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.