Abbott's great mistake will haunt 2016

The new government’s policy and public service shake-up rewards its own party faithful, but will alienate the anyone-but-Rudd votes it was gifted at the election.

Prime Minister Abbott has wasted his first big political opportunity by choosing to reward angry party faithfuls, rather than work on maintaining political ground he was lucky to win at the general election.

To be specific, the “anything but that lunatic Rudd” vote does not belong to Abbott, but a large part of it could have been his right through to 2016 had he approached these first days in power more adroitly.

While the left may celebrate Abbott’s early blunders, they are not good for the country. Hopes this columnist expressed directly after the election, that we might see the dawning of ‘grown-up government’, are so far being disappointed.   

The major blunder is the heads-on-platters approach the Coalition government has taken to the public service and Labor’s contentious government business enterprise, NBN Co.

First were the highly credentialed department heads: Andrew Metcalfe who headed up Agriculture, Don Russell leading the Industry Department and Blair Comley at Resources, Energy and Tourism.

All three were experienced and respected, and Metcalfe in particular won praise from the National Farmers Federation for “going out of his way to make contact and keep the NFF briefed on what was happening and doing a good job”.

Before leaving his job as public service supremo under Julia Gillard, Terry Moran told me the path to head of department took years and involved rigorous training, including rotation through senior roles in multiple departments to prevent ‘silos’ of closed-minded thinking. At that time – early 2011 – Moran said there were around 200 top performers undergoing this kind of development.

In that context, the department heads can be seen as political cadres, groomed for idiotic party-line-toeing, or highly skilled people whose expertise is developed to provide skillful continuity between governments, regardless of what kind of dickheads are elected.

Abbott has demonstrated a belief in the former view, and many on the right will agree with that assessment. But therein lies the error. Abbott has played to the party faithful – votes he never need fear losing – when the political challenge for 2016 is to legitimately win the hearts and minds of 2013’s anti-Rudd voters.

The school-boy error continues with Malcolm Turnbull walking menacingly along the parade line of NBN Co directors, each with their resignation letter stapled to their chests, peering at each through his monocle and wondering which he’ll allow to live.

Sack one or two Malcolm, but surely you can convince your superior, General Abbott, to recognise that the nation’s biggest infrastructure project would have hit large teething problems even if its management had been given to David Thodey.

Ziggy Switkowski may well prove to be the best leader non-commonwealth-remuneration-tribunal money can buy, but throwing out all the rest is hasty, spiteful and damaging in political terms.

Yes, that’s what's at stake here. Votes.

Those departments, and NBN Co, won’t magically run better just because of a few new blue ties appearing at the boardroom table. But in political terms the effects are large.

Added to the wiping out of $4.5 billion in foreign aid funding across the forward estimates, the information lock-down on whether the government is actually stopping the boats, and the public crucifixion of our favourite koala Tim Flannery, and it becomes clear what Abbott is doing. Whacking the leftie hive.

A swarm of activists will pour out – not unlike the local councillor and unionist Gordon Thomson on Christmas Island, who reckons the news blackout on boat arrivals will spur islanders to the waterside, binoculars at the ready, to count boat arrivals and report numbers themselves.

One can only expect the ABC to be next. Turnbull is not a vicious man, but having agreed to learn the Abbott songbook by heart he will no doubt now be required to chant a dirge while purging that institution of commies and limp-wristed ne’er-do-wells.

Come 2016 this will clearly have been a major mis-step. By rewarding the bloodlust of right-leaning leafleteers and those who manned the booths on September 7 (not ‘personned’ the booths, as a sacked ABC staffer might put it), Abbott is only continuing the childish, acrimonious tone of the 43rd parliament.

The early days of the Abbott government were a chance to rise above that, to put a new face on politics. It was a chance to wear the clothes of a statesman, speak to a nation of adults and, most importantly, draw a stark contrast with the clownish ways of Labor.

Heads on platters, a crucified scientist, secretive military strikes against refugees, and washing one’s hands of the problem of global poverty is a poor way to begin. It will send the anti-Rudd vote flooding back to either Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese. It is a great mistake. 

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