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 We repealed the carbon tax and the mining tax — which, like all new taxes, were supposed to be forever.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.