comes across as convinced of his own rightness, and then, by extension, convinced of your lack to it, if you are questioning him. He’s not persuasive at all.

          • margaret says:

            “Anzac Day is critical to understanding the nature of the Australian
            character and the history of our nation. They’re all making light of
            this. It’s a hilarious joke. But it’s not a hilarious joke. If
            Australians don’t understand the central nature of Anzac Day, they
            cannot understand Australia today. They can make as many Anzac biscuits
            as they like.” Quote.
            I don’t know who the hilarious jokers he refers to are but he delivers these opinions arrogantly and with the schoolboy glee of a debating captain – imo.

          • Dasher says:

            Margaret you are quoting the man and disapprove of what he says but you don’t seem to know to whom he is directing these comments. He may well be acting alike a prat, but he may also be referring to a group of people who deserve to be censured in this way. I don’t hold a candle for Pyne but until I know the context of this quote I would not use it as an example of platitudinous self regard, or anything else for that matter.

          • margaret says:

            That’s fine Blitzen, you asked what he said – he says a lot, he’s never short of words or smug self-satisfaction – imo – but now I’m a bit bored with justifying my thoughts on the poor communication skills and horrible policies of this government and its ministers with you.
            Here’s the article from whence came the quote – the journalist unfortunately doesn’t get from Pyne who/what he stands for just as Tony Abbott when asked who he is/what he stands for loves to dissemble and become the royal “we” – we the government, not “I – I stand for this”. Just, I love Australia. Do you Tony? Or do you love the Empire from which we derived (apologies to first Australians).

            http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/june/1370181600/erik-jensen/how-christopher-pyne-puts-himself

          • Dasher says:

            Margaret I am just teasing out what was unclear in your attempt to criticise Pyne. I am certainly not trying to have you justify your thoughts on the “horrible policies” of the government as I suspect that would be exercise in futility. By the way the Monthly article leaves me none the wiser, and what is the significance of Blitzen? Name calling does not become you nor does it advance your arguments.

          • Margaret says:

            Oh for heavens sake Dasher such paternalism. Look Santas reindeers came to mind that’s all.

          • margaret says:

            Which on reflection, was very silly and made me a smart-arse so I apologise Dasher.

          • Dasher says:

            No apology necessary Margaret, I am pretty robust, but thank you anyway.

          • Dasher says:

            Ok lets move on.

          • Peter WARWICK says:

            Margaret, the word “whence” means “from where” so “from whence” is a double bugger.

            The Pedant.

        • dlb says:

          I like to think I am a good person, I have also done community work and most people respect me, however I doubt I am the right person to lead the country. Abbott may not be bloody-minded in a social setting, but with politics he would probably sell his grandmother to win. I have come across this personality type in community organisations, yes they are nice affable people but get them on a committee and it’s their way or nothing.
          This is probably why I have always enjoyed that comedy series “Dads Army”, it may not have the sophistication of “Yes Minister” but the caricatures of people were superb.

          • Dasher says:

            Politicians are ruthless dlb, which makes him about average in this regard (noting I don’t think too many would really sell their grandmother) As someone who has endured far too many committees in my time I could certainly be accused of being too assertive at times, particularly when (IMO) the purpose of the committee is being derailed by laggards who are just time wasters . Now that’s off my chest!, I don’t know what Abbott is like in a committee ( I have heard mostly good but some bad) but I would concede that his consultative skills have left much to be desired in his time as Prime Minister which is partly why he is so much trouble.

  • Albi says:

    The media love an easy and dramatic story. They have surely contributed to the circus. Some people have a visceral hate for Tony Abbott. They don’t like the way he walks, the fact that he was born in England, or that he studied for the priesthood. But these are not proper characteristics by which to judge a Prime Minister or a government. Abbott promised adult government. We need an adult electorate that can separate good policy and careful government from celebrity politics and media hype.

    • dlb says:

      Any ideas on how to get an adult electorate?

    • margaret says:

      The same visceral hate was evident towards Julia Gillard. People didn’t like that she was a ‘backstabbing woman’ (apparently this is not as unacceptable if you are a man), they didn’t like her voice, they didn’t like that her jackets didn’t ‘sit properly’ etc. etc. I personally didn’t like Kevin Rudd. I didn’t like his phony ‘gotta zip’ persona, his apparent prissiness. But I did like his apology to indigenous Australians.
      Does the quote “you can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”, sum up political life any more I wonder.
      Tony Abbott hasn’t yet done a single thing to please me. Some good policies explained well would be a start, some vision, some intimation of how he became a Rhodes scholar. I don’t care for his pugilism.

  • dlb says:

    Don, have you done a post about our government debt? It seems to me as if it’s the right side of politics scare equivalent to global warming. I think I have a fairly good grasp of the climate change narrative but really do not have much of an idea on debt, except that it superficially sounds like a bad thing.

Leave a Reply