Lacklustre, gaffe-prone, hapless, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be undone, ultimately, not solely by his legion of ‘underperforming’ ministers, nor by his legislation blocked by the Senate, nor by any other of his government’s many serious deficiencies which include the lack of a coherent policy agenda and a loss of trust and credibility, but by a surfeit of competence within his own office. Outsmarted, overwhelmed and intellectually outclassed, Tony Abbott will in the end be irreparably undone by his own chief of staff, the highly capable and experienced but imperious and controlling micromanager and political adviser Peta Credlin.
This is not to accuse Ms Credlin of any delinquency or disloyalty but rather to suggest that she has become a major catalyst in Abbott’s downfall because her role and her conduct of her duties have created a focal point for the disquiet and discontent festering within backbench Coalition MPs, a disquiet generated by the government’s poor performance. They want to blame her. It is easier than looking at their own performances and a myriad of sources of deepening dismay and discontent including the Coalition’s declining popularity and trustworthiness, its budget debacle, its negotiating legislation through a hostile Senate and its failure to collaborate with the electorate in making effective policy and effective day to day decisions.
This last failing is misrepresented and misunderstood as failing to explain or failing to get its message out. In reality, it cuts much deeper. The failure of much of Abbott’s legislation, as with its day to day conduct has to do with his government’s singular lack of understanding of the need for collaboration. This is not helped by an apparent arrogance and lack of patience with the average voter which accompanies the hard-right attitudes and reactionary world views of its members and its backers, none of which make for policies which are inclusive or progressive or which are shaped to fit the peculiar circumstances and needs of a contemporary Australian economy facing declining commodity prices but which otherwise has much to commend it.
Yet rather than share the grounds for reasonable opposite, the Abbott government has chosen to base its economic decision-making on a lie, its palpably untrue debt and deficit disaster slogan.
Key macroeconomic indicators, including GDP, unemployment, inflation, Current Account Balances, and debt, indicated an Australia which compares very favourably with the rest of the world. Our GDP has been growing consistently, and our unemployment rate has been consistently lower than most OECD economies since the GFC.
Australia has the lowest debt (measured by Gross Financial Liabilities) in the OECD. In 2013, Australia’s Debt to GDP ratio was 34.4 %, Germany was 80.9 %, the UK at 111.6 %, USA at 106.5 % and the OECD average was 112.0 %. Debt crisis? What debt crisis? Raja Junankar Honorary Professor, Industrial Relations Research Centre at UNSW Australia Business School
Peta Credlin stands accused of shielding Abbott and his government from reality. She is accused of monopolising his short information span. Critics within government claim that he pays attention only to information she provides him. This is hardly Credlin’s fault, however, it is Abbott himself who has created this dangerous and damning dependency. Not renowned for the width or depth of his own scholarship, his independent reading of reports and other vital information, Abbott is content to be guided by material provided by his advisors. This is not something to be laid at Credlin’s feet. She is simply doing what a good advisor has to do. And there was not a peep of discontent from the same politicians when the Coalition was in opposition.
Much is said about the Abbott government’s failure to sell its message, chiefly by itself, but little if any time is spent on negotiation and sharing the problem-solving with the community. Much is said about getting the message out but if that message appears palpably unfair, out of date and reactionary it will not help the government at all. Nor is the government apparently able to learn from its mistakes.
Even at this late stage, Joe Hockey’s message of contrition, his latest strategy, is that his government did not explain itself well. He doesn’t get it. Neither do the legions of government ministers who bang on about not getting the message out. In fact, the message is well and truly out. In most cases it is rejected because it is either unfair or it is predicated on something we have to take on faith, such as the budget emergency or the debt and deficit disaster. The electorate is smart enough to reject the over-hyped problem and intelligent enough to discern that it is being stampeded into decisions and changes to laws or new laws which will not benefit the majority. It is rejecting a government which appears remote, patronising, out of touch or else downright mean and sneaky. And with the passage of the latest amendment to the Migration Act, monstrous, mean and sneaky.
The GP tax is a prime example. The problem it was intended to solve remains elusive. If it were to meet the increased costs of the medical system, then why put the funds into a research fund? Not only was it a solution in search of a problem, however, it was at base unfair. All very well for the Treasurer on his income to tell voters that it was only $7 or less than the price of two middies of beer. What hurt was the lack of understanding that the plan would hurt the vulnerable and needy far more than the haves. That hurt has not been assuaged by anything the government has done since.
Joe Hockey is hardly alone in helping this government towards a richly deserved single term. There are a string of contenders including Kevin Andrews, Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton and David Johnston whose under-performance in their respective ministries has included the neglect of any dialogue with the electorate. Now instead of trust and respect, they are met with suspicion and scorn. They have richly earned their public opprobrium, not Peta Credlin.
Abbott, however, has been typically ham-fisted. By choosing to play the gender card he has ensured that the problem of his chief of staff will continue to fester. He appeared hypocritical when yesterday on ABC he asked political reporter Lyndal Curtis, rhetorically if Peta were spelt Peter, there would be so much fuss. Had he not lampooned Julia Gillard when she objected to the barrage of sexism and misogyny he eagerly, relentlessly directed towards her? Does he expect the electorate to share his own apparent amnesia and short attention span?
Abbott needs to get real. Discontent has focused on Peta Credlin as a proxy for his own incompetence. If he really wants to protect her, the answer is not some humbug lecture or expression of gender political outrage, it lies squarely with himself and his own ministers low performance standards. Instead of giving the press yet another red herring to distract, it would be better if he addressed the root causes of discontent. This is a government seriously out of its depth, a government which has lost all credibility and trust with the electorate. And it is a government of men who when the chips are down will quickly blame someone else. They are focusing on Peta, Mr Abbott because they are fed up with you.
No-one doubts that some of the unreconstructed males in Abbott’s government resent being told what to do by a woman. They need to get over their gender bias and listen to the truth. The public is sick of excuses for non-performance. It is sick of lies and incompetence. It wants and needs a government that is for the people and answerable to the people, a government that is switched on to modern realities including macro-economic theory and practice that is prepared to act responsibly in the public interest. If that’s too hard and on past performance it is impossible to hold any optimism, the next best course of action is to seek a double dissolution and let the people decide.