Tony Abbott defends his record

The current issue of Quadrant contains an essay written by Tony Abbott in which he defends the record of his government. It must have been written some time ago, and it is coincidental that he has been in defence mode over the last few days as a result of a book published by journalist  Niki Savva. Her book, Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government, has been a nine-day wonder, mostly because of her perception that Peta Credlin, the former Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, had far too much power, and was far too close to her boss in personal terms; his refusal to do anything about adverse perceptions of their  relationship, in Ms Savva’s view, ultimately led to his rejection by the party.

I haven’t read the book, and am unlikely to.  My interest in all this is Mr Abbott’s defence of his record, for which I use the Quadrant essay as the main source. While the title of the essay is ‘The Economic Case for the Abbott Government’, Mr Abbott’s coverage of his two years is pretty wide. What does he point to?

We stopped the boats — which none of our critics thought could be done. We repealed the carbon tax and the mining tax — which, like all new taxes, were supposed to be forever. In short order, we finalised the Korea, Japan and China free-trade agreements — which had gone nowhere for the preceding ten years. We met new national security challenges with a strength and sureness that was noticed internationally. And we began the critical task of budget repair.

That’s the beginning, but there was more. Mr Abbott says that his Government refused to make any further subsidies ‘to chronically unprofitable car makers’; it would not agree to a loan guarantee to Qantas; and it refused to bail out SPC Ardmona. They were not easy decisions, he says: they were very vigorously debated inside the cabinet. The Abbott Government moved on the reform of the union movement, especially in the building industry; agreed to have the second airport at Badgery’s Creek, and reduced the public service by 12,000 staff, with 300 unnecessary government agencies, boards or advisory groups abolished. The 2014 budget was a problem, but in the event a great deal of that budget and its consequent measures was passed, despite a hysterical opposition, a populist Senate cross bench, [and] a poisonous media.

If the record of the Abbott were so good (setting aside a little exaggeration here and there), then why was Mr Abbott replaced as Prime Minister? He has a candidate explanation for that: his fate lends weight to Paul Kelly’s thesis that good government is becoming more difficult than ever. As the head of the European Commission recently observed, “We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it’. Now I’ve written about chiefs of staff and their job, and also about Paul Kelly’s most worthwhile book. There is no doubt that those working in government and politics at the very top are almost insanely pressured. I only saw a bit of it but I was glad I wasn’t the Minister. But I still think that for a former PM to offer, as explanation for his loss of power, that good government is just too hard, is a cop-out.

Yes, the Senate was no help to Mr Abbott, and the media didn’t like him any more than the Opposition did. He was a bit hamstrung in that when in Opposition he had agreed to the NDIS, and reluctantly to the Gonski funding for education. These were hard calls for him. In my opinion, the Labor Government did not have the money, nor would have the money in the future, to pay for both large-scale commitments — probably not for either of them. It would say, no doubt, that it went into the decisions in good faith, but the terms of trade went against them year after year. To which a critic might reply that the proper thing to have done would have been to postpone or scale back either or both of them. Treasury had, after all, given them some warning.

While from Labor’s perspective both schemes had to be honoured, Labor did not, and does not now, have the same feeling about the importance of budget  surpluses as does the Coalition, despite Wayne Swan’s insistence that he would bring in a surplus. Both schemes were electorally attractive, and the Opposition  had to decide what was more important: insisting on bringing the budget back into the black or allowing the honouring of a  Labor promise. In the event the Opposition dodged and weaved in order not to have to fight on too many fronts at the election, and allowed both schemes to be implemented. It thus became committed to them in government, and there is now even less money to pay for them. So bringing the budget back into surplus hasn’t been heard of for quite a while.

Mr Abbott’s win at the election was decisive, even if not as decisive as it would have been had Julia Gillard been still the Prime Minister. So what went wrong? What I have described above is only the context. What was missing was a persuasive account of why the new Government was doing, and why it was necessary. I don’t think the severity of the 2014 budget was the problem, though there were aspects of it, like the ill-thought-through medical research fund, which were a distraction.

The main message was never explained well, coherently or consistently. It was simple. The Labor Government had embarked on too many nice ideas that sounded attractive, but needed lots of forethought and implementation over time. The new team recognised the good ideas, but would make sure that that there was money for them, which meant postponement and scaling back. And it would make sure that when they were implemented they would work. Government expenditure would have to be reduced. The NBN and the NDIS are still beset with problems.

The truth is that Mr Abbott was not, and is not, a good expositor, in the gentle and persuasive way that is needed when you are the nation’s political leader. He was always looking for the next person to fight. Ms Savva might be right about it all, but the electorate could see that its Prime Minister was not a good leader in government, however good he had been in opposition. The Coalition could see that as well as the rest of us.

His successor has the right style, but I’m not sure what it is he wants to exposit. He doesn’t seem as committed to balancing the budget, either. We seem to be getting ready for an early, probably double dissolution, election. Mr Turnbull will need to have a good story, and tell it persuasively and consistently, if he is to return to power, with a Senate that is a lot more sensible than the one Mr Abbott faced in mid 2014.

 

 

Join the discussion 38 Comments

  • Mike says:

    Well said Don but this leaves us with a fairly dismal political future. Seems to me labour may get in and we are back into the Rudd, Gillard years. I had some respect for Savva and thought many things she said were worthwhile but now I am disappointed. I have not and will not read her book. There is far too much emphasis these days on scandal. I would not argue that is true or not frankly I don’t care. I felt the same way about that Bill Clinton thing. I was a bit disappointed there were no videos but never mind. I agree it affects government and only because of the way the mainstream media handles it. Our democracy is broken, free speech is greatly threatened and we are greatly in debt. None of these things will be addressed in the foreseeable future. Whatever Abbott’s downsides were he was our last best hope!

    A side issue to this is the question is it possible for men and women in high office to work together without being accused of having it off? I think this affects the feminist cause or is it just the male leading the innocent woman astray?

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Well said Don, but I have little sympathy for Abbott and his close supporters. Having been elected to fix a mess, I expected them to immediately start outlining their plan to do so – instead, almost nothing was said until the budget came as a shock to all and sundry and gave plenty of ammunition to detractors. In fact, the budget was mostly the right plan, and had the need been sold from Day 1, along the lines you outline, it might well have been adopted.

    But this didn’t happen, and along with Captain’s calls like the unaffordable Parental Leave, knighthoods etc, and constant reports of problems ministers had interfacing with the PM’s office, all the good work Abbott can legitimately claim became lost in the noise. Add to that an undeserved unpopularity with women and I don’t believe there was any way back in the polls. So he had to go. A unfair demise for a basically very decent and honest man, but so be it. Nobody said politics was fair.

    Politics is certainly much harder now than in the days when Bob Menzies took weeks off to visit the UK and Doug Anthony ran the country from a caravan somewhere on the NSW north coast. Indeed, I have some sympathy for the view that what with the 24/7 news cycle and all the other pressures, the job of PM may actually be too hard for anyone to do well. Malcolm Turnbull is showing early signs that, in his case, this is so.

  • David says:

    Yes, yes I understand that no one here is going to actually the read the book but I thought would ask anyway. Did Savva write that Abbott and Credlin were an “item” or did she just write about the implications of the rumour?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      As far as I understand it, she didn’t say that they were, but that there was a perception… And added stuff about her feeding him with her fork and his slapping her on the bottom. All of it grubby, in my view. I try not to read grubby books.

      The general rule within the press gallery is that people’s private lives are private unless they commit some stupid error about that life. For example, an American politician accused of being hypocritical said loudly that that his life was an open book, and that the press could follow him until the cows came home, which they did, and found that he had a mistress.

      • dlb says:

        Abbott has enough political flaws to fill a large book. I don’t we needed to hear innuendo about his private life.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Hi Don.
    I agree with you that Abbott was an extremely poor communicator, but his pugnacious personality may have been the one attribute that enabled him to ‘stop the boats’. He was also the unfortunate object of one of the most astonishing, and ongoing, campaigns of vilification on social media (including outlets such as The Drum and The Conversation) that I have ever witnessed against a major political figure.

    I think that alone would eventually have succeeded in having him removed, but yes, he was the architect of his own destruction. The knights and dames and Sir Philip affairs made him the object of public ridicule, something a struggling PM could not survive. Credlin was either complicit in these decisions, in which case she was an idiot (which I don’t accept), or was ignorant of them, in which case she was less influential than is generally believed.

    • David says:

      “Credlin was either complicit in these decisions, in which case she was an idiot…”

      Presumably Abbott was complicit in the decisions he made, so does that make him an idiot?

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        If you believe he consulted prior to the announcement of those decisions, perhaps you could tell us why you believe it, and with whom he consulted? The question of his intelligence will remain open.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        David, I don’t understand how anyone can be ‘complicit’ in their own decisions. Maybe you need to lay off the joints?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I think Julia Gillard would argue that she received just as much abuse.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        Actually, Don, I don’t think so. I hold no brief for Abbott, but even now, you find vindictive tirades against him.
        In contrast, Gillard? Gillard who?

        • David says:

          Abbott is still in parliament. Gillard is not.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            David, you don’t answer questions, you don’t discuss, you just make assertions. I see no point in responding to a troll.

          • David says:

            David, you don’t answer questions, you don’t discuss, you just make assertions. I see no point in responding to a troll.

            Sorry Bryan,

            Making the Duke a Knight? From my understanding I think I read that he consulted with the GG and the head of the Air force, Angus Huston. Captain’s pick as they say.

          • margaret says:

            Good point David. Not the remark of a troll.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            “Not the remark of a troll.”

            He did not respond to the ‘knights and dames’ question, and in my opinion is still a troll.

          • margaret says:

            Bryan I was trying to reply to David’s comment about Abbott still being in parliament – Gillard (I fondly think of her by her first name) knew when to leave (okay maybe had no choice) but has gone to serve the planet in a better way, I can’t see Abbott as anything more than self-serving.
            Also David and a couple more commenters are voices of disagreement in a rather conservative environment that can appear (to me) to be sometimes fawning.

  • bobo says:

    If you can place politicians on a spectrum from policy technocrats on one side to pure political game players on the other, it’s pretty clear where Abbott would sit: he was all politics with no apparent interest in policy. He was essentially a walking wedge with one trick in his bag that he’d use repeatedly: divide and conquer. All his broadly acknowledged poor decisions such as the return of knights and dames were considered attempts to be divisive that ended up alienating his own base, miscalculations in the calculus of social division.

    Gillard and Rudd lay on the technocrat side of the spectrum, and it seems that technocratic leaders don’t last in their roles for long, probably something that doesn’t bode too well for Malcolm either.

    Regarding the Nikki Savva book, probably the most interesting speculation is that Abbott’s character assassination is being driven by Rupert Murdoch. The first extracts of the book were published in the Australian, the book is being offered to subscribers at a discount, and given Murdoch’s reputation for micromanaging the political message of his publications, presumably he vetted his employee’s book. It seems that Murdoch has lost patience with Abbott’s destabilising and is desperate for the coalition to win another term.

    • David says:

      Interesting Bobo. To me Abbott knew what he opposed, but never had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve. Unlike Howard for example, who would lay awake at night thinking about a broad based consumption tax Abbott had no clear vision of what next. A three word slogan then Credlin would bolt the door and he would out the back and on his bike.

      • dlb says:

        I would say he wanted more Australian boots on the ground in the Middle east.

        • David says:

          Abbott flip flopped on the Middle East. He argued against Australian intervention in the Middle East with his insightful “baddies verses baddies” characterization of the civil war in Syria. Abbott’s abilities to analyse and then distill the geo-political complexities of the Middle East will be sorely missed, ….by cartoonists everywhere.

      • Marty says:

        “A three word slogan…”

        It’s interesting you say that. I found an interview here:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hewROR3qtuo

        discussing Abbott’s use of such slogans and the effectiveness of simple messages.

        I tend to agree re: no concrete plan, and it was probably his inability to communicate effectively that assisted in his downfall, but I would still prefer Tony over Malcolm any day. It could be argued that he was a purely political player, but I think he had an interest in Australia as a whole, whether or not you agreed with the path he was taking.

  • margaret says:

    Abbott was intensely disliked by a majority of women. I can’t supply stats on what that majority was except to say, it was those women who take an interest in how politics and the leaders of government affect their own wellbeing and that of those citizens, men and women, who have fewer resources, less education, financial backing, mental acuity, good fortune or even robust health and drive, making the pathways to success in a capitalist society very winding or even blocked. Abbott knew nothing of that.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      margaret, that may well be true, but on the blogs to which I referred, the most virulent attacks were from people who attested to be men.

    • dlb says:

      I am curious to know what the women think of Credlin?

      • margaret says:

        Peta Credlin’s public profile was far too high for a chief of staff.

        • dlb says:

          Read Barry Cassidy’s article at The Drum. I think Credlin’s problem was a bit more than being high profile.

          • Marty says:

            Barrie’s article highlights the issue of abuse of power in general, and it seems Credlin may (was?) have been caught up it it all, although there is no hint of corruption.

            It’s a pity that more hasn’t been said about those who have spoken out in support of Credlin – you know, in the fairness of balanced discussion – but I am getting the impression that what was seen on the outer was not necessarily the same was what was seen on the inner.

            Barrie’s comparison of politics ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ does have me yearning for the days of Howard and Hawke.

          • dlb says:

            David,
            I just had to look him up after your comment.
            According to Crikey.
            “The Prime Minister’s new chief of staff is a measured, apolitical, extremely competent public servant who is respected by both sides of politics. What a novelty”
            Book covers and all that?

          • margaret says:

            I think Credlin is clever and ambitious and also unlikeable but then so are so many men in politics – it’s Abbott’s fault that he allowed her to intrude onto his patch – if there was a better balance of men and women someone like Credlin wouldn’t stand out as some kind of ‘femme fatale’.

    • Marty says:

      I think you will find that disapproval was pretty even between the sexes, although probably not as high as you might have thought it to be:

      http://www.essentialvision.com.au/tag/approval-of-tony-abbott

      • Marty says:

        Actually, if you take the data at face value (and you would have to if you believe Essential’s 2PP results), Abbott had a higher approval rating among women than men.

        • margaret says:

          Well I wish some of those women who approved of him would show their hand on this website and describe his appeal.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        My impression of Abbott was that he was basically a decent and honest man, and despite the visceral dislike of the majority, I am not aware of any evidence to the contrary. I do not feel the same about Turnbull, who I suspect has also reached his level of incompetence.

        • bobo says:

          It’s an interesting observation that a significant proportion of the population believe that Abbott was an honest, honourable and ethical leader who always acted with the best of intentions, while another significant proportion of the population see him as little more than a bumbling psychopathic clown. I doubt that there has ever been another Australian political leader who was as divisive.

          What was it about Tony Abbot that caused significant subsets of the public to have such polar opposite views of him?

          One thing I still find surprising to think about is that there seemed to be many people who, just after Abbott’s party won office, believed Australia was about to commence a golden era of exceptionally high quality governance. Abbott, despite his vast plethora of faults, had a deep understanding of the mysteries of voter psychology and a freakish ability to manipulate how the public framed the issues of the day, but this became less effective when disengaged elements of the public started to suspect they could be being taken for a ride.

  • Peter says:

    In the Quadrant article Tony Abbott was quite certain about the focus and rightness of his government’s first budget, describing it as ‘a badge of honour’.

    Niki Savva has been quite unrepentant subsequently about the content of her book and on Wednesday of this week described Abbott as worse than Rudd in the way he commented on leaked Defence Paper drafts. The facts are, however, that Savva has propagated a hurtful story(myth?) about an alleged affair between the PM and his CoS based apparently on only one source – i.e. a Minister going to the PM seeking to resolve gossip around this. There is value in reporting based on policy analysis and extensive sourcing of views rather than insider reports and personal relationships.

    One of the puzzling aspects of Malcolm’s initial period has been the tardiness to announce clear policy reforms to address projected budget deficits, especially when the Abbott government identified a ‘budget emergency’.

    There is little doubt that there are differences of policy emphasis between the hard conservative right and the ‘liberal’ spectrum of the Coalition.

    One of the articles of faith of Peter Costello and indeed Scott Morrison has been the idea of tax cuts even in a time of fiscal challenge. The idea of paying tax, contributing to the community, to infrastructure, education, NDIS etc is not the highest priority for these treasurers.

    M. Seccombe wrote in ‘The Saturday Paper’ that “one of the biggest items recorded was “cost of managing tax affairs”. Forty of the untaxed 55 millionaires spent a total of $42.5 million on this. And that, really, is perhaps the most perplexing figure of the lot. Why would someone spend more than 30 per cent of his or her income on tax advisers, simply to avoid paying tax that would amount to less than 30 per cent of their income?”

    The Liberal party has a core constituency as has the ALP and Abbott’s strategy remains focused on reducing expenditure rather than increasing any taxes. Considerable saving can be found by pruning at the top or indeed at the bottom of tax expenditure but it is difficult for any party to remove advantages for its core followers.

    Malcolm has identified ‘fairness’ as one of his essential criteria for budgetary changes but the fact that policy is not being announced indicates perhaps a level of conflict within the party unless the delay is explained simply by taking meticulous care – ‘measuring twice and cutting once’.

    Tony Abbott’s record shows a staunch defence of the conservative elements in the coalition: Malcolm is yet to reveal his position but the budget encapsulates in one way or another, the priorities of any government so the lead-up to the May budget will be of great interest.

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