Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Road to Ruin

I'm not sure if I have the energy to blog about the upcoming Australian election.  The level of debate is so low, the options so dismal, that it is hard to know where to begin.  While the parties tit for tat about who will have the biggest deficit or break the most promises, everyone is ignoring the elephants in the room - climate change, the new world economic order, imprisoning asylum seekers, the permanent end to coal mining, a new generation of Aboriginal poverty and despair.  It's not so much an election as a game of trivial pursuit.

Much like this heavily publicised book by Nikki Savva, The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government.

Savva presents us with the inside story on the collapse of Abbott's Prime Ministership, as only someone in her position can.  She spent some years as Treasurer Peter Costello's press secretary before moving on to the Liberal Party's PR department, otherwise known as News Ltd.  She has a wide network of Liberal Party contacts with whom she worked as a political staffer, and who now feed her titbits for her columns in The Australian and commentary appearances on Sky News.

This means she can present us with a rollicking yarn about her former boss's bitterest sparring partner, Tony Abbott, and his Chief of Staff Peta Credlin.  Savva pulls no punches.  The early chapters of the book are a systematic demolition of Credlin's character.  The book was publicised through the careful placement of extracts about a rumoured affair between the two, but this turns out to be a fizzer.  The real story is that Credlin is a classic workplace psychopath.  Bullying staff and even her boss, throwing tantrums, controlling information and jobs, cutting off communication with the wider world.  Everyone, it seems, was offside with her - ministers, backbenchers, her own staff, the staff of other ministers.  Only Abbott, it seems, has any liking for her and he apparently supports her because he is cowed into submission.

However, this story soon runs out of steam because it begs the question - why would an experienced, canny operator like Abbott hire and keep someone so obviously unsuited to the job?  Why would he continue to protect her in the face of repeated advice from his closest allies to sack her?  I have always thought this showed that despite his many faults, Abbott still retains enough decency and loyalty to stand by his friends.  However, Savva will have none of it.  The problem is that Abbott himself was incompetent.

So the book moves on to flay Abbott as a person wonderfully suited to be an Opposition Leader but woefully unprepared to be Prime Minister.  His many  missteps are recounted in forensic detail - his off the cuff promises on election eve about things he wouldn't cut which came back to haunt him, his mishandling of the leadup to the 2014 budget, his immoderate language on terrorism and foreign affairs, his poor judgement on knighthoods, his unavailability to backbenchers and even senior ministers.  Things came to a head in February 2015 with a backbench revolt in which a spill motion gathered 39 out of 101 votes despite the lack of a challenger. Savva retails the joke that nearly 40% of Abbott's colleagues would rather be led by an empty chair.  He was given six months to get it right but nothing changed and the rest, as they say, is Turnbull.

It's a tale of intrigue and skullduggery, full of tales told out of school about who called who when, who had illicit meetings with whom, who was or wasn't part of which plot and why, who thought who was part of it when they weren't, who may or may not have voted for whom.  No-one comes out of it with much glory, not even Savva herself who gleefully reported many of these titbits in her columns, helping to stir up the very trouble she appears to deplore.

Of course she has a point.  After all, we all know who Peta Credlin is.  How many other Prime Ministerial Chiefs of Staff can you name?  Who is Turnbull's, or for that matter Bill Shorten's? When someone in this role emerges from the shadows you know there is something wrong.

Still, despite its apparent forensic detail Savva's account seems to be missing something, or many somethings.  The politics she describes is almost totally the politics of personality.  It's not a Liberal-National government, it's Abbott and Credlin's Government.  Its flaws are the flaws in these two personalities.  Credlin is an insecure bullying control freak.  Abbott is a political trench warrior without the people skills or policy smarts to run a government.  If they had just been nicer to their colleagues, or at least smarter in their interactions with them, they would still be there.  Or if Abbott had the sense to sack Credlin, he would still be there with better advisers.

The same shallow analysis is applied elsewhere.  The Labor Party doesn't feature much in this story but where it does it is given the same treatment.  Savva and her informants are not horrified at the thought of a Labor government, they are horrified at the idea of Bill Shorten as Prime Minister.  The Gillard government didn't fall because the Labor Party was fatally divided, it fell because Gillard was too inexperienced for the top job.

And of course, in Savva's world the whole point of politics is to win government and keep it.  Hence she thinks Abbott was a great Opposition Leader but a terrible Prime Minister.  After all, he destroyed the Gillard Government and won power, but was unable to keep it.  Yet it seems to me that if Abbott had been a good opposition leader he would have slipped seamlessly into the role of Prime Minister, having presented the electorate with a clear alternative government from the opposition benches. He did not - he simply tore his opponents to shreds then walked into power over their dead bodies.  Once there he had no idea what to do next.  His time in opposition was wasted.

But this is not Savva's biggest misunderstanding.  The hugest gap in this book, the one so big you can't see it, is about policy.  In her story, Abbott rapidly lost popularity because of personal failings and poor publicity.  Yet as a political outsider, I think this is a load of bollocks.  Abbott lost popularity once people became aware of the policies he and his government wanted to implement - policies Abbott rightly discerned they would never vote for if they were announced pre-election.

People didn't like cuts to pensions, medicare payments and various other aspects of the social safety net, especially not when the Liberal Party's rich backers got to keep their lucrative tax concessions.  They didn't like the curtailment of civil liberties and the targeting of Muslim communities, the wanton imprisonment of innocent asylum seekers, the constant appeasement of the coal industry at the expense of the environment.  If your supermarket sells rotting meat it doesn't matter how slick your advertising campaign is, people still won't buy it.  Which is the very problem Malcolm Turnbull has now.  The more people realise that despite his engaging personality he leads a government with the same policies as before, the less inclined they will be to return that government.  Hence the early election.

But this is not the full story either.  If you want to explain why Abbott lasted such a short time, you need an explanation which will also help you understand why the Labor Party switched leaders twice in six years, and why the Liberals dumped Turnbull in opposition then re-elected him two years into their first term in government.

Such instability is a new thing in post-war Australian politics.  Certainly there have been leaders who didn't last, but even John Gorton survived more than three years in a collapsing government.  Menzies, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard all got extended runs at leadership.  Even Gough Whitlam, despite only lasting three years as Prime Minister, led the Labor Party for ten.  So what's changed?

I'm not sure I fully know the answer, but I think one part of the problem is that the parties themselves are fragmenting.  The Liberal Party is torn between the religious right and the secular pro-business "moderates".  The switching between Abbott (darling of the religious right) and Turnbull (champion of the secularists) is symptomatic of this deeper divide.  We've all seen Turnbull booed at NSW Liberal Party meetings.  The same is true of the Labor Party, with deep divisions over how much to appease big business, how close to remain to the union movement, how to manage refugee intake and how much to prioritise social equity over the neo-liberal economists' recipe for economic growth.

These divisions are symptomatic of a similar breakdown in social consensus in the wider community.  The divide between rich and poor is greater than it ever was - they now inhabit such different worlds they barely understand one another.  We have more cultural diversity than ever, and are torn between fear and embrace, a faultline brutally exposed by One Nation and then exploited by the Liberals for short term gain and long term pain.  We face threats we haven't faced before - climate change, a changing world economic order - and are flailing about for a coherent response.

You would like to think that in such a time of crisis we would be able to find political leaders who took the challenges seriously, who thought carefully about how to meet them and worked hard at taking Australians along the path of change.  I still hope and pray we will get to that eventually, but it's not on display in this election.  At least not so far, but then there's still more than a month to go....

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