TONY Abbott is desperate to distinguish himself from Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Instead he wants to mould himself in the image of John Howard — a leader he rightly admires, even if I suspect privately Howard has been less than impressed by the job the Prime Minister is doing.
So far, however, Abbott’s government more closely resembles the dysfunction of the Labor line-ups he fought so hard to defeat.
The PM wouldn’t want to talk about removing barnacles too often, as he did in the partyroom this week. After all, his deep unpopularity and predilection for listening to his office’s advice rather than that that of his parliamentary team are the biggest barnacles weighing down the Coalition ship of state.
Abbott would do well to remember his “team” isn’t featuring in an episode of The West Wing; rather, it is operating within a Westminster parliamentary system in which Abbott is merely a first among equals.
Partyroom meetings can be humbling for politicians who are starting to believe their own talking points. After a week of strutting the world stage, Abbott was brought down to earth on Tuesday in a meeting with his colleagues. But was he listening?
When a marginal seat backbencher such as Craig Laundy — who holds a seat the Liberals had never won before last year’s federal election — uses the partyroom to tell the PM “people don’t like verbal gymnastics”, in relation to the denials of the undeniable cuts to ABC funding, the worst response Abbott could give was the exact one that he did: “There’s been no verbal gymnastics,” Abbott responded.
A Liberal and a National — a member of the House of Representatives and a senator — had already called out the stupidity of the PM in denying something he promised in front of a television camera. South Australia’s Rowan Ramsey politely had a go at the PM when entering Parliament House on Tuesday morning. John Williams did it the night before on my program on Sky News.
Does Abbott think his own partyroom is full of fools? He certainly treated them that way in his responses to concerns about his performance. It is bad enough for the leader of a political party to treat the public that way, as Abbott has been doing by denying that he broke an election commitment during question time debates.
The strangest moment of the week came when Abbott, in trying to defend himself against accusations that he hadn’t lived up to the words he uttered previously, evoked the memory of Wayne Swan failing to live up to his repeated promises to deliver a surplus budget. I’m not sure the PM particularly elevated himself by likening his performance to that of a much-pilloried former treasurer.
Parliamentarians want Abbott to admit that he has broken the promise, so that he can move on to explaining why doing so was necessary. The week started with complete denial — stonewalling Labor questions on the subject. By Tuesday afternoon, despite thumbing his nose at Laundy’s comments that morning, Abbott at least was admitting that he uttered the “no cuts to the ABC or SBS” words the night before the election last year. It wasn’t much of an admission, given the camera was rolling when he said them. The previous denials were getting to the point where the PM was starting to be mocked — dangerous territory for a political leader.
But Abbott couldn’t bring himself to take the all-important next step and admit the cuts constituted a broken promise. Why? Because his office is telling him that to do so would give Labor footage for attack ads in a campaign. This is despite the responsible minister, Malcolm Turnbull, owning up to Abbott’s broken promise. Saying sorry is always easier when someone else does it for you.
If the PM’s office were so concerned about attack ads for broken promises being used against Abbott, it should have advised him not to define himself by a truth-in- politics mantra when unpicking Gillard for her pledge of “no carbon tax under a government I lead”. Or if doing so was a necessary evil to win the election last year, then sticking to commitments should have been the No 1 priority for government.
Privately, members of the real Team Abbott (not his office but his parliamentary line-up, including his frontbench) have long criticised their leader’s decision to play the “rule out” game on SBS the night before the election. It gave Labor the same footage Gillard gave Abbott when she appeared on Network Ten on the eve of the 2010 election. It is a delicious irony.
But nothing can be done to reverse that state of affairs now. At issue instead is how Abbott lifts himself and the government out of a quagmire of his own making. I’ll tell you how he won’t do it: by continuing to deny the undeniable; by defending a defence minister who has said he wouldn’t trust Australian shipbuilders to build a canoe when they are completing three destroyers for him; by refusing to reshuffle his frontbench as Rudd refused to do in his first term because he thinks leaving dead wood in ministerial positions avoids the appearance of chaos; by maintaining a centralised command-and-control structure where loyalty to Abbott’s office sidekicks matters more than ability; or by letting his office leak to the media an intention to dump the Medicare co-payment, only to then announce that it is looking at passing the policy via regulations instead of legislation.
Misleading journalists is almost as bad as misrepresenting exchanges with them. And a government should always be prepared to put legislation it ideologically believes in before parliament, even if the Senate rejects the proposed laws.
Labor made the mistake of withdrawing legislation it thought would be defeated in parliamentary votes. There is nothing wrong with Abbott’s government putting its legislation before a Senate that knocks it out.
A good government can sell difficult policies. Howard’s government did it when amending Paul Keating’s industrial laws in his first term, and when legislating the GST in its second term. The Hawke and Keating governments did it ahead of multiple elections they won in the 1980s and 90s, all while modernising the Australian economy.
The political times in which we live require governments to embrace difficult decisions to set Australia up for the Asian century. Reform and free trade must be understood, sold to voters and ultimately legislated.
All the good work done by Trade Minister Andrew Robb in securing multiple free trade agreements won’t matter politically for the Abbott government if the PM can’t get his act together.
After little more than a year as Prime Minister, the question is already being asked: is Abbott up to the job?