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First 100 days vital to help captain navigate choppy seas

In corporate leadership terms, the move from Opposition Leader to prime minister that Tony Abbott is poised to make is more like an internal promotion than an external appointment.

In corporate leadership terms, the move from Opposition Leader to prime minister that Tony Abbott is poised to make is more like an internal promotion than an external appointment.

When a board goes outside to find a new chief executive, it is signalling wholesale change. An internal appointment points to a less radical shift and, despite the political rhetoric, that is what a change of government offers. Labor and the Coalition chart different but not wildly conflicting pathways to the same broad objectives, including economic growth, social stability, security and prosperity.

Abbott is outside government until he is elected but he is not an outsider. His executive inner circle already exists, a public service infrastructure is in place and his plans have been announced, albeit with varying degrees of detail in the run-up to the poll.

Like any executive coming into the top position, however, his first 100 days will be crucial. It is the time when tactics are revealed, strategies confirmed and teams consolidated. The time when momentum that is critical to the success or failure of the new chief executive's entire term is either created, or destroyed.

If he is elected as expected, Abbott will have a mandate for change but not for surprises. A Coalition government would do "exactly what we've said we'll do", he said in his campaign launch address. That still leaves room for a 100-day strategy, however. The Senate numbers will be crucial but here's how it could play out.

Step one - secure early, emblematic wins and demonstrate the strategic course.

Global executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles has advised some of Australia's largest companies on CEO succession. Its Sydney managing partner, Guy Farrow, says early wins are most important for the cumulative message they send internally and externally about the desire for change and the ability to deliver it - and Abbott is prepared.

He said in his campaign launch speech that he would instruct the public service on day one to prepare legislation to repeal the carbon tax and begin the roll out of the Coalition's border protection policy, Operation Sovereign Borders. He says he will also instruct Labor's Clean Energy Finance Corporation to "cease making non-commercial loans with taxpayers' money" and says he will axe Labor's unpopular plan to raise $1.8 billion by tightening fringe benefits tax rules relating to novated vehicle leases.

Within 100 days, his government will have tabled legislation to abolish the carbon tax and Labor's mining tax, he says. It will also have reinstated the Australian Building and Construction Commission, produced a new national broadband network business plan and have revealed the "true state" of Labor's books (that may not strictly fit the 100-day template because Abbott's commission of audit will get four months to review pubic-sector spending and identify savings).

Abbott could deliver other initiatives quickly without breaking his commitment to avoid surprises. He says his government will privatise Medibank and, while shadow treasurer Joe Hockey says a sale will occur at "the first responsible opportunity", the process could be confirmed and kick-started with the appointment of sale advisers, for example.

The government's attitude to other potential privatisations including the NBN and Australian Post could be clarified and its plans to review competition rules, the tax system and the Australian financial system could be fleshed out by appointments and details of the scope of the studies.

Step two - lock in the team. It's about creating a champion team rather than a team of champions, Farrow says, and it's the nature of politics that much of Abbott's work is already done.

In the corporate world, a CEO change almost always results in other senior executive changes and often results in new reporting lines and management structure. BHP Billiton's new CEO, Andrew Mackenzie, announced both this year before he was even officially in the chair.

Abbott will not changing his senior team. It is prefabricated and changes would send a bad signal. He will, however, make departmental changes. Labor's Department of Climate Change will disappear inside the Environment Department, for example, and deregulation will shift from Department of Finance to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as Abbott focuses on cutting green and red tape.

Step three - clear the decks. New CEOs do not carry their predecessor's baggage. They are able to to identify errors - acquisitions that went wrong, for example - and take losses. Abbott's commission of audit potentially sets up a similar process and the direct parallel would be a mini-budget by year-end.

He is constrained by his "no surprises" mantra and he and Hockey have been soft-pedalling on budget restraint in the lead-in to the vote.

Both will remember, however, that Peter Costello set the Howard government up for economic and electoral success with his tough first budget in 1996-1997. The fragility of the non-resources economy is a concern but, if there is to be a serious attack on the deficit, history says it will start early in the new electoral cycle.

The biggest threat to Abbott's 100-day plan is the Senate. The Coalition will not control it and the Greens, which may, are opposed to most of the changes that Abbott wants to make. A double dissolution election is at the end of that road: the size and shape of the Coalition's expected victory will frame the odds on it being taken.

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