The Australian economy faces a tough two years as it deals with the repercussions of the commodity price collapse and other head winds. Not since the war years have we had such a need for strong leadership in Canberra. Sadly, the Coalition government under Tony Abbott has run into deep internal woes in its first year.
As I mixed with government supporters over the pre-Christmas period, it was clear that government politicians in Canberra are a very unhappy lot.
And they are now sharing that unhappiness with their friends in the private sector. So let me tell the story of the Abbott government’s internal conflicts as I hear it, remembering that it is a third-hand story and does not come directly from government politicians.
When you elect a government into power the one thing voters do not know is whether the Prime Minister can perform the difficult task of running the cabinet and government. It’s a very different skill from being opposition leader or a cabinet minister.
Bob Hawke was a brilliant prime minister. Paul Keating was a brilliant treasurer but as prime minister he was not as good. Leaving aside John Howard’s last term, Howard was the reverse to Keating -- he was brilliant at running the cabinet and was a better prime minister than treasurer. Kevin Rudd had no idea how to do be prime minister. Julia Gillard was much better at the task but was promoted too early and was overwhelmed by other forces.
Tony Abbott in opposition ran his party extremely well. But as Prime Minister, while he is nowhere near as bad as Kevin Rudd, he has so far not been up to the standard of either Bob Hawke or John Howard.
Part of his problem is that, for whatever reason, his chief of staff Peta Credlin does not hit it off with his Deputy Julie Bishop. If the stories I hear are half right, this is an impossible situation and the sulphur fumes that come from the dispute affect the entire cabinet. Any Prime Minister facing this situation has to transfer one of them or find some way to mediate the dispute. It cannot be allowed to continue.
When Gough Whitlam first became prime minister he had a particularly bad cabinet. Tony Abbott’s cabinet has some brilliant performers who are independent of the public service but know how to get the best from their public service advisors. The top Abbott Government ministers include Julie Bishop, Greg Hunt, Scott Morrison, Andrew Robb and Malcolm Turnbull. There are differences of opinion as to whether Mathias Cormann should be included among the best performers.
Given Tony Abbott has some outstanding ministers, he should be able to help some of the lesser performing ministers, just as John Howard did.
However, the festering dispute between the Prime Minister’s office and his deputy saps everyone’s energy and means lesser performers are on their own. There is no doubt that the worst of these poor performing ministers is Defence Minister David Johnston who has been completely captured by the advisors who have performed so badly over many years. This has been graphically illustrated by the abuse cover ups and the equipment purchase mistakes. Johnston is not the first Defence Minister to fail in this situation but he was warned by some of his predecessors of the dangers.
Both Howard and Hawke were greatly assisted in their prime ministerships by having brilliant treasurers. Abbott does not have that asset. As I pointed out this week Treasurer Joe Hockey looks out of his depth (Australia is drifting into an economic storm, December 16).
At any other time Joe Hockey might have been a very good Treasurer but we have a deep economic crisis which requires a very special talent. More particularly, we need leadership from the Prime Minister and Treasurer, the kind of leadership that gives the nation a sense of vision and develops its strengths -- and we do have a lot of strengths.
The Christmas break after the first year in office is the one chance every prime minister has to learn the lessons of the first year. Every new government makes mistakes and given what has taken place in the economy and the Senate, the Abbott government has had a baptism of fire.
If Tony Abbott does not take the opportunity to reinvigorate his people and swap a few jobs around, then it will be very difficult to make the changes in six to 12 months’ time as the election nears.
Given that Abbott has a base of talented people, his government is far from finished. However, if nothing is done in the coming months, it will be extremely difficult to turn around the government’s fortunes given the blows that are set to come from mining investment, lower tax revenue and automotive industry closures.