WITH ONE EYE on the Canning by-election and the other on consistently dreadful opinion poll numbers, whispers emanating from the Abbott government and into the Fairfax press suggest a strategy of dumping Joe Hockey in the by-election’s aftermath followed by a double dissolution in March. A “reset” may — may — still work. But Hockey, who is a political liability, must be just one of a raft of changes if there is to be any point attempting one.
Sooner or later the fraught position of the Abbott government was bound to occupy our conversation in this column again, and — thanks to some injudicious chatter finding its way into the willing ears of the Fairfax press — it seems today has been selected for that purpose.
One of the journalists at Fairfax I have great respect for is James Massola, who today has filed this report and this analysis piece, both of which detail an apparent “survival” strategy being cooked up by elements inside the Liberal party room to throw Treasurer Joe Hockey under a bus and to get the government to an early election in March in the wake of the looming by-election in Don Randall’s old seat of Canning in Western Australia.
We have discussed the misfortunes of the Abbott government — mostly self-inflicted as they have been — at great length since Hockey’s ridiculously misdirected 2014 budget, and the irony is that whilst Massola raises the issue of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s famed loyalty to those around him (and the direct adverse effects it has had on his government’s standing), a position of true loyalty to the best interests of the government, the Liberal Party and the millions of ordinary people it is charged with representing lies in advocating the exact opposite of much of how Abbott has allowed that government to be conducted.
The idea that merely throwing Hockey under the bus, as a scapegoat for a poor result in Canning, will somehow restore the Coalition’s political fortunes is sorely wanting at best, for as much as Hockey has made himself a political liability in his current post, the real seeds of the problem lie elsewhere: namely, in Abbott’s own office.
Even so, the fact such a change is even being seriously countenanced when just six months ago Hockey was sacrosanct and protected by Prime Ministerial imprimatur is telling.
Just a couple of short months ago — before the outrage of Bronwyn Bishop’s travel entitlement excesses became public knowledge — it did rather look as if the Abbott government had a case for calling (and winning) an early double dissolution election, although I didn’t think doing so was wise without a handful of triggers lined up for a subsequent joint sitting as opposed to just the bills to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Yet even so, a 2015 budget that was publicly received far more benignly than its predecessor, combined with Labor and Bill Shorten feeling real heat from the Royal Commission into the unions, saw the Liberals’ fortunes turn strongly for the first time in over a year, even getting well within the error margin in a slew of opinion polls if not in fact managing to pull into the lead.
Bronwyn Bishop stopped that momentum dead in its tracks. Abbott’s obstinate display of loyalty toward her threw it into reverse. The revelation that some knucklehead in the NSW Liberals saw fit to invite Dyson Heydon to a Liberal Party event compounded the damage.
The government is now in real — probably existential — trouble, and it remains to be seen if there is adequate time to dig it back out by any means, although with an election due to be called in 10 months’ time it’s fairly obvious that the Coalition will get one opportunity to enact a major salvage effort before that election (held on schedule or otherwise) and one only.
Replacing Hockey with either Scott Morrison or Malcolm Turnbull should have happened in the wake of the abortive leadership putsch against Abbott at the start of the year; the fact it didn’t — and that Abbott instead rattled on vacuously with chatter about “loyalty” to his Treasurer to the point he asserted the pair would stand or fall together — is symptomatic of the dysfunction that infects much of the government away from the public eye.
The problem, of course, is that so dysfunctional is the Abbott government away from the public eye that its consequences have frequently been laid bare for all to see.
Whilst no supporter of Turnbull’s in a leadership context, I have been consistent for the duration of this column in acknowledging his talent and, in certain circumstances, his ability; contrary to some of those more blindly opposed to him I think he would make an excellent Treasurer, and the leadership risks of moving him to that post are easily outweighed by the continuing and compounding damage Hockey’s tenure in it is creating.
And I think Morrison should be held back — at least until after the election — from such a frontline post, not least when he is performing brilliantly in Social Services: another heavy domestic portfolio that is traditionally very problematic for the Liberal Party.
But any reshuffle, if it starts and finishes with Hockey, is a waste of time.
There are others who have either outlived their usefulness or who won’t be around for much longer anyway — Kevin Andrews and Ian Macfarlane are just two names on what, if I wanted to be brutal, could be an extensive list — and the opportunity to get more of the embarrassment of backbench talent the Coalition parties boast into ministerial posts should not be squandered or passed up.
After all, talented backbenchers — even if they make the mistakes of the beginner — are arguably of more use to the government than ageing duds anyway.
And in any case, the composition of the Abbott ministry is scarcely the government’s greatest problem.
It seems ridiculous that fully a year after it became undeniable that the Abbott government was in dire, dire electoral straits, we are still having exactly the same conversation; it is a measure of just how poorly calibrated the government is that its problems, whilst stark in their clarity and obvious in terms of the action required to remedy them, are basically the same list of ills that was supposedly ticked off after the coup attempt against Abbott.
This government can’t carry a message; its tactical and strategic activities are so defective it would be better off dispensing with them altogether; it can’t respond decisively to Labor, the unions, the ABC or the Fairfax press without overreach or misdirection; it has proven spectacularly inept at dealing with a hostile Senate; its message to voters — such as it is — is confused and inconsistent; and it is supported by a plethora of state and federal secretariats that couldn’t campaign their way out of a paper bag.
Election defeats in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia constitute deadly proof of that final point, and rather than shuffling the club members who run them from one division to another to keep “talented” losers in the gravy (read: putting “maaates” ahead of the true best interests of the Liberal Party) a large number of them should be encouraged to simply pirouette out the door and not come back.
And this leads me to the Prime Minister’s Office; creditable attempts were made earlier in the year to hoodwink people into believing that that sinecure had changed, and that notorious Chief of Staff Peta Credlin had been curtailed.
The brutal truth is that it hasn’t, and she wasn’t, and consequently the government continues to make the same mistakes in the same way it has ever since it was elected. Only the daily issues that surround those mistakes change, and even some of those are ominously constant.
Now we’ve had Arthur Sinodinis — a one-time Chief of Staff to John Howard — come out today, demanding ministers and/or advisers who’ve leaked the details of the “Hockey as scapegoat” plan either quit or be fired; Sinodinis has also spoken of “loyalty,” and my issue here covers yet another point I have been banging on about for months.
Quite bluntly stated, the notion of “simply standing firm” might be a worthy one if there was actually something worth standing firm behind at all; this government might fool itself into believing in its own competence, but it isn’t fooling anyone else.
What a lot of these insiderish boffins don’t realise and/or don’t want to know is that vast numbers of the Liberal rank and file are angry, disgusted and aghast that the party has comprehensively trashed a golden opportunity for a decade in power.
And all of that is before we even countenance the average punter on the street who is expected to vote Liberal in a year or so.
The “debt and deficit” emergency the Coalition was elected to fix has miraculously given way — after a horror budget whose punitive fixes mostly weren’t even legislated — to a blue skies scenario featuring supposed endless growth, large giveaways to small business, and the incredible promise of fat tax cuts without the pain required to fund them; believe that and you’ll believe anything.
Labor’s profligate spending continues to run out of control — and perhaps it’s true the government faces a roadblock in the form of the Senate to rein it in — but the savings measures it has attempted are mostly direct additional hits on its own constituency, with very little by way of actual cuts at all.
Not only has the government failed to fix the budget, it has failed to line up bills to cut Labor’s waste and extravagance and electoral bribery of Left-leaning interest groups. And it has sent the signal to Coalition voters in so doing that they are fair game when it comes to squibbing genuinely tough action and instead enacting a quick fix by slugging those who decided to vote for it in 2013.
What a mess.
Meanwhile, all of the other issues I’ve talked about fester away, to varying degrees; and even the Royal Commission into the unions — whilst uncovering copious evidence of criminal misconduct — has been seized by the ALP and the unions and turned into a political weapon for those God-forsaken entities.
A professional political outfit would never have handed such a battering ram to its opponents, but this government has managed to do just that.
Someone as astute as John Howard (and the coterie he kept around him) would never have let himself get into such a parlous political position through wilful and stubborn incompetence, but that is where the Abbott government stands today.
And Sinodinis trying to close ranks around the rotten edifice might be noble on one level, but it amounts to an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement on his part when the edifice itself is in urgent need of a significant structural overhaul.
I don’t think the Canning by-election should be some inane test of Abbott’s leadership and I don’t think he should be pushed off the plank if the party loses, which admittedly at this point in time has to be regarded as distinctly possible.
But there is little point in standing firm when such a stance is utterly misguided, and no point in blind ongoing loyalty to the very people who put the government in that situation in the first place.
Win or lose in Canning, a reshuffle is a good idea: but if it starts and finishes with replacing Joe Hockey as a token scapegoat, it will have been for nothing.
Either way, replacing a large proportion of the contingent of advisers sponging off the taxpayer and cruelling the government politically and electorally, if anyone is really serious about fixing the government, is mandatory.
Anyone responsible for (surprise, surprise) communications, strategy and tactics should be in line to get it in the neck, for if they can’t manoeuvre a first-term government into a position of invulnerability against an utterly discredited Labor Party — hurdles such as the Senate notwithstanding — then heaven help the Coalition if the going ever gets really rough, and the thunderbolts begin shooting from hands other than its own.
Those who want to preach of loyalty to this government should first get to grips with the real reasons for its malaise, and if they are unwilling or unable to look inwards to do so, then they too are a part of the problem.
Nobody likes singling out those they work with, get on well with and with whom they have professional associations that in some cases span decades, but there is something very wrong at the heart of the Abbott government, and it isn’t something Labor can be blamed for or that a token sacrifice will wash away.
There may or may not be time to fix the government, and perhaps one more opportunity afforded by the electoral cycle to make a concerted effort to do so.
Any talk of early elections must be abandoned, and the cancer at the heart of the government excised once and for all, for if allowed to remain and to grow it won’t matter when the election is held: the Coalition will lose anyway.
And that is a hell of a price to pay for what is being bandied around as “loyalty” but which, in the end, is nothing more than unmitigated stupidity.