Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott looks to the event horizon for his fate

It may be apocryphal. But one piece of political mythology endures and explains a lot about the fate of governments. British Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, feeling heat from a scandal engulfing one of his ministers, resigned in 1963. Asked what brought him down, the story goes, he replied simply: “Events, dear boy. Events.”

The fate of leaders is shaped by events, of course. But it’s how they manage them that is the clincher. And by most measures, Tony Abbott finishes 2014 in much worse shape than he began it.

An event in Martin Place, Sydney, on Monday shocked the nation and saw Abbott at his best – trying to give Australians assurance and showing great empathy with the hostages of a man he later described as a “very, very unsavoury individual indeed”. His first reaction was measured and without a hint of exploiting the situation. He steered clear of jumping to conclusions and avoided mention of terrorism or “death cult links”.

The PM spoke for many when he said, “I can think of almost nothing more distressing, more terrifying, than to be caught up in such a situation, and our hearts go out to these people.” The opposition leader matched him in tone. Bill Shorten hasn’t let a sliver of light come between himself and Abbott on issues of national security all year. His latest message of solidarity was no different: “I have spoken to Prime Minister Tony Abbott this morning and offered him the opposition’s full support at this time.”

The Lindt cafe siege was a tragic event of such magnitude that some on the government benches are hoping it’s the circuit breaker they all need to put this year behind them. It is likely to be a vain hope. Abbott’s much-praised handling of the Malaysia Airlines atrocity over Ukraine did lift his stocks after the collapse in support thanks to the May budget, but the closest it got in the polls was 3.5 per cent behind Labor. That was still worse than where it was at the start of the year.

An analysis of the five published opinion polls in December finds the Coalition’s primary vote has slipped to 38 per cent. Labor’s has risen to 39 per cent, which translates into a two-party preferred result of 54-46. Independent polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says the government has suffered a 7.5 per cent primary vote swing against it since the election. Three-quarters of it has gone to Labor; one-quarter to the Greens. 

In the latest Newspoll, Shorten has maintained a clear seven-point lead as preferred prime minister. One despondent backbencher says, “The only circuit breaker we need is a new leader.” Another says, “You know we’re going badly when Tony Abbott makes Bill Shorten look so good.” But Shorten’s people shrug that off. They say Labor wouldn’t be travelling so well if it was messing up. Shorten himself praises his frontbench and the discipline of the party. Caucus and shadow cabinet hand-wringing over their leader’s bullish support for the government’s national security agenda has not spilled over into open rebellion. Fremantle MP Melissa Parke is an exception. She quit the frontbench early in the year, citing family reasons. But she has been critical of Labor’s asylum-seeker policy and rush to support the Iraq military deployment.

Those rumblings are small beer compared with the ructions in the government over the prime minister’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin. In fact, the Martin Place siege pushed out of the headlines a bizarre development in that saga. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on the fateful day ran a story naming deputy Liberal leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull as leaders of a small group of malcontents behind a whispering campaign against Credlin. It also named five backbenchers. Turnbull was furious and apparently threatened legal action unless his name was expunged from later editions. When tackled about it on the ABC, he said he didn’t want to add to the “feeding frenzy”. But he still made time for a withering observation: “It’s almost without precedent for the staff of any minister’s office, let alone the Prime Minister’s Office, to be the subject of so much controversy and comment.” Others in the coalition are highly critical of Credlin’s self-promotion. Some were riled by the feature done on her in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s Good Weekend back in April.

One of the named backbenchers declined on-the-record comment but said, “Someone has a shit list and it’s not hard to guess who.” The finger is being pointed at Credlin herself. This is being denied. But the view is that denigrating or bagging other ministers and Liberal MPs to defend the non-elected chief of staff is “dumb and damaging”. WA Liberals have been openly singing the praises to colleagues of their fellow sandgroper, Julie Bishop. According to one, Ken Wyatt, who was named in the press report, “It’s time for a spill.” The prime minister didn’t help his cause or Credlin’s when he attacked his chief of staff’s critics for being sexist. Those critics were clearly his cabinet ministers.

“To suggest there’s an issue because of her gender I find offensive,” said veteran Liberal MP Warren Entsch, adding of Abbott: “He needs to be very careful because there’s a lot of cabinet ministers who have a problem with how the Prime Minister’s Office is operating… One cabinet minister doesn’t know what the other is doing. They are briefing against ministers out of the PMO. It’s coming from the PMO.”

Abbott says he’s looking for answers on how the deranged hostage taker slipped below the radar. Just as urgent politically is to find an answer to the toxicity poisoning his government at the top. Ministers resent the status he accords his chief of staff. Bishop so far is the only one to publicly defy him and question Credlin’s political judgement. Others are more scathing privately.

There is also evidence of push-back coming from Joe Hockey’s department, no doubt with the full approval of their minister. The biennial review of Australia by the prestigious Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) targeted a number of budget measures. These reviews are carried out with the full co-operation of treasury. Abbott’s signature policy, the fully paid parental leave scheme, is described as “expensive” and should be subjected to a “careful impact assessment” for its stated aims of boosting workforce participation. The review suggests consideration of more effective alternatives that direct funding to childcare. The assumptions of the government’s denial of Newstart benefits to young Australians are questioned as counterproductive. The review suggests “close monitoring, and adjustment as appropriate, is important”.

The government’s proposed cut to pension indexation also comes in for special criticism. Echoing the opposition’s trenchant campaign against the change, the review says it will be unsustainable in the long term. Our pension is already low by OECD standards, and will only get lower, crossing “socially acceptable limits of adequacy”. Liberals in marginal seats could not agree more. One says the contrast and contradiction between the overly generous paid parental leave and the pension meanness is “hurting us”. It undermines the argument that the pension cut is the result of budget shortfalls. It is also in stark contrast to the generosity shown to wealthier self-funded retirees. The OECD is urging Australia to shake up superannuation tax concessions.

How a “ragged” government will meet these challenges and win back the confidence of voters is problematic to say the least. Rebecca Huntley of the Ipsos polling organisation summed up its predicament midyear: “Voters’ expectations of the government are not being met and their fears are being realised.” Nothing demonstrates that more than the Medicare co-payment imbroglio. This is a broken promise that has not been remedied for millions of Australians. And now the powerful doctors’ union, the Australian Medical Association, has rejected outright the replacement policy. It is warning the $5 cut to the rebate doctors receive will force many practices out of business. It rejects the freeze on rebates until 2018 and time-based changes to consultations. In a letter to his members, AMA president Brian Owler says it is a triple blow that “will hit general practice like a wrecking ball”. He vows to do all he can to stop “these destructive changes”.

Evidence of the Midas touch in reverse is emerging with the bungling of the multibillion-dollar submarine contract. Already South Australia has become a Liberal killing field, after the defence minister’s “couldn’t build a canoe” gibe. Now the giant German ship builder ThyssenKrupp says the $40 billion price tag is overblown. It says it can build 12 submarines in Adelaide for $20 billion, undercutting the government’s preferred option of Japanese-built vessels. The Germans are calling for a transparent and competitive process. All the indications are they won’t get it, which is curious for a government promising cost-effectiveness as a reason to break yet another promise.

The prime minister has much to think about as he heads to the surf for a holiday. No doubt he’ll ponder how he can turn events into victories rather than disasters.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 20, 2014 as "Abbott looks to the event horizon". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.