Now that the tumultuous last week of parliamentary sitting is behind you, I suppose it’s a time for reflection. Time for you to ask: ‘How am I doing?’ Time to check the compass, time to contemplate how to achieve better outcomes – unless of course you’re quite satisfied with your direction and your progress. Which you may well be. With a reputed ego as large as yours and with the superabundant self-confidence you’re said to have, you may consider improvement unnecessary, except of course at the edges. [more]
Making judgements about performance is problematic – it depends who you ask. When journalists ask your party colleagues about you or question your performance, the answer is universally – ‘Malcolm is doing a great job’. It’s so easy to believe that talk. If your opponents are asked, they have less complimentary things to say, but you’d ignore their views anyway. When journalists give their views you may note them, but it’s easy to attribute any adverse opinion to their biases. But what about those polled by the opinion pollsters? We all know the flaws of opinion polls, but when several pollsters all portray the same picture over a long period maybe they’re telling us something important. You’ll probably say polls come and go, polls go up and down, that you’re not poll-driven and that the only poll that counts is on election day. Sure. But even one as confident as you seem to be could hardly ignore them month after month when they continue to give the same message.
When you began your campaign to replace Brendan Nelson on the day he was elected leader, no doubt you put him on probation subject to his performance, and one of the criteria would have been his position in the opinion polls. Indeed several of your colleagues, loudest among them Tony Abbott, insisted that if Nelson’s poor poll ratings did not improve he would come under close scrutiny by party members. And he did. I suppose you would expect them to give you similar scrutiny.
Well, in several aspects the polls, singly or in aggregate, are now no better than when you replaced Nelson. To the nearest integer, the 2PP on Possum Pollytics Pollytrack, which aggregates four polls, is running at 57/43, and if you look at Pollytics Pollytrend, which portrays the 2PP trend you’ll see that the curve, after a dip in your favour after you assumed leadership, has returned to the Nelsonesque levels we saw in May. On the preferred PM stakes you have not sunk to the single digit levels of Nelson, but at 20% and Kevin Rudd over 60%, he is three times more preferred. Your satisfaction less dissatisfaction rating has been deteriorating steadily since you took over and now threatens to go negative; indeed in one poll it has. You haven’t quite plumbed the depths Nelson did, but you’re getting there. And when supplementary questions are asked, you don’t do any better there. Even the Coalition’s ‘better economic manager’ status has slipped to level with the Government, and when asked who is best to manage the GFC, the Government comes out well ahead, as it does on most other parameters.
Now I mention all this to suggest to you that the voters polled are increasingly unimpressed with you and your performance, and if you were in Nelson’s situation, with a suitable alternative breathing down your neck coveting your leadership every day, your party members might be taking a hard look at your performance and looking for a replacement. You’re fortunate that the only threat to you is Peter Costello, but as he’s playing cat and mouse with us all about his ultimate leadership intentions, he’s not an immediate danger to you. So you’ve got a little breathing space to reflect on your situation.
If you give any credence to opinion polls, you’d have to concede that a solid majority of those polled are impressed with what the Government is doing, and enamoured of Kevin Rudd as PM. Of course you may be of like mind to Tony Abbott that the electorate is still sleepwalking, and continues in its delusional state believing it has elected a good government, and that eventually it will awake to the horror of a hopelessly incompetent bungling government it has given office. That you believe this is evidenced by your persistent denigration of the PM, Wayne Swan and Government ministers. You’ve been haranguing them for months and only last week you declared Rudd an incompetent speaker, Swan an incompetent Treasurer, that together they have bungled the financial crisis by mistake after mistake that has ‘made a bad situation worse’. You insist that their ‘cash splash’ will do little if any good, but will certainly plunge the country into prolonged debt. You labelled Nicola Roxon incompetent in her handling of the alcopops issue; even Julia Gillard copped your tongue. Not able to call her incompetent, you condemned her ‘stubbornness’ in not accepting your key amendment about the number of employees that define a small business. You called Joel Fitzgibbon incompetent over the SAS pay affair and called for his sacking, although you know the problem was within the Defence Department bureaucracy. You’ve moved several censure motions against the PM over his supposed inadequacies.
And today as the PM and Treasurer report that the economy continues to contract, you are loudly proclaiming that such a contraction is a sure sign that the stimulus package is a failure. It must have occurred to your Rhodes scholar intellect that without the package the situation could have been much worse, but of course to acknowledge that would undermine the power of your rhetoric.
You give the Government no credit, no approval, no support, no endorsement, as if everything the Government is doing is wrong, foolhardy, ill-advised or just plain stupid. You speak of its inadequacies with such confidence that you must expect us to believe they are wrong and you are right. Do you ever ask how all the expertise and wisdom resides only in you, and none has found its way to them? If the opinion polls are to be believed, the majority of those polled either aren’t listening to you, or if they are, they don’t believe what you say about the Government.
You seem to oppose everything: the bank guarantee after supporting the concept in a more modest form, the first stimulus package after initially supporting it, the Fair Work bill after you declared WorkChoices dead and that the Government had a mandate to implement it, the alcopops bill because it’s just a ‘tax grab’, the CPRS because it’s a ‘job killer’ and ‘will do no good environmentally’, although you have said Australia must have an ETS. Your language is so overblown with absolutes – nothing the Government does is right, everything is wrong.
Yet the people still give the PM and his Government a big tick, and the balanced journalists give credit where credit is due. How are they so wrong and you so right?
Dear Malcolm, I’m coming to the point of this memo. There’s an old adage, resurrected by devotees of neuro-linguistic programming, which says: “If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something different.” If the opinion polls are any guide, what you’re doing is not working. So why not try something different? I’m surprised your minders have not suggested this. Maybe they have, but you may think you know best.
I’ve a recipe. Take a large measure of humility, add a spoonful of something mildly saccharine to take off the acerbic edge, mix with a handful of sage ideas strained to remove any arrogance or barbs, add a generous portion of agreeableness, mix in some sincere collaboration, simmer gently with a pinch of good humour, flavour with goodwill, season with statesmanship, and serve in generous portions during parliamentary debate with an engaging smile at times when it’s most likely to be palatable.
If you do this regularly, you may find that things will turn around for you. You may find it’s a more productive way of operating and that it beats adversarial behaviour hands down. You may find it enjoyable. It may even change your life.
If you feel I’m off key, that politics is all hurly burly and may the best man win, read what Robert Menzies had to say about politics in an article in the New York Times in 1948: “I believe that politics is the most important civil activity to which a man may devote his character, his talents and his energy. We must in our own interest elevate politics into statesmanship and statecraft. We must aim at a condition of affairs in which we shall no longer reserve the dignified name of statesman for a Churchill or a Roosevelt, but extend it to lesser men who give honourable and patriotic service in public affairs.”
Costello P and Coleman P, The Costello Memoirs, MUP, 2009, pp 336-337.