CANBERRA OBSERVED by national correspondentNews Weekly
The Coalition government's self-inflicted troubles
, February 14, 2015
The self-inflicted troubles of the Abbott Coalition government are a bitter disappointment to the multitude of Australians who held out hopes for a more stable and sensible government after the politically debauched Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor period.
Indeed, the signal promise of Tony Abbott in the lead-up to the last election was that his would be a government of adults after the immaturity of the Labor ministries that were dominated by former ALP staffers and union apparatchiks.
Yet the fallout since Mr Abbott’s controversial decision to knight Prince Philip on Australia Day has lifted the scab on festering resentment and anger amongst Coalition backbench MPs increasingly concerned about their own political futures.
Some were prepared to overthrow Abbott just a little over a year into the government’s term.
How could this have happened so quickly?
There are several factors that have driven this resentment beyond the usual antics of ambitious backbench troublemakers — the frustrated and the overlooked, the often “un-named” individual MPs who perennially brief journalists about leadership speculation in order to further their own careers.
Incidentally, this seems to have become a regular pattern of modern politics on both sides, which has been accentuated by the social media’s ability to inflame issues quickly, and the shorter attention-span of a highly competitive mainstream media which ply leadership speculation to make politics more interesting, rather than address more serious policy issues.
But, this time, the troubles for Abbott ran deeper and have been self-inflicted. And they relate both to the quality of policy decisions and the personality traits of the PM.
First and foremost there was the first Joe Hockey budget that lacked any clear rationale or cohesive message. Voters were given no warning that the new Abbott government would wind back welfare, from family payments to old age pensions to introducing a new impost on GP visits. In fact, they were told the exact opposite before the election.
In part this is Abbott’s fault for not being more upfront about the looming federal budgetary problems when it was almost certain that the Coalition would be elected.
The Abbott government has not recovered from the 2014 Budget, and the Prime Minister is yet to provide a satisfactory or reasonable explanation as to the reversal of his pre-election promise of a “no surprises, no excuses” government.
Treasurer Joe Hockey decided to use his first Budget to wind back areas of government spending that were rising the fastest, but with seemingly no political strategy to explain it to the people who would be affected and whose own budgets would be hit. Not surprisingly, voters turned off the government in droves.
Secondly, Abbott himself appears to have struggled to settle into the top job. For those who know him personally, Mr Abbott’s wooden and overly cautious public appearances have belied his real personality.
Mr Abbott also fell into the trap of believing that hard work and delivering on some key promises, such as stopping the boats and axing the carbon and mining taxes, would be sufficient to win voter endorsement. In the transition from Opposition leader to Prime Minister he has failed to communicate effectively with voters.
Thirdly, Mr Abbott’s office retained in government the super-tight central control that had been such a successful discipline when in opposition. This has been a serious mistake as it has stifled effective decision-making, and prevented individual ministers from being able to run their own offices.
Mr Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, has become a lightning rod for complaints about this “command and control” management style from the prime minister’s office. Coalition party-room misgivings have spilled into the media and been compared to Labor’s disenchantment during the Kevin Rudd period, although without the associated chaotic decision-making.
By all accounts, Ms Credlin’s competency and work ethic are highly valued; but she has also become a high-profile “player” and participant in the Cabinet decision-making process.
Former Treasurer Peter Costello recently emphasised that it was a “topsy-turvy world” when staffers were the ones actually making the decisions that politicians should be making.
It was not until the negative public reaction to his Prince Philip knighthood announcement that Mr Abbott finally recognised that he needed to work more collaboratively and co-operatively with his ministers and his backbench, and to reverse this command-and-control approach. Until then, he seemed blind to the problem.
Similarly, it was not until this epiphany that Mr Abbott was prepared to dump his controversial signature policy — the generous paid parental leave (PPL) scheme for mothers in paid employment, a policy that seemed to have no anchor in mainstream social conservative thinking.
Mr Abbott stubbornly clung to this policy amid a torrent of criticism from colleagues in the Coalition, from families with stay-at-home mothers, and from firms which were to be slugged to pay for the scheme.
It is, however, through no fault of its own that the Coalition government is facing some grave economic problems flowing from the collapse in commodity prices and the terms of trade, a growing international currency war, and potentially severe economic downturns among Australia’s key trading partners.
Yet the Coalition government’s focus so far has been inward-looking, making the same mistakes as the previous government.
The Australian electorate will not take kindly to these self-made problems.