09 August 2015
by Laura Tingle
Tony Abbott: out of probation but not out of jail
In the desperate days and hours when Tony Abbott and his closest cabal pleaded, begged and bought the crucial votes from his colleagues that he needed to save his skin in February, there was one underlying message: give me six months to turn things around.
People tend to remember the promises he made at the time to be more consultative, to stop the "Captain's Calls"; to get chief of staff Peta Credlin out of the centre of government as the defining features of that near-coup.
As Federal Parliament reconvenes on Monday, Coalition MPs have reason to reflect on the bigger messages of that time.
The coup that nearly toppled Abbott in February was driven by abominably bad political calls by the Prime Minister, best caricatured by the decision to award a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh, and by the spectre of political mortality thrown in the faces of backbenchers by the Campbell Newman government's routing at the Queensland election.
"All of us are determined to lift our game and the fundamental point I make is that the solution to all of these things is good government, and good government starts today – good government starts today"
Abbott told a press conference on February 9.
Six months later
So, six months on, there may be questions asked about whether the Prime Minister has become more consultative (yes, but with truly spectacular outbreaks of hubris), but the thing that will exercise the minds of MPs is whether Abbott has delivered on his pledge to give good government.
After having spent the best part of a month of the winter break under irate siege from their constituents over Bronwyn Bishop, Abbott will have his work cut out persuading many members of his government, let alone building a sense of confidence in his leadership.
If a government was travelling well, and if there was a sense of direction and political alacrity, no one in the government would give a rats about whether its leader was making too many Captain's Calls.
In Abbott's case, Bishop has kept the spectre of his disastrous Captain's Calls alive just as it seemed he had cleaned up the rest of them: things like the Paid Parental Leave scheme.
The Prime Minister was saved in February by some of his MPs being horrified by the idea that the Coalition might follow Labor down the path of killing off a first-time prime minister, and a belief that Abbott had to be given a chance to fix his first-term errors.
This was certainly the counsel given to an alarmed and angry backbench by his deputy, Julie Bishop, at the time.
His problem now is that, six months on, he might have cleaned up some of the previous messes, but he has created a whole new set.
It is certainly hard to make the case that Tony Abbott has turned things around since February. In fact, it has got worse with the drift in policy and the mishandling of politics. Bad, even rash, political judgment has too often been mixed with a new caution on big-picture issues.
"Good government", to most voters, seems like a sad joke.
The current conflagration about MPs' entitlements may now have spread from Bishop to both sides of politics, but voters see this as something a government should fix.
The technical details of how a Speaker is appointed, how a Speaker is (ha, ha) an officer of the Parliament not the government and therefore not "sackable", are of absolutely no interest to voters who watch the unfolding debacle through the prism of a dysfunctional government.
That Bishop was seen so much as Abbott's creature has only made it worse.
Worst of all for the government in a political management sense is that the Bishop saga has completely robbed it of momentum and air time.
Just as it was beginning to find a way through on tax reform – largely thanks to help from premiers Mike Baird and Jay Weatherill – the Bishop chopper affair erupted.
Just as Labor was beginning to be really hurt by Bill Shorten's appearance before the Royal Commission into Trade Unions, and be consumed by internal battles at the ALP national conference – the Bishop affair continued.
Pollsters will tell you that all of these things have been wiped away by choppergate, and subsequently, by the Prime Minister's assertion that the former speaker had done nothing wrong.
In the ministerial wing of Parliament House, staffers are going about the day-to-day business of getting policy developed and announcements readied.
They point out there has been a lot of stuff happening in the past six months: measures to boost child immunisation; white papers on Northern Australia and agriculture; a free-trade agreement with China; a well-accepted budget; initiatives on the ice epidemic, domestic violence and drought.
But politics has rarely travelled along the rails of rational policy discussion and announcement since the leadership crisis in February.
Instead, there have been long-running "beltway" distractions like the government declaring war on Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs and a brawl with the ABC over Q&A.
More significantly, there was the devastating and semi-public cabinet brawl over citizenship laws that not only showed the cabinet bitterly split, but once again showed the Prime Minister failing to consult, and most significantly, promoting legislation of highly questionable legal and constitutional standing.
Abbott's involvement in a backbench letter backing him against the rest of the cabinet in this affair appalled many in the government.
"The bloke is supposed to be leading us, not dividing us"
one government MP said at the time.
There has been an erratic "narrative" about the big-picture reforms on tax and superannuation.
One day, Treasurer Joe Hockey was opening up a debate about tax reform when he launched the Treasury's tax discussion paper. The next day, the Prime Minister was ruling out virtually any tax changes.
All the chopping and changing on tax rhetoric since has not just left utter confusion in its wake but has further undermined the authority of Hockey.
The same has been true on superannuation. The government has, or hasn't, been prepared to change super rules.
What has disturbed many in the business community – but also other stakeholders – is that what has happened in the past six months isn't just that the government has been batting back moves to advance particular reforms, but has been actually closing down debates where the rest of the community has been giving it room to move.
Take superannuation. Even the superannuation industry is now conceding that the system has to change: that it is inequitable and won't deliver sufficient retirement incomes.
Even in cases where stakeholders are talking against their own perceived self-interests, the government has been closing down discussion.
This week's hasty reassurance that the government wasn't paying any attention to the Productivity Commission's recommendations on industrial relations reforms only added to the exasperated, but perfectly reasonable, question being asked across the country: what is the actual point of this government, anyway?
Following his near-death experience in February, Abbott did his best to clean up the old messes.
He dumped the Paid Parental Leave scheme, which had caused the Coalition so much grief since he first announced it – without consultation – in 2010.
He admitted error on knighthoods and the debate about race hatred laws.
There was a renewed focus on foreign investment in agricultural land and residential real estate, a focus that was not without its cost for those worried about message it sent foreign investors.
Several iterations of health policy eventually bought an uneasy peace with doctors, and rolling over on military pay soothed the defence establishment.
The budget this year was generally a political success. It delivered some well-calibrated changes in pensions policy that will deliver longer-term savings while boosting payments to the most needy short term.
The result was some small amount of progress with voters. They did register that the government was doing things a bit differently.
But then Bronwyn has brought back all the memories of the 2014 budget, all the talk about the end of the age of entitlement, the sense that this government just really doesn't get it and are living on another planet
As Parliament comes back, insiders gloomily survey the next 12 months and see no particular issue that will come to the government's aid.
Labor has neutralised the asylum-seeker issue. Same-sex marriage will cause the government grief in the next couple of weeks. Climate change policy – whatever it is – is unlikely to give the government a boost since Labor has outflanked it on renewables.
A range of contentious issues remain outstanding from last year's budget – notably what the government will now do about the deregulation of higher education which has been twice rejected by the Senate.
And you can only hit the national security button – and boost the number of flags at press conferences – so many times.
The chopping and changing has eroded the Coalition's superior credentials with voters on tax and government spending.
And for MPs, the march of time towards polling day has made the entrenched two-party preferred lead held by Labor of 53/47 an increasingly real threat.
It is little wonder that mutterings about leadership are surfacing again, despite the absence in the party room's mind of a clear alternative candidate, no matter how much voters might like Malcolm Turnbull.
Whether the mutterings grow into anything more significant will be partly determined by how conflicting sentiments in the electorate play out.
On the one hand, the expenses brawl has only exacerbated an already deep disgust in the electorate about politicians, which pollsters say feeds into the new volatility that has seen state governments fall after one term.
Voting someone out of office is not the serious decision it was 10 or 15 years ago, they say, when all sides are seen as little different.
But at the same time, voters crave stability and they are not persuaded that just changing leaders will make everything OK.
The Prime Minister has to hope that as the days until polling day tick over, his backbench – and his frontbench – believe this.