The Rudd years

As the Rudd Government begins its third year, it seems an appropriate time to review its first two.  As a mental exercise let’s imagine the words or phrases that might best describe the progress of the Government towards its stated goals, and similarly those that characterize the performance of the Opposition.

For me, the words that reflect the Government’s progress are ‘complexity’, ‘cautious and careful planning’ and ‘effective emergency action’.  Regrettably the words that come to mind for the Opposition are ‘denial’, ‘chaos’, ‘division and dysfunction’, ’lack of due diligence’ andoppose everything’..

The Rudd Government

During election campaigns general principles and aspirations are promoted; detail is avoided.  Kevin Rudd advanced the need to address climate change, “...the great moral challenge of our generation”, and as part of that, the restoration of the distressed Murray-Darling river system; he spoke of the need to review the ailing health care system and troubled federal-state relationships; he promoted himself as an ‘economic conservative’ committed to prudent spending and surplus budgets, but conscious of the need to overcome ‘infrastructure bottlenecks’ that had accumulated over the previous decade, aware of the requirement for a national broadband network and mindful of the need to lift productivity; he elevated to top priority education at all levels, from preschool to university, the so-called ‘education revolution’, and he promised to reform industrial relations and eliminate WorkChoices.  He said he would ratify the Kyoto protocol and say ‘sorry’ to the indigenous people.  There were other aspirations, but these dominated the election campaign.

Tackling these tasks in Government has exposed the enormous complexity of almost every one of them.  In each there are countless people involved; a plethora of different opinions, instincts and values; self interest and conflicts of interest; many areas of turf to be protected or enlarged; power brokers determined to advance their position or those they represent even at the expense of the national interest; and a mountain of data, some of it incomplete, inaccurate or of uncertain validity.  There has not been much acknowledgement of the need for collaboration in the national interest.  This is systems theory in action, in all its chaotic complexity.  Few are oriented to such complexity or equipped to understand and manage it.  Most prefer simple, linear, cause-effect thinking, despite the fact that it is incapable of explaining the intricacies of complex adaptive systems, or managing their inherent complexity.

Cautious careful planning
It is in recognition of this complexity that the Rudd Government has undertaken several reviews, something that has attracted trenchant criticism from the Opposition and unthinking journalists who take the simplistic view that as Rudd said he would ‘fix’ these problems he should just get on with ‘fixing’ them, as if that was as simple as fixing a broken-down car.  As the reviews have unfolded, the extraordinary complexity of the issues have emerged and slowed the process of resolution.  This is why there has been such cautious, careful planning in addressing, for example, such complex issues as climate change and all its sequelae for human health, families, agriculture, industry, business and employment.  There was the Garnaut Report, the Green and White Papers and the CPRS legislation, developed over several years, but to date with an outcome frustrated by a hostile Senate. 

Since in the health field similar levels of complexity exist, the Government has carried out an extensive review via the National Health and Hospital Reform Commission.  The Commission has reported and has made over one hundred recommendations that the Government is considering.  Impatient Opposition health spokespeople and journalists want immediate action, but should rapid action result in unfavourable outcomes, the Government would be accused of rushing in and bungling.

The same caution has been applied to federal-state relationships where fiefdoms so often act in their own, rather than the national interest.  Progress is occurring but slowly, too slowly for the critics, who want the problem fixed at once.  ‘Abolish the states’, ‘place decision making close to the action’, ‘drastically cut the number of bureaucrats’ – are just a few of the simplistic solutions offered by armchair experts who themselves don’t carry the responsibility for the outcomes.

Since the election, the Henry Review, a comprehensive review of the tax and transfer system, a recommendation of the 2020 Summit, has been undertaken.  Its recommendations will be more far reaching than the tax changes arising from the GST, and will be implemented over several years.  There has also been a defence review and a Defence White Paper that is for implementation provided sufficient funding is available.

So not surprisingly, complexity and cautious planning have characterized much of the Rudd Government’s first two years.

In my view, the inexcusable paucity of understanding of complexity is one of the greatest impediments to good governance and the critiquing of government action.  I despair that commentators will ever come to grips with the reality of complexity in so much of what government does.

Effective emergency action
It may have come as a surprise to those who criticized the Government so roundly for ‘hitting the ground reviewing’, that it acted so unfalteringly, or to use the Government’s favourite word, ‘decisively’, in managing the global financial crisis with all its forbidding momentum.  The bank guarantee, the stimulus package starting with cash bonuses (which almost all journalists delighted in calling ‘the cash splash’ or ‘splurge’) and the first home owners’ grant extension; the ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure, mainly in the schools program; and finally big ticket infrastructure items – road, rail, ports and the NBN, much of which is still in planning.    The Government’s fiscal policy worked in tandem with the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy to produce the outcome we saw.

The Government was criticized at every turn by the ‘experts’, the economists and the economics correspondents, who always found some fatal flaw, predicted calamity, and advised a different, and of course more rational course of action.  The fact that most of them were consistently wrong in their predictions and advice never deterred them from unremitting criticism.  Indeed some, such as Michael Stutchbury and Warwick McKibbin, still persist with their censure of the stimulus package despite the fact that most economists, reinforced by the IMF, have lauded it as the principal reason why Australia avoided recession.  The Australian mounted a fierce campaign of denigration of the schools program notwithstanding the fact that most of the 24,000 projects in 9,500 schools were carried out without complaint.  This has now fizzled.

The Government was advised by Treasury to ‘go early, go hard, and go households’.  It did and the result is there for all to see – recession avoided, unemployment restrained, retail activity sustained, business and consumer confidence rising, school infrastructure in place.  Even Joe Hockey had to admit its success, although he has four other and presumably more cogent reasons for the outcome.  The debate has shifted to how the stimulus should be wound down, a subject that still gives columnists something to write about with misplaced authority.  The ‘debt and deficit’ mantra, the ‘$315 billion Labor debt bomb’ trumpeted so loudly by Malcolm Turnbull, and carted around on his ‘debt truck’, has faded as the debit and deficit promises to be much lower than so direly predicted.

So for those who labelled the Rudd Government as indecisive, ‘all talk no action’, ‘all spin no substance’, its handling of the GFC confounded this characterization.  Only those whose mouth is set to automatic still utter these tired, inappropriate mantras.

The Opposition

TPS has commented many times about the denial that afflicts the Opposition, the chief purveyor of which is the current leader, Tony Abbott, who has always maintained that ‘the Howard Government was such a good government’, and did not deserve to be removed.  This belief has been reinforced recently with Abbott’s return to some of Howard’s IR precepts and border protection policies, and his appointment of previous Howard ministers to his Shadow Cabinet.  He is determined to return to Howard policies – because they were good – determined to preserve the Howard legacy. 

No better evidence need be advanced to support the attitude of denial.

There is no need to look beyond the regular change of leader – Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and now Tony Abbott, with Joe Hockey waiting in the wings for Abbott to implode – to see the chaos that has afflicted the Coalition since it surprisingly elected Nelson instead of Turnbull in the first place.  The conservative elements were covertly instrumental in that outcome as they were overtly in Turnbull’s downfall.  Add to that the dissonance in the Coalition between the Nationals and the Liberals, particularly over climate change, and you have another layer of chaos.

Surely no one would challenge the ‘chaos’ label.

Division and dysfunction
This is the product of chaos.  The Nationals and the Liberals are divided.  Some Liberals are divided from other Liberals, over issues such as climate change, immigration policy and the ‘alcopops’ legislation.  As a result, the Coalition is dysfunctional.  The conservatives are in a power struggle with the small ‘l’ liberals and are now in the ascendancy.  Turnbull is threatening to disrupt the Coalition with his verbal interventions, particularly about climate change issues, and just might consider forming a breakaway grouping.

There is no debate about the savage divisions that simmer just below the surface, always ready to  erupt damagingly, and the consequent dysfunction that so cripples the Coalition.

Lack of due diligence
The Grech OzCar affair exposed Turnbull’s lack of due diligence, something not to be expected from a past barrister.  But it was consistent with his impetuous character, and his ‘crash through or crash’ approach.  He crashed and put paid to his leadership, finally destroyed by his support for the Rudd CPRS, an anathema to the conservatives.

Could there have been a more convincing exhibition of lack of due diligence?

Oppose everything
Tony Abbott quotes Randolph Churchill who said ‘Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing and kick the government out.’  That is precisely what Abbott is saying he will do, as the last post The pugilistic politician argues.  He talks of creating alternative policies and has promised one on climate change mitigation by February, but I note already he is making noises that cast doubt on whether we will really see a policy that can be readily dissected and appraised.   He intends to ‘give the Government the fright of its life’, and ‘take the fight right up to the Government’.  So far every utterance is consistent with that intent, but whether anyone in the Government or for that matter anyone in the public is listening is speculative.  The latest Morgan face-to-face at 59/41 suggests not too many are.

‘Oppose everything’ looks like being the Coalition pattern while Abbott remains leader.

In summary, these last two years have been ones that have shown what this Government can do, what it is made of, how it operates, and what future it is likely to have.  2010 is likely to be a year of implementation of recommendations of several of the reviews now underway or completed.  Substance will replace the words, hopefully to the long term benefit of the nation.  The stated intent of the Government is to be a reforming government; 2010 will provide it that opportunity in abundance.

It would be better for our democracy if one could record that the Opposition, while holding the Government to account, which is its responsibility, produced a profusion of attractive alternative policies, collaborated with Government when that was in the national interest, and opposed only when it honestly believed the proposed legislation seriously needed amendment, instead of opportunistically opposing simply for the sake of opposing.  Idealists may wish for this, but shouldn’t hold their breath hoping.

What do you think?

This is my last post on TPS for 2009.  I will post again in early February when parliament resumes.  You will be delighted to know that during January, Bushfire Bill, one of the most admired contributors to The Political Sword, The Poll Bludger and other blog sites, will make guest posts on TPS.   Watch for them.

May I take this opportunity of thanking the many visitors to this site and the regular contributors who enrich this site immeasurably with their thoughtful, insightful and often humorous posts.  I look forward to your company again in 2010.

In the meantime I wish you the compliments of the season and a restful end-of-year break from the tumult of federal politics; there will be plenty more next year. 

The pugilistic politician

Tony Abbott’s recent threat to ‘give the Government the fright of its life’ is code for the new leader’s real metaphor – to give the Government the fight of its life.

Have you noticed how aggressive and combative Abbott has become since his election?  He has always had a reputation as a pugilist – his boxing exploits during his Rhodes scholarship at Queen’s College, Oxford are legend.  But he seems to have kept this tendency under control pretty well while in the Howard Government, except of course when Howard used him as his attack dog, and while relaxing comfortably with a less-than-arduous portfolio of Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs while in opposition.  Then suddenly, and for most unexpectedly, he became Leader of the Opposition last week, and found himself thrown into the spotlight, with nothing much in the ledger but opposition to almost everything the Government was trying to do, trenchant opposition to the Government’s ETS leading to its defeat, a heap of political baggage, a mediocre team, a disgruntled ex-leader, and very poor popularity ratings in the opinion polls.

So what did he do?  He reverted to what he knows best – pugilism.  For some he may appear like a threatened animal trapped in the hunter’s spotlight, and that his ‘fight to the death’ approach is merely reactionary, merely a strategy for survival.  That may be partly true, but it seems more likely that fighting is his natural response to any challenge.

His assertiveness came out in his Channel Nine interview with Laurie Oakes last Sunday, where, after a calm start,  he bristled at being asked if he believed in creation, insisting that his religious views were private and not relevant to politics.  Of course that statement is not consistent with his behaviour over the years when his religious beliefs have been on open display over several issue – abortion is just one.  In that interview he went on to challenge Oakes to ask Kevin Rudd the same questions, asserting that Rudd has expressed religious views often enough, and has done doorstops in front of his church most Sundays.  He was on the same theme on Lateline when he queried Tony Jones why Kevin Rudd was seldom on his program, and challenged Jones to invite him.  Both interviewers seemed taken aback by Abbott’s demands and his foray into their programming. 

In both interviews Abbott’s aggression lurked just under the surface until some provocation brought it out into the open.  In Oakes interview, Abbott became angry when near the end Oakes accused him of spouting three or four policy ideas a day, (without reference to his colleagues but all the while claiming he would be a consultative leader).  Abbott’s annoyance was obvious, and the look on his face as the interview concluded one of palpable displeasure.  The Jones interview, the day he announced his Shadow Ministry, bordered on overt aggression throughout.  The video is here

Another sign of Abbott’s aggression and combative approach is his Shadow Ministry, resurrecting as it does several back-bench Howard ministers, and including the always combative Barnaby Joyce as Shadow Finance spokesman.  It’s as if he is saying ‘I don’t give a fig for what you think of this lot, this is the group I want to fight the next election.’  In fact he made a point of saying that many were ‘good street fighters’.  He demoted Sharman Stone from Shadow Immigration because she was not tough enough, despite looking pretty tough on the asylum seeker issue to most observers.  So Abbott wants a fight on border protection.  In fact he wants a fight on everything.

Abbott intends to criticise everything the Government does, to fight everything it attempts to do, to refuse to collaborate on anything, and to decline to reveal any policies until the last moment, except his climate change policy which he promised by February when parliament resumes.  He probably regrets this promise now; he will be severely criticized if he misses the deadline he has set himself, but expect something less well developed than the Government’s CPRS; expect fuzzy edges to a policy full of vague promises unsupported by hard evidence, accurate costing and definite timelines.  He will rely on the line: ‘we can do it cheaper, at little cost to the voters, but achieve the same mitigation targets’, which will be hard to counter as the public is so disengaged from the detail.  The Government may have to fall back on the well tried campaign of scare and uncertainty, painting Abbott’s policy as unworkable, untried, costly, full of holes, economically flawed and environmentally unsound. 

So to what can we look forward?  If one can judge from Abbot’s demeanour and performance during the last week, from the look in his eyes, from his aggressive attitude, from his determination to fight in hand to hand combat, we are in for a ruthless, cruel, bare-knuckle fight with no holds barred.  This week Abbott reminded me of the familiar scene before a prize fight when the combatants line up – hairy-chested, jaw-jutting, throwing punches in the air, loud-mouthed, asserting their prowess, and promising to knock their opponent out early in the bout.  The only difference is that the other party to the fight, Kevin Rudd, is not there flexing his muscles, and even Abbott is conceding he may not win: "If we win the election I’ll be regarded as a genius, if we don’t win I’ll probably be political road-kill..."  He’s even calling his team ‘Abbott’s warriors’.  Like many a prize fighter he is signalling that he is throwing caution to the wind and will come out swinging in the first round.

So how should Rudd counter this?  By doing what he’s now doing – ignoring him.  Except for rejecting Abbott’s demand for a debate on the ETS on the grounds that the Coalition had no policy, Rudd has studiously paid little attention to him, something Opposition leaders loathe.  Rudd has simply got on with the business of Prime Ministership, attending to domestic and international responsibilities while Abbott has been thrashing around seeking attention through provocation.  Rudd has left it to a couple of ministers to make some remarks about Abbott’s team, one reincarnated from back-bench former ministers and radical conservatives.

But after the end-of-year break, the Rudd Government will need to marshal its forces and its publicity machine to counter the barrage of negativity that the Opposition will hurl at the public.  It will need particularly to counter the scare campaign about the ETS, one that is already in motion.  Although a clear majority of Australians want action on climate change, they might be conned into believing the Coalition can mitigate carbon pollution easily and without much cost – who is not attracted to a bargain!  Simple, easy-to-understand material is needed, in many formats, via many media.  And there needs to be blanket coverage of the entire population.  Without this the Opposition will rely on the Goebbels truism – ‘tell the people a lie often enough and they will believe it’.

Until the election, which Rudd seems likely to postpone until at least August, we can expect Abbott, the pugilistic politician, to attack Government policies and actions incessantly and relentlessly, to keep Coalition policies under wraps as much as possible to avoid having to defend them, and to exhibit venom, vitriol and vituperativeness the like of which we have not seen in politics in Australia for a long while.  It will be unremittingly ugly.  What a prospect for 2010!

What do you think?


Dennis Shanahan is at it again

Dear Dennis

Just when we thought you’d got the knack of interpreting Newspoll results objectively and rationally, you disappoint us by reverting to your old form of squeezing the very last drop of positive news from the figures to boost the Coalition, omitting reference to aspects of the poll that don’t fit your pre-determined script, and extrapolating from the flimsiest of data to predict glory days ahead.

Many were impressed with your analyses of Newspolls during the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.  We saw headlines such as ‘Newspoll blow for Turnbull’, ‘Coalition attack fails to ignite’, ‘Malcolm Turnbull up but still far behind PM Kevin Rudd’, ‘Besieged leader loosing traction’, ‘Turnbull strategy out of control’, and so on.  It seemed as if you had given up on Turnbull, decided that he couldn’t lead the Coalition to victory, needed removal, and Newspoll provided some of the ammunition needed to do so.  So in retrospect, it seems as if your calling of the results in a negative way for Turnbull was not just sound analysis, but grist to the mill in extruding him.  We didn’t realize that at the time.  We said ‘Dennis has finally got it’, and you got quite a lot of laudatory comments on your blog.  We started to say ‘Good old Dennis’. 

Then along came Tony Abbott.  I bet your were as surprised as most others, but being stuck with him now as Coalition leader, probably until the 2010 election, you felt moved to do your bit to support the Coalition cause.  While Turnbull was there it seemed as if you felt your best contribution was to urge his removal so someone more promising could be installed.

Then out came Newspoll, less than a week after Abbott was elected leader, but in your mind giving sufficient time for the public to have made some judgement about his suitability.  So your search for promising signs began, and, judging from your headlines, you were not disappointed: Voters switching back to Coalition’  and Abbott gamble pays off for Libs’Reading these pieces, I looked for the evidence on which such stark headlines were based.  Of course you quoted the two by-election results which you said showed a swing to the Liberals.  Even acknowledging the distorting effects of Labor not fielding a candidate in either, that was true in Higgins where, according to Antony Green the swing to the Liberal candidate is 0.8% as of today, but in Bradfield the swing is 3.3% against the Liberal candidate.  So only one seat shows a swing to the Liberal candidate, and adding the swings in the two seats gives a net swing of 2.5% against the Liberals.  Now we know it’s a bit silly to add them together, but if you are going to make assertions about a ‘swing to the Liberals’, at least give us the evidence. And let’s not confuse ourselves by talking about the TPP when the field did not include one of the major parties which always feature in TPP figures.

But let’s leave the by-elections and look at the Newspoll results.  What is the evidence for the header ‘Voters switching back to Coalition’?  Near the end of your article you say “The Liberal vote rose four points to 34 per cent after dropping to 30 per cent during the mess over the ETS and the leadership.”  Correct, but your header said voters were switching back to the Coalition.  Now the truth is that the Liberal primary vote went up four points to 34% because it took one point from The Nationals, one from The Australian Greens, two from ‘Others’, but none from Labor, which remained on 43%.  The Coalition primary vote went up by three points, not four, to 38%.  Yet ‘four points’ seemed to be the message you wished to transmit.   You did it again in ‘Abbott gamble pays off for Libs’.  Yes, it’s a bit pedantic to argue such points, but if you’re quoting data to make political points why display it a way that could deceive the less analytical reader?

In the first-mentioned piece you did not reveal the Newspoll TPP of 56/44, which was little different from the previous week’s 57/43, and the same as the poll before that.  You did mention it in the second piece but made no comparison with previous polls.  56/44 has consistently been the average TPP for a couple of years now, so I’m sure you’d have to agree that nothing has changed despite Nelson, Turnbull and now Abbott.

The other stat you seized upon was the PPM ratings, on which you seemed to place great store – you even started the ‘Abbott gamble pays off...’ piece with “Liberal Party support has bounced back and Tony Abbott has cut into Kevin Rudd's lead as preferred prime minister within a week of the newly elected Leader of the Opposition spectacularly reversing the Liberals' stand on climate change and rejecting Labor's ETS”.  We all know the reciprocal relationship between the PM’s score and the Opposition Leader’s score on the PPM – as one goes up, the other goes down (except if the ‘Uncommitteds’ change).  If in the public’s first assessment of the new leader his score was better than his predecessor’s at his lowest ebb, we ought not to be surprised, and of course that will bring the PM’s rating down commensurately.  You did not point out that Rudd was still sitting on a 60% figure, only that he “..fell five points...” and that Abbott had “...a rise of nine points compared with Mr Turnbull's 14 per cent the previous weekend.” although all Abbott could muster was 23%.

But is it as good for Abbott as it might superficially look to you?  No doubt you’ve now had the benefit of reading Possum Pollytics: Newspoll Tuesday – No Bounce Edition where he displays all the ratings for mid-term leadership changes and comments “Abbott gave not only the worst debut result of any Opposition leader that has taken control of the party mid-term, but was also the second lowest Uncommitted result of any new Opposition leader (including those that took control immediately after an election defeat). Only Beazley Mk 2 had a lower level of Uncommitteds, suggesting that Tony Abbott is a significantly known quantity in the electorate, meaning there isn’t much fat in the figures.”  Aristotle too quotes the figures in Oz Election Forums and likewise concludes “The change to Tony Abbott has resulted in no significant change in voting intentions, and his Better Prime Minister ratings are the lowest of all new mid-term Opposition Leaders.  This doesn't augur well for 2010.  Tony Abbott always had the lowest poll ratings of all potential Liberal leaders and those low poll ratings, measured against his own colleagues, are now colliding with the stratospheric poll ratings of Kevin Rudd.  The result is the poorest start for any new mid-term Opposition Leader.”

Clearly your enthusiasm and optimism is not shared by competent statistical analysts using the same data set.  Maybe you know something they don’t, something none of us know.

You also made a play about Abbott being preferred over Turnbull, by a whopping 28% of those polled, but you didn’t point out that 62% thought he would be ‘worse or no different’ than Turnbull (21% worse, 41% the same).  Surely that is the most telling statistic.  But you did point out that Abbott’s strongest endorsement was from Coalition supporters – 45% over Turnbull 10% – hardly a remarkable finding at a time of leadership upheaval, but of course compatible with your views about the two men.  You went on to elaborate how Abbott had outperformed Turnbull in almost every category.  It would be alarming indeed if the newly elected leader was not well in front of the previous leader who was at his lowest point, and during the very week of his extrusion.

Look as I did in both articles, I could find no reference to another Newspoll result – the satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating of the PM; no mention of the fact that it rose four points during the very week that Abbott, according to your assessment, did so well.  How could the PM’s popularity go up while Abbott’s was soaring so spectacularly?  I wondered why you didn’t give it a mention – it was the only stat you left out.

So, Dennis, what should we conclude from your latest foray into Newspoll interpretation?  You will recall with chagrin the comments that your interpretations of Newspoll in the last Howard year evoked, the angry criticism of what so many saw as your seriously biased reporting.  You will remember the article you penned criticizing the impertinent bloggers who had the temerity to question your analyses; you will recall the angry editorial in The Australian demeaning bloggers, suggesting they were not journalists’ bootlaces, and should get a real job.  Yet after that you seemed to be more circumspect in your analyses, and latterly you have been applauded for your frankness in calling the results correctly no matter if damaging to the Coalition and its leader.  Then along comes Abbott and it feels like we’re back to the Howard days of biased interpretation, selective use of results, and omission of those that don’t fit your script.

Please don’t disappoint us again.  Stick to the facts, all of them, analyse them objectively, report them without fear or favour, interpret them with statistical integrity, and once more the plaudits will flow.

There’s no need to be fearful of Uncle Rupert – he’s always been a stickler for the truth.


In case you can’t imagine what an unbiased analysis of the last Newspoll might look like, try this: 

Coalition makes small gains in latest Newspoll

A Newspoll taken from 4 to 6 December, at the end of the week Tony Abbott was elected Leader of the Opposition, the Coalition’s primary vote rose by three percentage points to 38% at the expense of The Australian Greens (one point) and ‘Others’ (two points).  Labor’s primary vote was unchanged on 43%.  In two party preferred terms, Labor was 56% and the Coalition 44%.  The Newspoll last week was 57/43 and the poll before that 56/44, the average figure over the last two years.

In the Better Prime Minister stakes Kevin Rudd was on 60%, down five points from the last poll, while Tony Abbott in his first poll rated 23%, nine points above Malcolm Turnbull’s last and worst poll. 

No satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating was done on Mr Abbott as he had been in his new job only a few days.  Mr Rudd improved his rating by four points to 58/32, with 10% undecided.

In response to the question ‘Will Abbott be a better leader than Turnbull?’ 28% said yes, 21% no, and 41% said ‘about the same’, giving a total of 62% who feel Abbott will be worse or the same as Turnbull.

The poll was on 1152 phone interviews and the margin of error was estimated to be 3%.

The Coalition has clearly made small gains in its primary vote at the expense of the Greens and ‘Others’, the TPP is virtually unchanged, and Mr Abbott has polled better than his predecessor in the Better PM stakes, narrowing the gap in the last week from 65/14 to 60/23.  Kevin Rudd's personal popularity has increased marginally.


Not very exciting Dennis, not headline grabbing, but at least factual and honest, and certainly not endeavouring to score political points.

Liberals turn up another dud

Was Tony Abbott the most astonished person after last Tuesday’s ballot for Leader of the Opposition?  If one can judge from his performance over the last few days, he was not only astonished but also seriously unprepared for such high office.

But if you look at what he’s said and done since his ascension to Opposition Leader, nothing should have caused surprise. 

This is the man who from the time Kevin Rudd became leader of the Labor Party and started to show up well in the polls, insisted that the electorate was ‘sleepwalking’, unaware of how hollow Rudd was.  This is the man who after the Coalition’s election defeat, repeated ad nauseam that the Howard Government was ‘such a good government’, and consistently implied it did not deserve to be replaced. This is the man who has done more than any other to defend the Howard legacy. 

This is the man who was prominent in promoting Howard’s WorkChoices legislation, the only concession about which he is willing now to make is that ‘it went a little too far’!  He says that the name ‘WorkChoices’ is dead (for obvious political reasons) but that the nation must have flexible workplace arrangements and that individuals ought to be able to make separate workplace agreements with employers – in other words have AWAs.  He wants to re-introduce full exemptions from Labor’s unfair dismissal laws for small business with fewer than 20 employees.

This is the man who recently told a meeting that climate change was ’absolute crap’, so why should anyone be surprised that he desperately wanted to defeat Rudd’s CPRS legislation. He’s an acknowledged climate sceptic.

In the few days since his election this man, despite trenchantly criticizing Malcolm Turnbull for his unilateral policy declarations and his lack of consultation with colleagues, has been making his own unilateral declaration that he would bring down a policy to mitigate climate change without a tax being imposed.  This despite being confused about his party’s emissions reductions targets.  Already, CEO of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout, has expressed concern about Abbott’s quickly-announced proposals for climate mitigation and the uncertainty it has provoked; others will follow.  Only the most outrageous rent-seeking polluters will applaud.

Abbott has also wandered into the nuclear power issue, saying he would welcome a debate on the use of nuclear energy in this country, and then ventured into the vexed question of selling uranium to India, a sticky diplomatic matter, by saying that he could not see why this was not already being done.  Again, without consultation with colleagues!  Paul Kelly rightly accused Abbott of what Abbott so delights in accusing the Rudd Government of, ‘making policy on the run’.

Somehow he got into a debate about oil and revealed that he had not heard the term ‘peak oil’!  Where has he been?  Such ignorance in a political leader is not just amazing, it is dangerous.

He is now saying that he will raid the unspent stimulus package money to fund his election promises; presumably some schools promised new or upgraded buildings would not get them.  He says he would scrap the NBN to save money.  He would stop the Rudd Government’s home insulation program and the social housing initiative. He is talking of a federal takeover of some functions of the states, particularly the hospitals.  He accuses Rudd of mismanaging federal-state relations, which presumably he will fix with a unilateral takeover.

All these ideas have fallen from his lips in the first three days, even before he has selected his shadow cabinet, before there has been a chance for policy formulation.  So much for his criticism of Turnbull’s lack of consultation!  He says he will be consultative, yet announces policy initiatives every few hours, all in pursuit of differentiating the Abbott Coalition from the Rudd Government.

He has already announced he will include Barnaby Joyce on his front bench, and Joyce has indicated he wants finance.  Although Joyce is more suited to vaudeville than serious politics, he looks like getting an influential position as reward for the support the Nationals have given him in defeating Rudd’s CPRS.  Abbott has indicated that Kevin Andrews will be elevated to the front bench – the resurrection of a failed Howard politician.  Don’t be surprised if more Howardites are elevated.

This is a return to the policies and the personnel of the old, tired, discredited and defeated Howard Government, which Abbott has always insisted was unjustly removed by an ignorant electorate.  The revisionism though promises to be even more extreme than during the Howard years – Howard at least had an ETS, not all that different from Rudd’s – Abbott will not; he will have a no-tax scheme!  Rudd has described his approach as ‘magic pudding’; we’re awaiting the details that Abbott promises will emerge by next February.  What genius will create in just eight weeks what it has taken the Government three years to complete?

Abbott has a reputation for unpredictability and is seen as a maverick.  His first few days do nothing to alter that reputation.  Despite the Coalition cheerleaders such as Dennis Shanahan and Peter van Onselen predicting that Abbott will ‘take the fight up to Rudd’, and ‘provide a real contest’, who but the Coalition’s rusted-on supporters and fellow travellers will take him seriously?

His Rhodes scholarship is touted as a marker of his intelligence, but his inarticulateness makes one wonder.  His umming, aahing and ahahing, and his hesitancy is painful enough, but not as serious an indictment as his willingness to turn turtle on policy, as he did on the ETS, saying only a short time ago that it should be passed into law and got off the agenda, but then saying it must be defeated.

Abbott comes with much baggage, about which no further elaboration is needed.  He is a supremely combative political pugilist who believes an opposition must always oppose, must not help the Government with its legislation, and must make life as difficult as possible.  It seems never to have occurred to him that the Opposition too has a responsibility in the governance of the nation.  ‘Holding the Government to account’ is a phrase oppositions love to mouth, and of course they should, but that does not mean obstructing at every turn, opposing everything, holding up indefinitely legislation vital to the nation, and defeating it whenever possible.  For all his faults, Malcolm Turnbull did collaborate with the Government to fashion a revised ETS, which his party agreed to pass, only to have the extremists force it to Welsh on the deal.  Abbott sees no fault in this.

After just these few days, I predict a chaotic time ahead for Abbott and the Coalition, and a systematic dismembering by Rudd and his ministers of the adversarial and unsound policies Abbott promotes.  Like all new leaders, he may enjoy the honeymoon period his cheerleaders anticipate, but if it does occur at all, it will be brief.  It’s not as if this man is an untried politician who ‘should be given the benefit of the doubt’ and the traditional Aussie ‘fair go’ as some suggest.  We all know Abbott well.  We know he is unprepared for this new office, we know how much time he spends on bicycles, surfboards and swimming.   If he had paid more attention to contemporary political issues he might have been better equipped. 

We know he is a political thinker and has put in writing his philosophy more than most of his colleagues, but that is no substitute for depth of knowledge across the wide range of national and international issues about which his knowledge is dangerously deficient.  That could be overcome by attention to detail, thoughtful reflection, wide ranging consultation, careful policy formulation and articulate exposition of policies to the public.  If one can judge from the headlong, injudicious and aggressive way Abbott has thrown himself into the fray in the first few days, the prognosis for this occurring, and for resultant political success, seems extraordinarily poor.  And even as he tries to make headway, he can expect no respite from Turnbull who will systematically repay him for his treachery in replacing him.

How the Coalition can again throw up what seems destined to be yet another dud defies comprehension.

What do you think?