It is not often that we see The Peter Principle played out before our very eyes. We saw it recently with ex-PM Tony Abbott and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin as they were promoted from opposition where they were deemed to be competent, to government where they were manifestly incompetent. This calamity has been described in The Peta Principle – how Abbott rose to the level of his incompetence.
In describing his management principle, Laurence J Peter asserted that as managers are promoted, they rise to the level of their incompetence because the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate's performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. We have written about The Peter Principle before.
In illustrating his principle, Peter used the example of a head gardener in a botanical garden. He was a genius at gardening. He knew his botanicals, where to place them, and their needs for sunshine, shade, water, drainage, nutrients and pruning. He had ‘green fingers’. So good was he that when the position of manager of the garden became vacant, he was considered an obvious choice. He accepted it, albeit regretful that he would be leaving the garden for an office. He failed. He was all at sea with budgeting, ordering supplies, and managing staff and the payroll, and he missed the outdoor life. He had been promoted to the level of his incompetence. He exemplified the Peter Principle: ”managers rise to the level of their incompetence”.
If we begin with the premise that in opposition the LNP was competent in as far as it was able to effectively mount a case for election, and was successful at the ballot box, let’s examine whether that competence has been sustained after its promotion to government. Let’s not get diverted by its tactics, reprehensible though many of them were.
This piece opens for discussion several, but not all areas of government. A verdict about the government’s competence in each is offered. You are invited to make your own assessment, something you will soon do at the ballot box, now that Malcolm Turnbull has made his momentous announcement about the election. In Howard-like style he asks: “Who is best able to lead Australia in the transition from the mining and construction boom to the ‘new economy’?” You will soon have your say.
Bill Clinton said: “It’s the economy, stupid”. That seems like a good place to start.
The national economy
Malcolm Turnbull cited Tony Abbott’s lack of economic leadership as one of the prime reasons for his leadership challenge. There was good reason for this. The first Abbott/Hockey Budget, ideologically driven as it was, turned out to be a disaster. The electorate, even Coalition supporters, rejected it as unfair, and key elements are still stuck in the Senate. It was incompetently handled, but Abbott still wears it as ‘a badge of honour’. The 2015 Budget was a pathetic attempt to square the ledger, but it failed too; business groups criticized it, as it did nothing to reduce the deficit, which Joe Hockey had promised would be eliminated in the government’s first term.
Just a few days ago, the Australian Office of Financial Management stated that gross government debt is now $413.7 billion, up $140 billion since the 2013 election.
The fact that the deficit is ballooning is a measure of the government’s incompetence in financial management. Its attempts at reducing expenditure have been offset by an almost equivalent amount of new expenditure. It has turned a messy puddle into a quagmire, with no obvious exit. LNP supporters blame the economic headwinds: falling commodity prices, the end of the mining boom and the volatile dollar, but these are the realities managers of the economy have to face. Hockey and Abbott were hypercritical of Wayne Swan when he faced similar conditions, but sought to make these conditions as excuses for their own failures. A further sign of its incompetence is that as yet the Coalition has been unable to come up with a plan to correct the deficit. We are still in limbo as we wait for the Green Paper on Tax Reform, now months overdue. Conflicting statements from LNP members have confused the situation. Nobody seems to know what’s going on. Can we expect any clarity now that the election has been announced?
What about the players?
Hockey was incompetent as Shadow Treasurer. Full of loud-mouthed criticisms and arrogant promises, he offered no cogent plan for fiscal management; he just said he’d fix the problems, and quickly. In government he was patently incompetent, so much so that his colleagues, and even past PM John Howard, advised Abbott to remove him. Abbott didn’t, and Hockey was swept away with Abbott on 15 September 2015.
Hockey’s sidekick, Mathias Cormann, survived, but whether or not he is competent is impossible to say. Whenever he appears on TV, no matter what the questions, he responds like an automaton programmed with clichéd answers that have marginal relevance to them. As he departs each interview with a self-satisfied smile, can anyone understand what he has been on about? He may know his stuff, but who knows whether he does?
The new Treasurer, Scott Morrison, got a tick of approval from his supporters for ‘stopping the boats’ and when he became Minister for Social Services, he got a tick for being tough on welfare recipients. He was seen as a rising star in the LNP firmament; there were whispers that he was prime ministerial material. What a disappointment he has been. Has he been promoted to the level of his incompetence?
In his typical rumbunctious style, he was quick to pronounce the government’s fiscal problem as a spending problem, not a revenue problem. This reflected his aversion to increasing taxes, and his penchant for reducing them. Economists were astonished. They despaired that he would ever understand Economics 101. Now he tells us that his much vaunted promise to lower personal income tax is 'off the table' because the Budget can't afford it! But lower company taxes might be affordable! Is it Morrison’s ineptitude that is holding back the long-awaited tax reform package? His inconsistent communication to the electorate bespeaks uncertainty. He has shown no evidence that he can do the job to which he has been promoted. He seems to have risen to the level of his incompetence.
The new Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O'Dwyer, holds little promise either. Her attempt to transmit a message on house prices should negative gearing be changed was inconsistent with her leader’s message. She looked incompetent. In fact between them, Morrison, O'Dwyer and Turnbull predicted house prices would go up and down. Then Peter Dutton, way outside his portfolio, chimed in that changing negative gearing, Labor style, would "bring the economy to a shuddering halt". They can’t all be right; the question is: ‘who has the most incompetent position on this issue?’
For his part, Malcolm Turnbull has done nothing to reassure the electorate that the economy is now in good hands after the Abbott/Hockey calamity. He has shown no signs that he has a grasp of economic management, that he has a cogent plan for tax reform, that he sees a way forward towards a balanced budget, that he has practical plans to realize his grandiose concept of an exciting 'new economy' based on our agility in seizing opportunities, and that he can manage the transition from the mining and construction boom to this new economy. He may be competent, but leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps he's not up to his job either.
Verdict: The government looks incompetent in economic management. It has yet to prove otherwise.
Turnbull mouths strong words about the need for IR reform, talks often about ‘union corruption’, but although there have been 20 referrals from the Heydon Royal Commission into Union Corruption and Governance, no charge has been laid against any union official. He wants Sunday penalty rates reduced to Saturday rates, wants to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission, and wants the 'Registered Organizations' Bill passed. He threatens that if these are resisted in the Senate when it is recalled for three days on 18 April, that will bring about a double dissolution election on 2 July. Like his colleagues, he is afraid of a ‘WorkChoices’ – style campaign by the unions, but seems prepared to risk it.
Whether or not Turnbull’s threats are hollow, and whether he is competent in IR, will soon be obvious.
With Michaelia Cash as his bellowing Minister for Employment to assist him, the prospect of a balanced outcome in the IR arena seems remote. Is she competent? How can we tell? Her utterances are so strident, so exaggerated, so aggressive, so ocker, it’s hard to dissect away the rhetoric to find the substance, if indeed there is any.
Verdict: Turnbull and Cash are probably incompetent in IR, but prepared to take a risky gamble in this gladiatorial arena.
From past history we know that Turnbull has a grasp of the science of global warming and its sequelae. He is competent in as far as he understands the problem, the risks and the solutions. He also understands the inadequacies of the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan to abate carbon emissions, and has berated it in disparaging terms.
His fault is in embracing Direct Action as a reasonable approach to planet-threatening global warming. That is reprehensible rather than incompetent.
Turnbull’s advocacy for renewables seemed to have blown away by the fossil fuel advocates in his own party, but he has now announced he is dumping Coalition plans to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and has heralded plans to essentially de-fund the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and replace it with a new 'Clean Energy Innovation Fund'. In view of his past utterances, who knows how much to expect from him on climate change? Bill Shorten believes he has Turnbull's measure in a debate on renewables.
When it comes to his Environment Minister, it is impossible to tell whether or not Greg Hunt is incompetent. I suspect that he does understand climate science, but that in the pursuit of the LNP’s conservative ideological position of climate skepticism, if not denial, he is prepared to abandon science and inflict his gobbledygook on the electorate to give the impression he knows what he’s doing and is protecting us all from environmental harm. For the first time this week though Hunt at last did seem concerned about the degraded state of the Great Barrier Reef. But is there anyone who really believes what this man says? Is he incompetent or simply deceitful?
Verdict: Turnbull and Hunt look incompetent. More likely they are just devious.
Here is an area of government where there has been vacillation, indecision and ambivalence. Turnbull knows the value of education, but enslaved by LNP attitudes to the Gonski reforms, has beaten a retreat from the funding that is needed in years five and six. The previous minister, Christopher Pyne, exhibited his incompetence in both the Gonski reforms and the university reforms he tried to implement. He fashioned the mantra: “You can’t solve the schools problem by throwing money at it” as an excuse for doing nothing, and managed to alienate the university student population with his ‘user-pays’ style reforms of the university sector. Having ripped billions of dollars from university funding, the university Vice Chancellors were willing to accept Pyne’s funding model, simply to survive. The matter has not yet been resolved.
Despite styling himself ‘Mr Fixit’, Pyne proved to be incompetent.
Now a nasty row has blown up over the Safe Schools program, which the arch-conservatives in the LNP want defunded. The review that Turnbull foolishly asked the new Minister for Education and Skills, Simon Birmingham to carry out to placate them, has scarcely done so. Predictably, they now question its findings, and some want another. They will never give up their quest to destroy the program, despite its widespread acceptance. Their bigoted language has been shocking. Now we know what to expect from these reactionaries when the pre-plebiscite ‘Sexual Equality’ debate begins!
We have written about this in Safe Schools, Unsafe Politicians
It is to be hoped that Simon Birmingham will make a better fist of the portfolio than his predecessor.
Verdict: Pyne incompetent; Birmingham, Turnbull under test.
Healthcare has always been a problematic area. With the ageing of population, and the escalating cost of an increasing variety of medical interventions, funding the health budget is a headache for any government.
Regarded by the AMA as the worst-ever Minister for Health, Peter Dutton demonstrated his gross incompetence when, in pursuit of savings, he tinkered with Medicare, tried to introduce a co-payment for GP consultations, and in the process put the entire medical profession offside. He failed so badly that Abbott decided to replace him with Sussan Ley.
Ms Ley shows more promise. She is smart, well informed, and has established a better relationship with the profession. Her problem is that she is labouring under the Treasurer’s budgetary constraints that demand savings be made.
Turnbull says little about health, but has maintained the severe cuts to health funding for the States that Abbott and Hockey introduced. He is currently wooing Premiers with modest promises of increased funding.
Verdict: Dutton incompetent; Ley and Turnbull under test.
National Disability Insurance Scheme
Turnbull decided to not have a minister dedicated to oversee the NDIS; instead he has placed it in the Social Services portfolio under Christian Porter who comes to the post with a good reputation. The scheme is underway, but will be expensive as it expands. How well Porter will do under the current budgetary constraints, remains to be seen.
The previous minister, Mitch Fifield, seemed to be doing a reasonable job but he has gone to higher places.
Verdict: Jury still out on Porter.
There are several other areas of government where incompetence is stifling action, but let’s conclude with the NBN.
National Broadband Network
Here is the dilemma. We know Turnbull is a tech head, and is a strong advocate of fast broadband. But from the moment he was instructed by Abbott to ‘demolish the NBN’ that Labor had initiated, he has fiddled with it, diluted it with old technology, underestimated the cost and rollout time, and has thereby given us a second class hybrid scheme when we ought to have had the very best to compete on the world scene.
So is he incompetent or simply compliant with the Treasurer’s demands to cut costs. The sorry story is detailed in More about Puff the Magic Malcolm
Whether the new Minister for Communications, Mitch Fifield, can salvage some of the wreckage Turnbull has created is still to be determined.
Verdict: Turnbull is probably under the thumb fiscally, but has been incompetent in implementation, rather than incompetent technically. Fifield is under test.
So there it is. The analysis points to significant areas of incompetence in government departments, and gross incompetence among several key ministers.
Too many ministers have risen to their level of incompetence. The Peter Principle has struck again!
Turnbull has yet to demonstrate that he is competent to run an effective and efficient government, especially with fractious reactionaries snapping at his heels. He has dilly-dallied about the upcoming reform packages, the thrust of the Budget, and until this week about the likely timing of the election and whether it will be a double dissolution one or not. Until last Monday morning he seemed indecisive and all at sea – not a sign of competence. Now that he has taken the election plunge we shall see if there are signs of competence hidden beneath his urban exterior. So far he's kept them well hidden.
The jury is out, but it will be the voters who will bring in their verdict when the election is held, whenever that might be. Turnbull will be awaiting their decision with trepidation.
What do you think?
What are your views about PM Turnbull’s competence six months in?
How do you rate the competence of his key ministers?
How do you rate the competence of the Turnbull government?
Does it deserve re-election?
We look forward to reading your views and your comments.