The year of an Abbott masterclass

Mark 2011 down as the year that Tony Abbott exerted his influence on the political landscape, through what is best described as 'negative momentum'.

Crikey

Well, here we are again. The end of year rolls around quicker than ever, and those annual reviews and awards seem to blur into one another. But the annual public policy shutdown that starts about now and holds until late January is the perfect opportunity to assess how our politicians fared during the year, particularly given that, despite all the predictions of instability, 2011 was the first year since 2004 that we finished with the same prime minister and opposition leader that we commenced it with.

So let's do the annual prize-giving...

Most effective minister

Let's start with a methodological note. What’s effective? Wayne Swan has been an excellent treasurer, in economic management terms, but has failed in the key role of communicating the government’s economic reform achievements. Tanya Plibersek is a strong media performer and has been suitably rewarded with a promotion to the Health portfolio, but her previous portfolio was relatively low in the government's priorities. Martin Ferguson has had a notable win on uranium sales to India, but he also oversees tourism, which is copping a hammering. Greg Combet finally got through a carbon pricing package, albeit in an effort that wasn’t just across the government, but across the Greens and independents as well. Kevin Rudd made the right call on Libya early on – ahead of the prime minister.

But if effectiveness is handling key issues and communicating them well, the most effective minister this year has been Stephen Conroy, who continues to progress two of the government’s biggest reforms, the NBN and the structural separation of Telstra, seemingly unimpeded by either having a long-running News Limited campaign against the NBN or having Malcolm Turnbull as his opposite number. Conroy knows his portfolio backward and gets his message out effectively. Moreover, it is Conroy who, rather than suffering in silence, more than any other minister has most aggressively called News Ltd and particularly The Daily Telegraph on their blatantly partisan journalism.

Least effective minister

Again, interpretation is the key. Chris Bowen must be a contender: asylum seekers have been a disaster for the government throughout the year. But much of that is for reasons beyond Bowen's control, and I stand by my judgment that his approach to the problem of stopping people from getting in boats was the most moral policy possible. The policy he took to the Labor conference, of offshore processing coupled with what would be the biggest ever increase in our humanitarian intake, would be highly effective at reducing the chances of people dying in boats while rightly lifting the number of refugees Australia accepts. Others? There's Robert McClelland, who did little as Attorney-General other than read the law-and-order scripts handed to him by his department and intelligence agencies. There's Tony Burke's performance on the Murray-Darling, too.

Chris Evans has had two major portfolios now and been moved from each of them because they proved too high-profile for his unassuming manner. But unlike Wayne Swan, he can’t point to big achievements in his area of responsibility even if he hasn’t sold them well. The asylum seeker issue got away from under him during the Rudd government, and IR started slipping away this year, as business prosecuted a deceitful campaign against the Fair Work Act and demanded the ‘flexibility’ to cut wages and conditions. Giant ambition or not, Bill Shorten should be vastly more effective in defending the government’s position and wielding IR – one of the few aspects of the Labor brand that remains relatively intact – against the opposition. There wasn’t too much bad about Evans’ handling of the portfolio. It’s just that there was nothing good about it either.

Most effective shadow minister

Herein lies the problem: who are the standout opposition frontbenchers? Malcolm Turnbull gets all the profile, but little of it is because of his portfolio, where he has struggled in the task – imposed by Abbott – of ‘demolishing’ the NBN. Joe Hockey is a good media performer but, luckily for Wayne Swan, the Coalition has been all over the place on economic policy this year. Scott Morrison has plenty of profile but has yet to offer a coherent, costed asylum seeker policy and had that grubby moment in February when he complained about money being spent enabling relatives of victims of the Christmas Island boat tragedy to attend funerals.

But Christopher Pyne has been a consistently strong performer. Not so much within his own portfolio, which most people would struggle to name, but in his other formal role in parliament. What happens in parliament matters – mostly psychologically, but it matters nonetheless. Pyne’s expertise is the niggle, the constant in-your-face goading and prodding of his opponents that can occasionally put even the best performers off their game. And he never lets up, constantly rising on points of order, constantly trying to disrupt ministers, constantly pushing the envelope, always trying to exploit the government's fragile parliamentary position. Harry Jenkins let Pyne walk all over him. His relationship with erstwhile colleague Peter Slipper will be fascinating to watch. He might be spending a lot more time watching question time on telly.

Least effective shadow minister

Hands down winner: Peter Dutton. This man was once rated as a possible future leader, but during an important year in health – major, if not necessarily historic, funding reforms and plain packaging legislation – Dutton has been missing in action much of the time. If you don't believe me, go Google him and see how often he's appeared in the media this year.

Best parliamentary and/or media performer

Malcolm Turnbull remains the standout media performer of any politician in the country, by dint of talking as an intelligent human being rather than as a carefully programmed spouter of talking points. Like too few politicians, Turnbull treats the rest of us as adults, and well-informed ones at that. He also knows exactly how the game is played, and is not afraid of the occasional meta-moment of reflection on it. "Look," he said in answer to a tricky Q&A question about IR, "the obligation of a front bencher in the Westminster system, when addressed with a question like the one you just asked me, is to squirm uncomfortably for a few minutes. Now, having done that, I really want to get onto the issue of government subsidies ..."

Turnbull is the sort of politician the Brits tend to see a lot more of: intelligent, articulate and thoughtful. For all the criticisms of him and his judgment, our polity suffers from having too few like him, not too many.

Turnbull's had a minimal role in parliament this year. The best parliamentary performer is Anthony Albanese, the only government member about whom one can always say even his Dorothy Dixer answers are worth listening to. But it's his capacity to fire up in response to opposition suspensions and censures that is most useful for Labor. His response to yet another Abbott censure motion in the last week of parliament, when he mocked the opposition for wanting Santa to bring him a policy and riffing on Abbott falling asleep in the chamber the previous night, was the sort of jolt of adrenaline to the Labor backbench that they should expect from their leader and deputy leader, and so rarely get.

Biggest media tart

Slow news day? Nothing much happening? Need some entertaining filler on pretty much anything? There’s only one answer, but it’s a good one: Barnaby Joyce. He’s the Goodies of Australian politics – he’ll talk on anything, anywhere, anytime. That's why the media love him.

Worst political gaffe

Twelve months ago, the government and the opposition were locked together at 50:50 in the polls and had been so since the election. What broke the deadlock was the government’s announcement in February of its intention to develop a carbon pricing package, contrary to its stated intentions prior to the election. The government’s support went into freefall, as did Julia Gillard’s approval ratings. Neither have yet recovered.

While this was no ‘gaffe’, it set the tone for the political year.

And yet, when Gillard emerged at the other end, having secured passage of the carbon pricing package and more besides, when the pressure was finally coming off her and she could feel she might finally be starting to see an upturn in her fortunes, that’s when she stumbled badly, like the batsman who sees off a hostile spell, only to fall to the change bowler. In the space of a fortnight, she goaded Kevin Rudd at the national conference and was publicly rolled by her own faction on same-sex marriage.

Then there was the reshuffle, as badly-thought-through and clumsy a reallocation of portfolios from a government as we’ve seen in many years. Rather than shoring up her position, it merely set up 2012 as the year when the Rudd-Gillard tensions look set to be resolved one way or another. It was a spectacular and wholly unnecessary error.

Politician of the year

There’s only one candidate: for all his faults and gaping policy flaws, Tony Abbott has been a masterful political tactician this year. According to all polling, he has massively increased his party’s primary vote in the space of twelve months and left a Labor government facing historic lows in its level of support. He has aggressively and effectively exploited voters’ perception that the prime minister misled them on a carbon price. He has hammered the government incessantly on its competence.

Some say he's had the help of the media. And he's certainly had The Daily Telegraph in his corner, aggressively backing his tactics. But that's only a small part of his success. He has stuck resolutely to his most effective tactic, always playing to his strengths.

And, importantly, he’s done it while shielding his own lack of a credible policy on virtually any issue you care to name. Abbott's own positions on any number of issues are all over the place – he's somehow able to hold virtually every position it is possible to hold on many issues. He has wrecked the Coalition's economic credentials with a sharp shift leftward into Big Government interventionism and protectionism. His fiscal strategy is completely incomprehensible, and noteworthy mainly for the continuing problems of the Coalition's ‘auditors’, WHK Horwath. But Abbott is able to evade scrutiny on these weaknesses, always able to turn the spotlight back on the government, always able to make sure the focus is on Labor, not his own weaknesses.

Next year will reveal whether Abbott can build on this year’s mostly negative momentum, but for now he can enjoy a summer break conscious of his strong position and the fact that the government may well be torn apart internally in 2012. This year, Abbott has offered a masterclass in political tactics.

This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on December 19. Republished with permission.