PM’s Office Can Stoke — Or Scupper — Liberal Leadership Mutterings

STUBBORNLY POOR poll ratings — combined with significant, persistent political failings — are beginning to wreak their inevitable consequences, with a growing clamour for a substantial ministerial reshuffle in the face of the “simply stand firm” posture of the Prime Minister’s office. Tony Abbott has been forced to defend his leadership this week. The PMO can stoke — or scupper — the rising chorus of muttering as it chooses.

For a government that is able to boast some stunning successes after not much more than a year in office — on Trade, in Foreign Affairs, on Immigration and asylum seekers — there is very little (if any) electoral sunshine beaming down upon the Abbott government as it commences the summer parliamentary recess and the silly season.

In fact, these achievements are more than overshadowed by the government’s failings, and whilst readers know I see the risk that a one-term Liberal government in Canberra is all too real, most of the Abbott government’s problems derive from the same nucleus: the Prime Minister’s Office.

I do not intend (as it has apparently become fashionable to do) to launch an all-out attack on Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, although I note that some of the media voices who spent years decrying her “excessive influence” when it was most potent in damaging the political Left are now outraged about the “vilification” of an “individual public servant” now that that influence (and its manifestations) is arguably cruelling the Abbott government’s pitch.

But the command-and-control micromanagement regime, established with her imprimatur, that runs the Abbott government is fast becoming an electoral millstone around the Coalition’s neck — if it isn’t one already — that threatens to consign it to political oblivion in 2016 unless changes are made to the way the government operates.

And whilst some will find it a bitterly unpalatable pill to swallow, it is Credlin who remains best placed to facilitate this change.

The story that emerged late in the week that the Prime Minister’s Office had apparently insisted Trade minister Andrew Robb accompany Foreign minister Julie Bishop to a conference in Lima — effectively as a chaperone — laid bare simmering tensions within the Abbott government, and in full view of the public.

Yet far from being any kind of straw that broke a hypothetical camel’s back, this was simply the latest in a very long list of own goals by the government that seem to be leading, inexorably, toward a very large political disaster for the Coalition.

The idea that Bishop — far and away the Coalition’s best-performed minister, whose personal popularity is rising sharply — should need to be chaperoned anywhere is a perverse one, even if the chaperone holds a complementary portfolio to Bishop’s, and is arguably a single rung below her on the ladder of ministerial performance.

But it coincided with Prime Minister Tony Abbott making remarks to the press to the effect that he believed his leadership “was sound,” and that he approached his Prime Ministership for “the long haul:” the kind of rhetoric that begins to surface when the mutterings of leadership discord have taken root within a political party.

I think the Coalition remains unified in government; that much is beyond question.

But the fact a lot of anger and frustration are now being directed toward Credlin — quite openly behind the scenes, it seems, whilst wearing the coward’s mask of anonymity in leaks and briefs to journalists — shows the pressure of governing from a consistent and worsening losing position is beginning to focus the minds of some Coalition MPs, who are casting around desperately for the circuit breaker that might enable the government to reset itself publicly, and retrieve its standing with voters.

To date, this has mostly taken the form of calls for Treasurer Joe Hockey to be moved to another portfolio, and for Defence minister David Johnston to be dumped — with the clamour for a ministerial reshuffle growing both within Coalition ranks and among conservative voters in general.

But for Abbott’s leadership to be raised at all in the past week highlights how desperate the government’s situation has become, and underscores just how urgent a recalibration of its strategy has grown: a reality not lost, it seems, on some Coalition MPs, despite the macho posturing of their more senior colleagues.

For a government that entered its first summer recess last year with the wind at its back, a year has made quite a difference.

Away from its areas of success, ministers such as Christopher Pyne, with his ham-fisted attempt to rein in schools spending, or George Brandis and his “metadata mess,” have been flat-footed and turgid: and their contributions, rather than helping foster smooth and effective governance, have been more akin to the use of a blunt instrument.

The issue of Australia’s debt, and the real and growing menace to national prosperity it poses — even if not yet urgent or high by “world standards” as Labor claims — is perhaps this government’s most driving claim to legitimacy in office, so central was it to its case for election in the first place.

Yet this issue has been so poorly prosecuted that observers of politics (to say nothing of the voting public) have been treated to the obscene spectacle of Labor — who created the mess — turning the developing catastrophe of permanent budget deficits and the accompanying debt debacle into a vehicle for their own political advancement, with the Communist Party Greens, irresponsible populists like Clive Palmer, idiots like Jacqui Lambie, and anyone else with something to gain from the unimpeded cascade of money to buy off various handout-addicted sections of the community cheering this grotesque new paradigm on for all they are worth.

Treasurer Joe Hockey delivered a budget in May that was dreadfully framed, and which was underpinned by no obvious clarity in its objectives or philosophy other than to a) rake a few billion dollars out from sometimes bizarre sources, and b) to avoid like the plague any cuts to the big-ticket items that should never have been legislated under Labor in the first place.

It also offended almost every accepted law of political logic, explicitly targeting as it did floating Coalition voters in marginal seats.

To compound his folly, Hockey has proven woefully inept at selling his budget, which in any case has been completely emasculated by the Senate, and the $20 billion or so in savings measures it has obliterated go a long way toward accounting for the $30 billion blowout in the likely deficit for the current financial year.

More broadly, the Cabinet houses an unacceptable number of ministers who, for whatever reason, simply aren’t the right fit for their portfolios (such as Hockey), can’t realistically ever return to their duties (Arthur Sinodinis), or for one reason or another are liabilities who should simply be sacked to make way for some of the embarrassment of fresh talent languishing on the backbench (Johnston, Ian Macfarlane, Kevin Andrews). The rumoured impending retirement of Nationals leader (and Regional Development minister) Warren Truss potentially opens yet another vacancy.

At a more subordinate level, some of these ministers have chopped through staff like a steak dinner, with Johnston and Hockey two ministers whose turnover of advisers has been significant; high turnover or not, however, ministerial advisers are the people charged with selling the government’s messages and prosecuting its strategies at the most fundamental political level, and the aggregate of opinion poll findings this year that shows the government eight points behind Labor after preferences is the clearest indicator imaginable of how badly they have fared.

Now, the mutterers are muttering. Now, Abbott’s leadership of the Liberal Party is becoming a talking point: and it’s no difficult task to see the failings of all of these points as the collective cause of this unwanted new development.

Where all of this comes back to Credlin stems from the structures she established when the Coalition came to power last year.

Her central vetting panel was responsible for the recruitment of ministerial staff, vetting out a plethora of excellent candidates, vetoing the recruitment preferences of individual ministers, and in some cases foisting key personnel on ministers against their wishes. The government’s abysmal standing in the polls is the direct consequence.

Perhaps due to Abbott’s famed sense of loyalty — as admirable as it may be misplaced — and perhaps because of the “simply stand firm” mentality of the junta running the government out of his office, any kind of ministerial reshuffle has to date been resisted at all costs, although yesterday, finally, Abbott conceded there would be some kind of rearrangement before the next election: but probably not for another 12 months.

It is a 12 month delay the government simply can’t afford.

Hockey isn’t up to being Treasurer; if he ever was, then he has blown his chance. His is the most critical portfolio to the government’s political fortunes. For most of this year, it has merely fuelled voter indifference — even anger — toward the government.

A ministry with as many as six underperformers, no-hopers, no-shows and/or imminent departures — almost a quarter of the total ministry — is a ministry that is seriously compromised even before its members get down to business every day.

The banal rhetoric of the likes of Labor “leader” Bill Shorten is no reason to put off what I don’t think anyone can seriously suggest is an urgent reshuffle; indeed, Shorten is already making public statements about deck chairs and the Titanic. But Shorten would, of course: it is in his (and Labor’s) best interests to goad the government into keeping the present misfiring line-up exactly where it is.

The 2015 budget — framed as it is likely to be against a shocking deterioration in the deficit, and in a climate of deteriorating economic conditions both in Australia and abroad — is the government’s first and only opportunity to rule a line under this year’s fiasco and start from scratch.

Its best opportunity to fix the budget has already been squandered on Hockey’s watch; the risk its next-best opportunity is wasted in a repeat performance by the same minister is a luxury “loyalty” simply doesn’t justify.

It is perhaps telling that this column, whilst remaining resolutely opposed to the return of Malcolm Turnbull to the Liberal leadership under any circumstances whatsoever, is energetically supportive of him taking over from Hockey as Treasurer: this should be the first change made in any reshuffle and it should be made as soon as Monday as far as I am concerned.

But all of this is pointless unless those charged with actually selling the government’s messages and ensuring it prevails — those in the government media and strategy units, its media advisers and press secretaries, and its political advisers — are cleaned out too: and again, loyalty is an admirable thing, but its value in the context of a group of people who are actively steering the government toward the rocks of electoral defeat is zero.

Credlin is a formidable political operator, strategist and general: after all, it was the iron discipline she brought to the Coalition in opposition that welded it into the cogent shape that made last year’s landslide election win possible.

But the sum consequence of the litany of failures I have outlined this morning is that so great is the cost of all of these becoming that even Abbott’s leadership is becoming a public talking point among the Liberals’ own ranks.

The solutions to the government’s failings are obvious, and clear, however unpleasant or exhausting they might be to enact.

Yet the alternatives range from an election defeat, if things continue as they are, to the overthrow of Abbott by one of his star performers, most likely Bishop: and were that to occur, Credlin and her acolytes would be the first ones kicked out of the government tent.

The muttering that has commenced around the Liberal leadership is at a low level at present, and it is incredible to suggest that Abbott faces a serious threat in this regard — at least, not yet.

But as everyone who knows anything about politics knows all too well, such things have their own way of snowballing, and of spiralling out of control.

The Prime Minister’s office has the power to stoke — or scuttle — the mutterings over the leadership.

Viewed through the prism of the government’s ongoing success, the choice represents the opportunity for Credlin to demonstrate the true extent of her mettle by exhibiting some flexibility, modifying the structures erected under her guidance, and fixing the flaws that appear blindingly obvious to virtually every political observer in the country except those in the inner sanctum in Canberra, cosseted and closeted away from the real world and the voting public.

Abbott, Credlin and their coterie should perhaps spend their summer contemplating whether “simply standing firm” is a position likely to afford them any advantage whatsoever.

It is time to act.

 

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11 thoughts on “PM’s Office Can Stoke — Or Scupper — Liberal Leadership Mutterings

  1. You know, I’m sick of this crap. I use to follow politics, but now it is just full of polished turds in suits. Liberal, Labor, Greens, PUP – they can all drop dead tomorrow, for all I care. I hate the lot of them now. None of them care about the country. It’s all about drawing a salary and being an oxygen thief. When I see people flogging of political pamphlets at shopping centres, I tell them drop dead. I’m over it. My father always said, ‘the more I see of people, the more I love my dog.’ He was right.

    If I make another post on this site, I’ve recovered from my tanty, but for now I hope they all get food poisoning over Christmas and die.

    • Well, I hope you don’t abandon us Futureproof – we all know what the problems are, but a throwing up of hands and burying of heads doesn’t help. I never imagined I would find myself being so critical of the Coalition in office, but here we are. It isn’t petty sniping — there are very, very big problems at play here.

      In the current context, what I think is playing out is the perfectly logical consequence of firstly making some appalling errors of judgement, and then stubbornly refusing to either budge or even admit the error at all. I didn’t think the so-called mea culpa was much of an apology. That said, a first-term Liberal government was kicked out of office last weekend. If nothing changes, two more — one in Queensland and one in Canberra — will follow soon enough.

  2. Yale, a very gentle article considering the situation. I don’t believe Tony’s staff can take the blame for the appalling mismanagement we are seeing. Tin-ears Tony is the leader and the bucket stops with him. If he is unable to understand that there is a basic logical inconsistency between warning the country about overspending and introducing major new expenditures himself (PPL and Medical Research Fund) then he is not suited to the position and should go.

    • Yes, restrained, isn’t it? But whilst the overall fault derives from the PMO, I think responsibility sits at every level — the PMO, the Cabinet, the staffers, the lot. The buck might very well stop with Tony, but if you hire the wrong staff in your business and they don’t perform or deliver, do you keep them on the payroll because it was you who made the mistake of hiring them in the first place? Of course you don’t.

      If those people in the media, communications and strategy units of the government (sales, marketing, PR, commercial development out in the real world) can’t get the job done and achieve what is expected, they are the wrong people for the job.

      When the government is consistently ten points down in the polls and there is nothing to suggest the government can dig itself out of the political hole it finds itself in, then these key back-of-house personnel are not performing or delivering. Credlin is in charge and it is the edifice built upon her directives that is fundamentally flawed; as the GM of Operations it is HER job to modify the structure, and this means getting rid of the salary vultures in the advisers’ cabal and replacing them with people who might know what the hell they are doing when it comes to executing a strategy.

      • You are falling into the “blame the marketing team” trap. Until the product is good, it remains unsaleable. Trying to cut expenditure generally while increasing expenditure in specific areas is inconsistent if your reason is that the budget is in trouble. It is like trying to sell a car with square wheels. It doesn’t matter how much the salesman points to the great engine, if the wheels are square the car won’t go. The customers can see that.

  3. The performance by Tony Abbott at his press conference early last week and on the 7.30 Report reminded me of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail -” it’s just a flesh wound” as he is left with no limbs.

    Seldom has there been such a swing in public opinion, backed up by the dissatisfaction by his back bench , and now moving into the cabinet of a first term prime minister who came to office with such a majority.

    Tricky words, obfuscation of facts and bad budget policy coupled with an inability to communicate to the Australian public sees Tony Abbott’s Christmas dinner tasting a little bitter as he contemplates an even tougher year ahead – welcome to the real world.

    • Hi Jo, I have seen your comments in the past week or so and whilst I suspect we don’t share the same political outlook, I do detect that you take a similarly analytical view of these matters.

      I think that the suggestion the Abbott government is emulating some of the worst aspects of Gillard’s in terms of the dysfunction and lack of internal communication isn’t far wide of the mark and that, more generally, there are poor performers at each level of the government (Cabinet, the PMO, and the ranks of the adviser corps) that need to be swept away if the government is to prosper.

      We might disagree on the directions and objectives — after all this is a government of the mainstream Right rather than the mainstream Left — but the chaotic micromanagement and obsessive control of Rudd has merely been replaced by the chaotic micromanagement and obsessive control of the PMO. It doesn’t work. It wrecked the last government and it will wreck this one if it isn’t excised forthwith.

      Some of the movement against the Coalition in the polls is standard mid-term flutter that would dissipate with the announcement of an election date. That said, however, a hard assessment of the situation and a dispassionate evaluation of the government’s standing in the electorate suggests the underlying position already sees a poll defeat very much on the cards.

      I fear the consequences of a return to Labor government and were it to occur, the prospect of fixing a lot of the areas of governance that were comprehensively trashed last time would disappear. Yet that is where we are headed. I am viewed inside my party as a disgruntled whiner. But I tend to think my assessment is nearer the reality than anything officially suggested behind a closed door.

  4. Can the LNP learn the lessons of the SA by-election defeat and the Vic elections? All their good work on illegal immigration and free trade means nothing because they cocked up the budget so badly.

    The budget repair HAS to be done properly with tax reform and old age welfare reform, NOT on the backs of the young and the working.

    Here are some ideas for Abbott and Hockey
    – Remove negative gearing that pushes Australian’s to leverage themselves to the hilt
    – Put the emphasis on area’s of the budget that are the real problem, old age welfare and old age healthcare costs
    – Increase the retirement age faster and sooner
    – Reform the stupid superannuation tax dodges that enable wealthy 50+ to squirrel away huge amounts tax free
    – Reduce the ridiculously high personal income tax rates in Australia to 40%

    I expect none of which will never happen as the LNP will never tackle the problem because it is their base, i.e. the grey bludgers.

    • “Remove negative gearing that pushes Australian’s to leverage themselves to the hilt” Some bloke called Keating tried that one and it backfired. Rents went ballistic.
      ” Put the emphasis on area’s of the budget that are the real problem, old age welfare and old age healthcare costs” You are suggesting euthanasia here? I suppose it that would be kosher so long as it was halal.
      ” Increase the retirement age faster and sooner”. And all along I thought this was a free country and people could make their own retirement decisions. If you increased the “preservation age” (which is what you infer) out to 100 think of the money you could save. It would really raise Hell with unemployment rate, don’t you think?
      “Reform the stupid superannuation tax dodges that enable wealthy 50+ to squirrel away huge amounts tax free” Sure, make sure that absolutely everyone in the geriatric group is feeding from the gummint teat.
      “Reduce the ridiculously high personal income tax rates in Australia to 40%” Two thirds of government revenue comes from income tax. It might have been possible to institute a flat rate of 25% before the idiot electorate were sucked in to the abomination of CAGW. You always get the gummint you deserve.
      To prove this point, here is the beginnings of a plan which would correct the current issues. If the current gummint came out this immediately before a DD, do you suppose the stupid voters ( to use a Gruber term”) would take on the challenge?

      The following is plagiarised from a guy called “Barry” in a blog comment.

      PROBLEM
      The Left are brainwashing your children in school with lies about global warming and myths about Indigenous Australia. It is relatively easy to demonstrate the propaganda behind the myths.

      OUR SOLUTION
      The purpose of school is to teach children social and vocational skills. Specifically, children will be taught about the economy, how to choose a career and then begin it and carry it through and how to make money. On the social skills side, they will be taught society’s norms and such essentials as manners, public speaking, dancing, music and so on. And that is why this government is completely scrapping and rewriting the national curriculum. In addition, school hours will be extended to match working hours so that parents are relieved of the stress and financial burden of child minding. Yes, it will cost. But, firstly, a conservative government is all about a stable, decent, civil society and a proper education system is one of the ways that is brought about. It is a cost we as a society have to pay. But it will be cost neutral, because the money will come from abolishing all the handouts to spivs and carpetbaggers, wasting it on green schemes and so on. All waste currently associated with a solution to a non-existent problem called “climate change” will cease immediately. The tribalism that is currently ingrained in useless legislation which never has and never will solve any supposed “indigenous” problem will be dumped in favour of insistence that anyone born in this country is Australian, and differentiation due to ethnicity will not be locked into something as fundamental as the Constitution.

      PROBLEM
      Australia has become a violent society, our social cohesion is gone and that has led to a breakdown in respect, tolerance and civility.

      OUR SOLUTION
      Our education reforms will go some way to reversing this, but another important plank of this agenda is to reform immigration so that we are not importing violence and crime into our society. Immigration will be much more selective and the New Zealand back door will be closed. Residency will be probationary and immigrants will not be entitled to permanent residency until they have served a probation period. Review processes controlled by the Left will be abolished or reformed.

      PROBLEM
      Individual freedom and liberty are the foundations of Western Civilisation. We must not allow this to continue. If we fail to correct this issue, you and your children will endure the invisible serf’s collar in a Totalitarian Unelected world government.

      OUR SOLUTION
      Conservatives believe in a free society. We want you to be able to debate sensitive issues without fear of being persecuted. That’s why 18C and in fact the entire RDA are gone. And with it goes that self-indulgent plaything of the Left, the AHRC. Shut the door on the way out, comrades. No wealth will be transferred to the UN from this day forward.

      PROBLEM
      It is no accident that poverty has grown in this country. Government induced people into poverty by allowing welfare dependency as a lifestyle choice.

      OUR SOLUTION
      There will be no dole. It will be replaced by having the government as an employer of last resort. If you can’t find a job, you will be employed on a minimum wage public works job by the government. No more sitting at the pub all day living like a feral on the fringes of society and letting your mind rot. No longer will sole parenthood be a lifestyle choice. No longer will the disability pension be a refuge in which you can withdraw from the workforce. Entrenched welfare dependency has given us a violent, angry, anti-social underbelly. It has poisoned our society. A conservative government will put an end to it.

      PROBLEM
      Higher education is a shambles. Thousands of students are there only to cause trouble. A university education is a key to open a door. It was never intended to be training for specific employment.

      OUR SOLUTION
      We will restore the universities to institutions in which students learn to think for themselves rather than follow the radicals and ferals like a mob of sheep. University entrance requirements will be made appropriate for those who are suited to study at university. The emphasis for continued employment in teaching throughout the education system will be on quality and results. Tenured professors will be a thing of the past. Much more effort will be applied to trade schools and technical colleges where people can learn the specific skills required by our society. This is an interim measure only until the task of educating children and young adults is transferred entirely to the private sector.

  5. Jeremy has the correct take with square wheels. Outstanding at foreign adventures dismal at domestic duties.
    While agree with you that the whole apparatus must take responsibility it falls to the leadership to lead and be responsible.
    That the task of opposition is actually different to that of governing is a well established norm and most new governments suffer early in the learning curve and what was advantageous in the opposition may well turn out to be an impediment to good governance .
    When the PM’s office is viewed dispassionately an inspection of the antecedents might uncover a trend in failed appointments from Victoria.

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