WHATEVER THE RESULT of the state election in Queensland on 31 January, its residual impact on conservative forces across Australia is likely to be very heavily negative; and fresh from imposing the “solution” on Medicare funding, devised by the increasingly notorious Prime Minister’s Office and stunningly abandoned this week, the latent muttering over Tony Abbott’s position seems set to explode. Could the Liberals dump him this year?
I will no doubt be pilloried in some quarters for canvassing this subject, and if this is the case then so be it: this column — despite accusations to the contrary, particularly when Julia Gillard remained Prime Minister — has never been blithely sycophantic in its advocacy for the Coalition despite my longstanding membership of the Liberal Party.
But the simple fact is that the Abbott government, despite a few noteworthy exceptions, has mostly been a disappointment to date, and certainly where its conservative-inclined voting base is concerned. I think we reached the point during the week where some serious (and, to be sure, unpalatable) questions are going to start to be canvassed.
And far more widely than in our discussion forum here.
Regular readers are well aware that I have long been a staunch supporter of Tony Abbott, and whilst it predated the commencement of this column, I was delighted when he won the Liberal leadership in December 2009.
But that support has always been for Abbott personally, and in the time since his election win in 2013 I have been at first dismayed and then increasingly angered by the way his government has been operated, with the Prime Minister’s Office acting as a kind of central micromanagement unit arrogating control to itself of every aspect of the business of governance.
From acting as a proxy for the Prime Minister in dealings with Cabinet and business figures to the iron-fisted control of staff recruitment right down to the ranks of coffee-making shitkickers; from a completely bungled approach to political tactics and strategy to a total inability to communicate and sell government initiatives; and from an approach to the hostile Senate the government confronts that defies sanity — even “deals” to pass budget measures that are presented as “wins” are contrived by the likes of Clive Palmer to blow multi-billion dollar holes in the government’s budget agenda — to a media “strategy” that casts the government in an exceedingly poor light publicly as often as not, it is reasonable to suggest the PMO, far from advancing the Coalition cause, is actively fomenting its political destruction.
Now — with the unedifying mess made of the government’s Medicare reforms this week — one has to wonder whether a red line has been crossed.
The Murdoch press (which, even the Coalition’s detractors would concede, should know) is reporting in its major mastheads across the country today that the cack-brained plan to cut Medicare rebates on short GP consultations by $20 was devised by the PMO and insisted upon as government policy by Abbott, and the leak — which includes the revelation that a “heated exchange” took place over the issue between Abbott, who imposed the change, and relevant ministers Joe Hockey and Peter Dutton, who opposed it — is merely the latest telling pointer of the political dysfunction of the PMO and its disconnect from the electoral political interests of the government more broadly.
The Liberal Party’s political interests elsewhere across the country are not being enhanced by the PMO either.
After all, it was the PMO which helpfully saw to it that the recommencement of fuel indexation — before the bottom fell out of global oil prices — occurred at the beginning of the state election campaign in Victoria last year, and whilst I maintain the defeat of a first-term Liberal government was mostly attributable to more local factors, this particular own goal hardly helped.
A similar snafu has occurred this month; in a “gift” for the re-election prospects of Queensland’s LNP, the Medicare rebate changes were due to commence twelve days out from polling day, and the inevitable uproar had they not been scuppered would probably been enough to seal the LNP’s fall from office after one term: and abandoned as they may have been, human nature dictates that a lot of floating voters in marginal seats will nonetheless remember what the Abbott government fully intended to do when they vote on Saturday week.
Comments by former Defence minister David Johnston — that he wouldn’t trust South Australia’s defence shipbuilding industry to build “a canoe” — ahead of a crucial state by-election in a usually-safe Liberal seat vacated by the death of an Independent, which the Liberals lost to Labor by nine votes, might not at face value be something to point the finger at the PMO for.
But Johnston survived as Defence minister only because of Abbott’s initial refusal to significantly reshuffle his ministry — a position known to have emanated from the PMO — and whilst his belated removal was warranted, it should have been done far sooner.
That reshuffle (described in this column as “paranoid”) — whilst mildly positive — did not go far enough; my view that it was an exercise in narcissistic game-playing and manipulating various rivals has since been echoed in the mainstream commentariat, which was quick to note the surfeit of junior ministers and parliamentary secretaries being dispatched to “keep an eye” on various figures who pose leadership threats to Abbott in the medium term.
There are plenty of examples — hundreds even — that illustrate the counter-productive effects of the activities of the PMO; we have discussed them, regrettably, with increasing frequency as the Abbott government has progressed in office. There is no need to take up too much space today with further examples of the damage it is doing to government. But I do think this week’s Medicare debacle might prove to be a turning point in terms of what many Coalition MPs are prepared to stomach.
One of the big themes hammered relentlessly by Abbott in the lead-up to his election win was that, if successful at the polls, he would lead a “grown-up government;” the “adults would be back in charge,” and one would have to say that if the way his government is being operated is evidence of a grown-up or adult outfit, the efforts of preschoolers might in fact be preferable.
Coalition MPs — by choice, inclination or instruction — have been conditioned, with the destructive precedent of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership fiasco as a salutary reminder, to avoid any consideration of a change in the leadership of the Liberal Party at almost any cost: such an event, the theory goes, would amount to political seppuku and lead to certain defeat whenever the next election is held.
But if the next election is slipping away anyway — and make no mistake, if things continue as they are, the Coalition will lose — the adherence to slogans about adults and grown-ups to shun a leadership change is in itself a childish delusion, and a politically reprehensible one to boot.
The Coalition’s poll numbers have been in the toilet now for the past year — and protest vote it might be — but the movement away from the government, whilst initially parking with the Palmer United Party and “Others” has gradually but distinctly moved onto the Labor pile, with Labor’s election-winning lead in reputable surveys no longer based on harvesting almost 20% of the overall vote through preferences.
Some in the Coalition bunker might argue that this ALP vote is “soft” and that in conducive circumstances would evaporate.
Yet the same observations were made by Labor strategists when Abbott remained opposition leader, with the poll resurgence experienced by Julia Gillard in the wake of her disgraceful “misogyny” speech held aloft as proof. Labor not only went on to lose anyway, but despite its own leadership change to “save the furniture” having accepted its inevitable defeat, lost in a landslide.
I don’t think there’s a need to accept the Coalition will be defeated at the next election, much less to embark on strategies to mitigate the scope of such a defeat.
But despite all the empty rhetoric about “barnacle removal” and similarly noble but poorly prosecuted objectives, it’s arguable that after the Medicare rebate fracas this week the government’s political stocks are lower than they have ever been.
And with an election due in little more than 18 months, the time to do something is fast running out.
Tony Abbott has a reputation for loyalty that is as admirable as it is increasingly rare in political circles, and it is difficult to criticise it.
But loyalty, as even those of the most unimpeachable integrity know, can often become blind.
In this regard, his loyalty to chief of staff Peta Credlin is fast becoming a political liability, if not already so; it hardly takes a genius to see that most — if not all — of the government’s problems emanate to varying degrees directly from the PMO.
This is not, as has become fashionable in some quarters, merely an attack on Credlin, an enunciation of any sour grapes, or (perversely) a sexist or misogynistic crusade, and Abbott deserves censure for ever suggesting criticism of Credlin should be thus described.
But Peta Credlin, as chief of staff to the Prime Minister, is also the bureaucrat nominally responsible for the Prime Minister’s Office: as the official in charge of it, what is done by the PMO is also done in her name.
Yet it is also done in Abbott’s name as well, and despite much fanfare about minor personnel changes at the PMO — particularly the recruitment of journalist Mark Simkin from the ABC — the truth is that in terms of outcomes very little (if anything) has changed.
At the end of the day, those who accuse me of blind sycophancy ought to read these articles more closely, to be blunt: I am disgusted that the opportunity to govern for many years seems to be in the process of being comprehensively squandered, and whilst the Coalition and its present parliamentary line-up has much to offer under its present leader, it is undeniable that the government is misfiring, very badly, and that the reasons for that derive almost exclusively from the Gestapo-like tactics of the PMO and its insistence that it knows better than anyone else when it clearly and patently does not.
And to those hardheads at the apex of the Liberal Party organisation, whose apoplectic reactions to someone like me (whom they believed had been cast away from any influence in the party forever) calling these things as they are, I simply say that my only agenda is the advancement of the Liberal Party and the fulfilment of its objectives and that, clearly, an election loss after three years of achieving little to nothing is not consistent with those aims: but unlike me, some of them are in a position to do something about it.
The story carried by the Daily Telegraph and its sister publications today — the substance of which was leaked from federal Cabinet’s Expenditure Review Committee and verified by the journalist who wrote it — provides evidence, were any more required, of just how poorly the PMO in its current configuration and the throng of hand-picked staff who survived the recruitment veto to constitute it, has served this government.
If Abbott continues to resist root and branch restructuring of this most critical function of parliamentary government out of some obsessive sense of loyalty to Credlin personally, then others, at some point, are going to have to see to it instead, and that can only mean one thing: a new leader, with key figures in the PMO quickly dispensed with as his or her first order of business.
For now, Abbott is probably fortified by the fact that of a list of potential leadership contenders — Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey — there is no clear favourite, although Hockey is probably damaged beyond salvation in the leadership sense by the 2014 budget. Turnbull would merely deliver a sequel to the disaster that was his leadership the first time.
And it is noteworthy that none of these leading contenders are from the Liberal Right, although Bishop and Morrison have made themselves acceptable to the Right by virtue of their stellar performances in a government that has been noticeably lacking in standouts to date.
But whatever the result of the imminent Queensland election, it seems certain to administer another kick in the head to the Coalition nationally; even if the LNP somehow retains office, the swing against it will be too large to simply be blamed on state factors coming off the 63-37 result the LNP achieved three years ago.
And remember — as I said at the outset — the PMO’s own Medicare policy will undoubtedly feed into the anger set to be vented against the Queensland government in less than a fortnight.
If all of this crystallises support behind one of the potential candidates to succeed Abbott — probably Bishop — then all bets must be off.
It is telling that having actively campaigned for the Napthine government in Victoria last November despite the likelihood the Liberals would lose, Bishop is nowhere to be seen in Brisbane this week: an indication, perhaps, that association with a heavily anti-Liberal mood is being deliberately avoided in a pointed tactical move.
Even so, none of the attempted circuit breakers deployed by Abbott to date have worked; they have either been buggered up comprehensively (like the ministerial reshuffle), shorted out by friendly fire and own goals (the latest Medicare imbroglio), or have simply failed to have any impact at all.
To date, the one sacred cow that remains virtually intact is the Prime Minister’s own office.
At some point, Abbott’s colleagues are going to have to take a deep breath, steel themselves, and confront reality: if the PMO can’t be moved, then Abbott will have to go.
I think we’re very close to that point. The Liberal Party is looking like ending up as a one-term administration. It shouldn’t be. And it doesn’t have to be.
Comments, as ever, are welcome today, including from those opposed politically to the Coalition, but fair warning: this is a discussion in the context of the problems that bedevil the Abbott government as a whole, not an opportunity to rip into Abbott personally in line with ALP/Greens/Clive Palmer policy.
Comments that simply seek to dehumanise and vilify Abbott — off-subject, as I have just spelt out — will simply be deleted if submitted in response to this article. Save the anti-Abbott abuse for somewhere else today please.