The Peter Principle again – has the GOVERNMENT reached its level of incompetence?

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.

Industrial relations
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.

Climate Change
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.

Education policy
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.

Comments (14) -

  • paul walter

    3/23/2016 5:42:41 PM |

    Good to see you guys back and punching. Read the article at AIM and consider it a really good piece.

    I'd add I agree with the substance of the thesis: Turnbull 's talents are to do with narcissism and self preservation, not the right skill set for a PM and leader.

  • Ad astra

    3/23/2016 7:53:40 PM |

    paul walter
    Thank you for your comment.

    Turnbull faces a testing time, with Bill Shorten coming at him frontally, and his so-called colleagues, the hard right conservatives, coming at him from the rear. I believe the latter is the greater threat.

    Time will tell whether he can counter both foes. The long campaign will wear him down.

    There are interesting times ahead!

  • totaram

    3/24/2016 12:09:04 AM |

    Ad Astra, you are too kind. You are evaluating the performance of this govt. on the basis that they actually want to govern for the benefit of the people of Australia. The fact is that this assumption is completely false.  These people are loyal apparatchiks of their donors, who are the 1% wealthy elite. Their policies are developed by the neoliberal IPA and are on the IPA's web-site for all to see. However, these people need to fool enough people into voting against their own interests, so there is a lot of spin and brain-washing which is carried out by the Main Stream Media and Shock-jocks, all of whom work for their wealthy employers.

    The real competence of these people needs to be judged according to the extent to which they have managed to implement the IPA's 100 point agenda.  Anyone who believes this agenda will benefit the vast bulk of the population in the longer term is a gullible fool.

  • 2353NM

    3/24/2016 8:13:52 AM |

    To be fair Ad, Cormann was just as wooden on Kitchen Cabinet!

  • Michael Grelis

    3/24/2016 10:15:22 AM |

    When in the history of Federation have their been as many incompetent Ministers on one front bench? Dutton, Pyne, Joyce, Hunt,Cash, Morrison, and recently replaced Briggs, Bilson, Abbott, Anderson, Brough and others retiring,or resigning. A shocking role call of people who would struggle to hold down a job in the ordinary employment world, where serious mistakes and demonstrations of professional inability are not rewarded by opportunities to bluff and bluster, and downright lie their way into continuing employment. No CEO or Manager would stand for such behaviour and neither should the electorate.
    The entire LNP at this time has been infiltrated by IPA apparatchiks who demand that their fascist agenda be implemented. Aided and abetted by right wing commentators and shock jocks, a compliant and lazy media, in thrall of their wealthy employers, mainly Rupert Murdoch,an IPA member and enthusiastic supporter.
    The LNP backbench is peopled by some of the most bigoted, racist politicians this country has ever seen, who seem to be able to find willing channels in the media prepared to give them voice. Politics has sunk to a hitherto unknown level of spite,vindictiveness, ignorance and untramelled viciousness previously unseen in this country. A situation brought into being by the hideousness of the politics of Tony Abbott and his willing henchmen.

    This government MUST be swept away at the coming election. In that way, a line can be drawn under the excesses and lies of the Abbott opposition, the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd fiasco, and the continuing awfulness of the current Abbott/Turnbull/Abbott government.
    The IPA must be stopped. The Turnbull government is incompetent and hamstrung by divided loyalties, distrust,and flawed ideology. The only way back from this dreadful time is to install a Shorten/Plibersek government, who should have as their first priority, a stated aim of restoring some sort of professionalism, trust and dignity to the national body politic. At the present moment it is a disgrace.

  • Ad astra

    3/24/2016 10:38:02 AM |

    Thank you for your comment.

    You are likely right. It seems as if the LNP has an agenda that is unrelated to the common good, a concept that seems foreign to it. On the face of it, its agenda seems to be to look after its benefactors, to please the top end of town, to carry out the IPA wish list, to support the coal and oil lobby, and to pander to the extreme so-called 'Christian' lobby. On the converse side, its agenda is to demonise and diminish the unions, to screw the workers, and to penalise the less well off, the 'leaners'.

    They work on the trickle down theory - look after big business and hope a little benefit will trickle down to those at the bottom of the pile.

    Judged against those criteria, the LNP is doing pretty well

    While it is reasonable to judge any government against the worthiest of criteria, I take your point that applying this to the LNP stretches credulity.

  • Ad astra

    3/24/2016 10:50:53 AM |

    Michael Grelis
    Thank you for your comprehensive comment.

    You have hit the nail on the head. Ever since Abbott became Opposition Leader and introduced his vindictive, pugilistic, destructive style, the quality of political discourse has deteriorated to the worst level I can remember. Abbott has been an evil force, and still is.

    Just about everything that has followed the Abbott ascension can be attributed to the culture he created. He established a debased norm that others have followed, and Turnbull is struggling to reverse.

    I think you are right. Only sweeping away this motley collection of Abbottites at an election can cleanse the nation of the scourge that Abbott personifies.

  • Ad astra

    3/24/2016 10:56:13 AM |

    I missed the Cormann episode on Kitchen Cabinet. I have never seen him other than in wooden, automaton, dalek mode. They recharge him at night, program him with the latest blurb in the morning, put a smile on his face, and set him loose.

    We are the victims - listening to him is irritating in the extreme.

  • freddo

    3/25/2016 9:05:29 AM |

    Why do you say that Turnbull is a tech-head? Because he wears an apple watch?  Give me a break?  My guess is that Turnbull surrounded himself with Telstra types who told him that the MTM was a work of genius, and he was too stupid to realise it wasn't - or didn't care.
    Turnbull is the epitome of the great lie that capitalists tell: that you need ability to make money.  Actually, all you need is luck, aggression and naked greed. He's had all three.

  • freddo

    3/25/2016 9:07:11 AM |

    Don't mean to be critical though. Excellent article.

  • sheamcduff

    3/25/2016 9:17:50 AM |

    totaram got it right.

    When we measure the COALition by the values and expectations of normal citizens we are missing the point that the COALition exists to service others - not the society at large but the elite within,
    Simply put its class warfare.

    Its the same with the mass media.
    Many people think they miss the point, repeatedly, and get their analysis consistently wrong because they are incompetent or, as the media pundits prefer to use as an excuse, they are overworked and under resourced in a era in which media is undergoing fundamental change,
    Neither is correct.
    They are actually do a very efficient job of delivering the preferred message of their owners and the economic class represented .
    For example the function of "The Australian" as an ideological propaganda tool for Rupert is well recognised and is just the epitome of how mass media in Australia, ABC included, is designed to function.


    ps Welcome back Ad astra, from a former regular then known as fred

  • Ad astra

    3/25/2016 3:37:19 PM |

    Welcome to The Political Sword, and thank you for your comment and kind remark. Do come again.

    You are right to question whether Turnbull really is the tech head he is reputed to be. He has enjoyed being in the communications arena ever since his time with OzEmail, so we hoped he would do a better job with the NBN. But looking back on how badly the NBN has developed under his oversight, perhaps he was not technically smart enough to avoid being bamboozled by those who tried to sell him the mixed technology solution, which is turning out to be such a problem. If he had been on-the-ball technically, he ought to have foreseen that ageing copper wire for the last few hundred metres was problematic, as it is turning out to be.

  • Ad astra

    3/25/2016 3:49:28 PM |

    Welcome back fred; it's good to see you again on The Political Sword. Thank you for your kind words. Do come again.

    Increasingly, we are realising the truth of your assertion: "...the COALition exists to service others - not the society at large but the elite within..."

    The concept of 'the common good' seems foreign to the LNP. Looking after its benefactors, from which it gets its marching orders, is its main focus. The recent scandal of hidden political donations from its supporters is a case in point.

    Of course, as you say, The Australian, indeed the Murdoch media as a whole, is simply an organ of the LNP that promulgates its propaganda free of charge, but it surely keeps a debit against the LNP on its ledger, which it will call in whenever it wishes.

  • Bacchus

    3/25/2016 6:37:59 PM |


    As Ad Astra mentions, Turnbull's reputation as a 'tech-head' goes back to his Ozemail days, but even then he didn't understand the technical side of the business - he was and still is a merchant banker. He was in the right time and in the right place to make a motsa - nothing more, nothing less.

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