Where’s Malcolm? The election is Turnbull’s last chance to be the PM everyone thought he was going to be

It’s the question on everyone’s lips: “Where’s Malcolm?” And it’s not a misplaced question. The Malcolm Turnbull who became Prime Minister on September 15 last year – to the palpable relief of a grateful nation – is not quite the man who occupies the office today.

There are occasional glimpses of the charming, eloquent and charismatic visionary whose elevation to the top job aroused much anticipation. Even the Labor opposition seemed quite giddy and star-struck in those first few heady days of Malcolm at the despatch box. At question time, even when he dared to helpfully suggest the question the Opposition should have asked, there was much fluttering delight on the Labor side.

“Early Malcolm” certainly set the scene for the post-Abbott era: soaring speeches, a mini-summit of diverse interests that heralded a new era of inclusion and consultation, a softer tone on terrorism, and of course the innovation statement.

But then, just as suddenly as he appeared, the urbane statesman who promised to usher in the glorious “Turnbull era” became just another politician – and not a very good one, with missteps galore, wasted opportunities, flights of policy fancy that came and went in the space of a news cycle, and a curious reluctance to give voice to those convictions he once proudly wore on his bespoke sleeve: the republic, same-sex marriage, climate change, [insert your own issue here].

Perhaps, opined those prepared to give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt, including this writer, he was silenced by whatever agreements he needed to strike with conservative elements within his party, not to mention his coalition partner, to secure the leadership. Once he has a mandate in his own right, the theory ran (runs), then the “real Malcolm” will re-emerge.

But Turnbull has given not so much as a hint that voters’ patience and understanding will be rewarded in due time. On the republic he has been especially disappointing, relegating it to a distant third-order issue, one to be revisited, maybe and perhaps, when the Queen dies (begging your pardon, Ma’am). On same-sex marriage, he has opted not to reverse the Coalition’s controversial commitment to a divisive and expensive plebiscite.

Who is this imposter claiming to be Malcolm Turnbull? Turnbull is Turnbull in much the same way that the waxen Shane Warne is who he says he is. Of the former spin king, once we get past the swallow’s nest on his bonce, we might agree that he sounds like Warnie and if you squint he even looks a bit like Warnie.

That goes for Turnbull too; if you squint, there is a passing resemblance to the old Malcolm.

Even if we can make allowances for Turnbull squibbing it on those cornerstone issues until after the election – and increasingly that now seems like a big if – it’s much harder to explain the past six months of stumbles, about-faces and inglorious defeats.

It’s even possible to pinpoint the very day when the Turnbull gloss turned to fluff.

That was October 9, less than a month after becoming PM, when Turnbull stupidly (no other word for it) told a Liberal Party state council in Sydney that their party was neither run by factions nor subject to “deals in back rooms”. For his trouble he was openly jeered and laughed at.

Who can say what possessed Turnbull on that day, but ever since Turnbull has been squandering the enormous political capital he initially enjoyed.

A PM who promised so much

The turning opinion polls tell the story of a public’s disappointment with a Prime Minister who explicitly and implicitly promised so much.

It had widely been assumed that Turnbull would be Keatingesque in his policy gravity and vision, but mostly he has just been Abbottesque.

Turnbull deliberately set high expectations on tax reform, promising an informed community debate on taxation, with all tax options to be considered, and a government tax reform blueprint to be presented to the nation in its aftermath. There was no blueprint and debate was pretty swiftly cut short when federal Labor successfully spooked Turnbull into taking any changes to the GST off the mostly bare table. Changes to negative gearing, also initially entertained by the government, had its sacred-cow status confirmed when it too was ruled out – all the better to hammer Labor at the election.

Turnbull, suddenly bereft of a tax reform centrepiece, much less a tax reform manifesto, came up with a proposal to return limited income tax powers to the states for the first time since World War II. It was, the PM boasted, the greatest reform to income tax and the federation in 70 years.

“What we are talking about is the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations, really since the income tax powers were ceded to the commonwealth in the Second World War. There is a failure at the heart of the federation and this is the failure: it is the failure of the states to have access to the revenue sources. This, we believe, is the only way that we can genuinely reform our federation.”

While the proposal – such as it was – was still alive, Turnbull actually did a good job explaining why giving states a share of the income tax base would be an important reform. But, on April 1, appropriately enough, the COAG meeting at which the proposal was formally raised, was informally buried.

Officially the communique stated: “COAG agreed…[to] work on broader opportunities for tax reform, including state tax reform…with a progress report to COAG at its next meeting.”

There’s been not a peep from Turnbull on his momentous state income tax reform since.

Given its significance, one would have thought the Turnbull government would fight harder for such a reform rather than meekly acquiesce to the predictable objections of the states and territories. Or indeed that such a seminal reform might even be an issue to take to the voters? Apparently not.

Wishy-washy brand of politics

Turnbull vowed in his first address to the nation as Prime Minister-elect that his government would be one of “engagement, of consultation, of collaboration”, respecting the intelligence of voters and explaining necessary policy changes.

There has been no such engagement, mainly because there has been no great policy shift which the government has had to explain. It certainly hasn’t been on tax reform, and most certainly not “the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations”. Turnbull has squandered much goodwill; in those first six months we can only speculate on how much he could have achieved in policy terms.

We know from the opinion polls that voters are not happy with Turnbull’s wishy-washy brand of politics – it’s the very opposite of what they expected from him and completely at odds with his take-no-prisoners approach in previous lives as a journalist, lawyer, businessman and investment banker.

Yet, every now and then Australians are treated to a glimpse of the Turnbull they thought they would see on a more regular basis: Turnbull’s prime ministerial Anzac Day address; or Malcolm in command as he announced the awarding of the $50 billion submarine contract to French company DCNS, which will build 12 submarines in Adelaide.

It may be that the Budget will make up for Turnbull’s disappointing start to his prime ministership. To do so it would have to be a budget for the ages, a cornucopia of vision, narrative and bold policy brilliance. It’s possible, but the hamfisted lead up to the Budget suggests nobody is expecting much at all. Except for cigarettes going up again.

And so to the election, which will be called just after the Budget formalities are over.

For jaded Australians who remain hopeful that a mandate will ensure the return of “real Malcolm”, it is no longer the certainty that it was seven months ago that Turnbull will be returned as Prime Minister.

Neither Turnbull nor Labor leader Bill Shorten have led an election campaign before. Neither man will ever face a more important contest.

Hopefully it will be a contest not just of endurance and theatrics, but a contest of ideas, a genuine choice between two plans for Australia. The fact that Shorten lives to tell the tale – not cut down by an all-conquering Turnbull as expected – is a plus for democracy.

Turnbull’s uneven start as PM has been cleverly exploited by Shorten who has for the first time cut through electoral indifference to point out chinks in the government’s armour. More than that, he has been more adventurous on the policy front. Even so, the polls suggest that, whatever gains Labor has made at the expense of the government, people still haven’t warmed to Shorten as the alternative PM and Turnbull comfortably remains the preferred PM.

Turnbull supporters will be hoping that on July 2 Malcolm Turnbull and his government will be returned, and the Turnbull era will at last begin in earnest.

However, Turnbull needs to be aware that thanks to his less than stellar debut as PM Bill Shorten is now very much in the race. Turnbull isn’t the only one hoping to kick off a new era in Australian politics.



The Road to Ruin: Niki Savva is under fire for being sexist, but feminist critics should leave their agenda at home

Niki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin has proven a polarising chronicle of the destructive co-dependency between Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin and its role in the demise of Abbott’s prime ministership.

Some of the critics have aimed their wrath at Savva for daring to give currency to the long-circulating Canberra gossip that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. Savva makes no effort to settle the veracity of that virulent rumour, nor does she offer any indication of her own view on the matter. The alleged affair, per se, is not the point of her book.

Her point was to illustrate the undisguised intensity and peculiar, not to say bizarre, characteristics of the relationship. It’s possible at a generous stretch that Abbott and Credlin were not aware of the rumours circulating through Canberra, but at times it certainly seemed that they were daring observers to come to that conclusion.

Frankly, the idea of a senior politician having an affair with a staffer is hardly breaking new ground. Mercifully, in Australia, what happens in the anteroom traditionally stays in the anteroom. Occasionally journalists push the envelope, but if journalists were to make a practice of gratuitously revealing every extramarital indiscretion involving politicians and staffers – not to mention the odd journalist – our media would be filled with nothing else.

Matters of public (as opposed to prurient) interest aside, affairs should be none of our affair. What is different about politicians behaving badly through the decades is that they and their paramours have behaved with discretion and secretiveness.

Affair or not, Abbott and Credlin were so bizarrely in-your-face and completely lacking in public decorum that of course they were going to be a talking point.

One MP recounted to Savva being present at a Melbourne restaurant when Credlin used her fork to feed Abbott from her plate. And after the meal “she put her head on his shoulder to complain about being tired”. On another occasion Abbott was spotted patting his chief of staff on the fundament.

There was nothing gratuitous about Savva’s detailed and richly sourced account, but there certainly have been some gratuitous insults hurled at her.

One commentator opined that Savva included rumours of the affair to boost sales of her book. Such a specious claim is an insult to Savva who is a well-connected, seasoned and fearless political journalist (as anyone who reads her columns in The Australian will know).

The intensity of the corrosive relationship between Abbott and Credlin and its toxic impact on Abbott’s private office and the governance of the country – and within two short years his prime ministership – was hardly a matter of Savva’s invention. But her book does break new ground in revealing just how obsessive and caustic this relationship was.

As Savva herself explained: “This was not meant to imply an affair; it was meant to describe the depth of the dependence, the consuming obsession, and what Abbott was prepared to sacrifice for it.”

Too much for a troubled government to bear

Far from being simply a matter of Canberra intrigue, Abbott’s closest colleagues were deeply concerned about Credlin’s micro-management – which extended to over-ruling ministers’ staff appointments and travel arrangements – and the extent of her influence on the Prime Minister and the workings of government.

On top of these deeply and widely held concerns about Credlin’s power lust, rumours about the nature of Abbott and Credlin’s relationship, and their seemingly wilful fanning of it with their outlandish behaviour, was simply too much for a troubled government to bear.

It was of such concern that NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells confronted Abbott about the rumours. As has been publicised, Fierravanti-Wells made this blunt assessment to her Prime Minister: “Politics is about perceptions. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that you are sleeping with your chief of staff. That’s the perception, and you need to deal with it. I am here because I care about you, and I care about your family, and I feel I need to tell you the truth, the brutal truth. This is what your colleagues really think.”

It was a gutsy intervention, not one that would have been made lightly. Her counsel was of course ignored. Abbott did not sack Credlin; in fact nothing changed. Quite apart from the impact of this reckless relationship on his government, Abbott was also becoming a laughing stock in public over the relationship.

A widely circulated gif on social media in which Credlin could be seen making goo-goo eyes at her boss in the back seat of the prime ministerial car – and some none too subtle accompanying comments – would have confirmed Fierravanti-Wells’ worst fears.

Savva has been criticised for not putting these matters to Abbott and Credlin. But why would she? For the inevitable mealy-mouthed denials or explanations, or threats of legal action? Perhaps as a pro forma exercise she should have, but the book is no less revelatory or relevant for the lack of the protagonists’ input. In any case, it was well known for some time that Savva was writing the book; did they seek input? This was not an authorised account of the failed Abbott government. It was an exposé. And a well written, thoroughly researched one at that.

Of the many criticisms levelled at Savva, none has been about the accuracy of her account. It seems inconceivable that an account of the demise of the inept and dysfunctional Abbott government could have been written without delving into the principal architects of its disintegration; and when Savva delves, she delves.

The most fiery criticism of Savva has been over Credlin’s central role in the narrative. This was to be expected, although perhaps not its vehemence.

Previous media reports about Credlin’s divisive and destructive role as Abbott’s chief of staff also attracted the ire of feminists, so it’s not surprising that Savva’s book should come in for like condemnation. Throw in the matter of the alleged affair and Savva was guaranteed a hostile reaction from her sisters. Although she might not have anticipated the extent of the condemnation and accompanying accusations of betrayal of feminist ideals.

Fatuous feminism

But fiery feminism is not necessarily infallible feminism. In this case, fatuous comes closer to the mark (or marcia). One female critic, for example, sought to demonstrate that Savva was being sexist. She argued that despite the intense bond between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, nobody accused them of having sex. Ergo, the only reason people were speculating about an affair in Canberra is because Credlin was a woman.

Well, yes.

Where does one begin with such absurd logic? I’m not aware of any sightings of Campbell feeding his boss forkfuls of cake that might have set some people wondering. But as it happens, the Blair-Campbell alliance was very much the subject of heated discussion, criticism and condemnation.

Criticisms of Campbell mirrored the concerns expressed about Credlin. He was criticised for having too much influence on Blair and government policy, more so than ministers in some cases. He was condemned for bastardising Westminster politics. Campbell’s influence was all the more egregious, critics argued, given that he was not an elected official. These are familiar criticisms in the context of Credlin’s time as Abbott’s chief of staff.

Critics have variously argued that the book’s focus on Credlin is another example of Australian society’s problem with powerful women, is “insulting to women everywhere” and will dissuade girls and young women from seeking positions of power or influence because they’re only going to be dragged down by an unreconstructed patriarchy.

Which is tosh. Savva, to state the bleeding obvious, is a woman, clearly a powerful one, and as tough as nails. She also knows the turf; not only as a veteran political journalist and commentator but as a former staffer to Peter Costello and John Howard. Far from being a negative influence she may even inspire a new generation of female political and investigative journalists.

Society is the better for the gains that have only come through feminist agitation and insistence. And there are more battles to be fought and won. But using the simplistic rationale that an attack on Credlin is an attack on all women is simply another way of saying that women should be beyond judgment or criticism.

Savva’s book does not posit that the problem with Credlin was her gender; the problem with Credlin was Credlin; and the problem with Abbott was very much Abbott. Savva’s book is about the  poisonous combination of Abbott and Credlin and their dysfunctional approach to government.

The critics presumably must know that the behaviour of Abbott and Credlin would not be tolerated in any Australian workplace. A male CEO patting his female associate’s arse (or vice versa) in view of others would almost certainly only end one way. A CEO who lets himself be fed at a restaurant table, have his hair brushed or tie straightened by said female associate would presumably be sending one and only one signal to all those watching agog at the table.

Quite apart from the power and influence wielded by Credlin and the inadequacies of Abbott as Prime Minister, there are norms of behaviour that must be observed, if not for the sake of decency, for the sake of professionalism.

The Abbott-Credlin relationship was unprofessional, wilful, self-indulgent, selfish, narcissistic, provocative and inevitably destructive. Savva has nothing to apologise for; but Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin most certainly owe their party, if not the people of Australia, a very big one.



Whoever leads the government at the next election, it’s time for Bill Shorten to show he has what it takes to be PM

Bill Shorten has been wise to stay clear of the Abbott government’s leadership agonies. Tony Abbott, often derided for behaving as if he is still Opposition Leader, seems to be doing Shorten’s job as well. But Shorten cannot continue to rely on the imploding Abbott government.

Abbott survived this week’s leadership spill motion 61-39: that’s hardly a rousing victory. Ministerial solidarity saved the Prime Minister – which makes you wonder just what level of ineptitude it would take for Ministers to be guided by the national interest. Even so, Tony Abbott will not be able to rely on that solidarity a second time. He is now on notice that Malcolm Turnbull is waiting in the wings.

For Bill Shorten, it’s time to move from the sidelines and get back into the fray. It’s time – well time – for Shorten to demonstrate his credentials as Australia’s alternative Prime Minister.

He is almost certainly right to believe that facing Abbott at the 2016 election is the best chance he has of leading Labor back to power and securing for himself the prime ministership. But winning by default, as Tony Abbott did in 2013, is neither the key to good government nor to restoring Australians’ eroded trust in the institutions of power.

Bill Shorten owes Australians a blueprint for the nation in these critical times of post-GFC economic volatility. Many families are concerned about their financial wellbeing; many Australians are concerned about job security, and for too many unemployed, of ever working again; consumers are nervous and business is increasingly pessimistic about future prospects.

Shorten has made statements about what he will not do: he won’t place added pressures on the weakest and most disadvantaged in the community; he won’t deregulate the university sector; he won’t dismantle Australia’s universal healthcare system. These are welcome commitments, but now Australians need to hear what Shorten would do as Prime Minister.

Australia needs solutions to many fundamental problems, problems which are clearly beyond the wit of the current government.

There is a long list of serious challenges which require vision, a coherent strategy and public policy sophistication, none of which has been present in this government. Nor do the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, of which Shorten was a member, stand close scrutiny on many of these challenges.

A long list of serious challenges

Australia faces many problems; let’s go through some of them.

An ageing population for which little provision has been made, and for that matter a rising population for which there has been even less planning.

Our health system is rightly the envy of the world, but it requires resetting for the challenges ahead. So does our education system, from schools, to higher education to vocational education and training.

The Australian economy is vastly changed, and faces even more profound change in the years ahead as whole industries restructure and even disappear under the weight of global competitive pressures, rapid advances in technology and shifting consumer behaviour. Labor squibbed reform of Australia’s ramshackle taxation system when it was last in power; Australia cannot afford not to undertake such vital and long overdue reform.

The depletion of vital funding that will keep Australian scientific research and innovation at the forefront of the world’s best is at crisis point and a national disgrace.

Australia needs to regain its place as a valued and respected member of the international community. Turning the global refugee crisis into a zero sum game for domestic political gain has dehumanised us as much as it degrades those stateless men, women and children who are fleeing oppression, torture and in many cases certain death. We cannot take all who would seek a place in this country, but that is no excuse for Australia to turn its back on these people and to place unreasonable pressure on inadequately resourced regional neighbours to shoulder a burden that is ours to bear.

Climate change, “the great moral challenge of our generation”, has all but become a political no-go zone – can there be a greater abrogation of leadership than reducing this crisis unfolding before our eyes to a matter of seats won and lost?

The fabric of the nation also needs urgent attention; whether it’s cultural diversity, religious and racial cohesion, women’s rights and inclusion, government has a critical, and under this government mostly neglected, role to play.

Bill Shorten, and Labor under his leadership, must confront these and many other issues. It seems an inexhaustible list of issues awaiting attention in very great part because of political inaction by both major parties.

Some issues cannot wait: true and proper reconciliation with the First Australians. Others must at least be put on the political agenda, such as reform of Australia’s creaking federation and system of government, including further consideration of the Republic.

It is simply not acceptable for Shorten to give himself the added insurance of not upsetting the prospect of certain victory by withholding a detailed plan to voters well ahead of the next election.

A generation of mediocre government

The blight of “small target” election campaigns has condemned Australia to a generation of mediocre government and mealy-mouthed sloganeering that masquerades as political leadership.

Shorten must repudiate the debased and deeply flawed modern political wisdom that being honest with the voters is a sure route to political oblivion.

Australia needs a plan, and Australians sorely want their trust in political leaders restored. Tony Abbott promised he was going to do just that. Instead, Abbott is a politician clearly out of his depth, as is his government, the most flawed, inept and duplicitous in the post-Menzies era.

If the challenges facing Australia were not so serious, it might well be enough that Bill Shorten is not Tony Abbott. But that is not the case.

Shorten needs to convince Australians now that not only is he committed to good government, but he has a gameplan that will drive his government. It is essential that he produce such a manifesto even if he is to face Abbott at the next election, and doubly so if, as is more likely, Malcolm Turnbull, in which case a one-term Coalition government is not such a certainty.

When Tony Abbott won office in 2013 it was despite Australians not being convinced that he was PM material. Which is why from the first opinion poll after winning office, voters expressed their remorse with an unprecedented repudiation of their choice. Voter dissatisfaction with Abbott and his government has been the one constant of this most chaotic, dysfunctional and arrogant of governments – as writ large in Victorian and Queensland state elections.

At this stage, voters are no more convinced that Shorten is PM material. The task of convincing voters that he is deserving of the highest elected office in the land, whether he is assured of it or not, must start now.

Shorten’s parliamentary performance during the Opposition’s no confidence motion in the Prime Minister immediately following the aborted leadership spill was a masterful and too rare performance. It was a speech coherent, articulate and withering, highlighting with pinpoint accuracy the government’s flaws, setting clear points of difference between Labor and the Coalition, and for once, none of his trademark lead-weighted zingers. Instead, humorous and well phrased barbs found their mark and energised the Labor benches. Tellingly, Shorten also had Turnbull in his sights, letting it be known that he was ready to face him if that’s where the political cards should fall.

Parliament still matters – and should matter. It’s the forum that provides the best insight into the men and women who would govern the nation.

From Shorten we need to see more such performances. A strong Opposition holds governments to account, and provides voters with a viable alternative come election time.

But more than performances, we need from Shorten his plan, his party’s plan, for Australia. A plan not just for the next three years, but for the next 30 years.

Let’s hear about the Australia that a would-be Shorten government believes in and will work towards. Let’s hear how a Shorten government will restore Australia’s shaken faith in Canberra. Let’s see more of the men and women on Shorten’s frontbench that would form government in 2016.

It’s time for Shorten to start thinking and behaving like the alternative Prime Minister. No silly zingers (Shaun Micallef won’t like it, but he’ll move on), no dad jokes, no unconvincing theatrics.

The government will sooner or later sort out its leadership issues. That’s none of Shorten’s concern. Whether it’s Abbott, Turnbull or anyone else, Bill Shorten has one life-defining task before him: to convince the people of Australia that he deserves to be the next Prime Minister. To date, voters have been given very little reason for believing that is the case.

Whether he does become the next PM is, of course, up to voters. But what voters want, more than anything, is to go to the polls in 2016 with two worthy alternatives to choose from. That’s one immediate contribution that Shorten can make to public life.

Bill Shorten: your time starts now.

A ‘ragged’ year for Tony Abbott, but does the PM have what it takes to save his hapless government or will it be more of the same in 2015?

The end of the year can’t come soon enough for Tony Abbott. And it’s got nothing to do with the call of Christmas and lazy summer holidays. It’s hard to imagine an Australian Prime Minister who’s had a worse first full year in office. But Abbott is unlikely to be too fervent in wishing for the onset of the new year, because 2015 promises more of the same.

If Abbott is to have a happy new year – or at least a happier one – he will need to have heeded the lessons of this one first.

There’s precious little sign of that, despite his weekend announcement that the government will restructure the much criticised and until now sacrosanct paid parental leave scheme in favour of more money being spent on childcare. Given the absence of detail it smacks more of an 11th hour bid to calm his restless backbench over the Christmas break than deliberate policy crafting.

When a government has had such a bad year as this one it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when things started to turn toxic, but it’s hard to go past the Brisbane G20 leaders’ summit on November 15-16. What should have been a triumph for Abbott, an opportunity to recast his troubled government, was a humiliating fiasco.

Abbott’s empty boasts of “shirt-fronting” Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 set the scene for an embarrassing anti-climax. Far from confronting Putin for Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysian MH17 over Ukraine, the two leaders ended up having their photos taken cuddling koalas.

Nor did it help that Abbott’s opening address at the summit was a less than statesmanlike laundry list of domestic political difficulties faced by his government. For good measure, Abbott was outplayed and outmanoeuvred on his insistence that climate change play no part in the summit, most notably by Australia’s best buddy on the world stage, US President Barack Obama.

The barnacle-infested Abbott government has been in a state of perpetual crisis since the disastrous G20.

Victoria’s election on November 29 – in which new Labor Premier Daniel Andrews won comfortably against Denis Napthine’s Coalition government – intensified the political pressure on the Abbott government.

It was yet another black mark against the Abbott government, but there was something far more menacing about Labor’s win in Victoria: it was the first time since 1955 that a one-term government had been shown the door by voters.

Voter are angry and less forgiving

This was a serious psychological blow to the unpopular Abbott government which had taken heart from the conventional wisdom of modern Australian politics that even faltering first-term governments are given a second term to find their feet.

Labor’s win in Victoria after just one term in opposition represents more than a psychological setback for Abbott. It confirms what has been evident for some time: today’s voters are angry and less forgiving of governments they don’t like. Bear in mind that federal Labor only narrowly avoided being a one-term government in 2010, with Julia Gillard returned as a minority prime minister.

Whatever hope Abbott and his nervous backbench pinned to the mantra that one-term governments don’t lose elections ended with the Victorian election.

On that very day, Phillip Coorey in the Australian Financial Review, usually friendly turf for the conservatives, offered this barnacle-raising summation of the government’s woes:

“For the Abbott government the culprit is the May budget, a document so laden with broken promises, surprises and excuses and, crucially, perceived as unfair, it has sent the government reeling in the polls and crippled its credibility. The impact has been more marked because, in opposition, Abbott had campaigned on trust more than anything else. … He left his government no wriggle room.”

Abbott knows that he is unpopular and that his government is vulnerable. Well, he does and he doesn’t. Abbott’s December 1 “mea culpa” press conference in Canberra was more revealing of the PM’s tin ear than his humility.

This press conference was an attempt to “reboot” after a particularly damaging week bordering on high farce, dominated by yet another broken promise, the ABC funding cuts, and the government’s tortured sophistry variously aimed at explaining, depending on the day, that no such promise was made, that the substance of the promise was misunderstood, or that the cuts weren’t cuts at all. (Finance Minister Mathias Cormann stated outright that there no cuts; and Abbott initially insisted that they were not cuts but an “efficiency dividend”.)

Defending the $254 million cut, Abbott even had the hide to declare in Parliament: “This is a government which has fundamentally kept faith…with the Australian people.”

Even the Weekend Australian, on the eve of the December 1 press conference, could take no more. It editorialised: “Stop the silly slogans, start fixing a damaged budget”. The leading article went on to describe the government as “hesitant, tongue-tied and confused”.

A ‘ragged week’ is a long time in politics

The increasingly demoralised government backbench would have been hoping for the best from the December 1 press conference. Unfortunately, Abbott’s best was more of the same. The Prime Minister conceded it had been a “ragged week” – a new entrant to the Australian political lexicon. But he also stressed: “It’s been a year when this government has demonstrated guts, commitment and strength of character on a whole host of issues.” He might have added “chutzpah”.

Abbott appeared to concede that it had not been a great week, but then insisted this was largely a matter of “atmospherics”. Look beyond the atmospherics and, “I think we are getting the message across very clearly”. Tony Abbott at his most insouciant.

Some might say this was a lost opportunity for Abbott to re-connect with the Australian electorate, but there never was any such connection. And that is the key to the very real prospect that the Abbott government is a one-term wonder.

Abbott may not be aware of his feet of clay, but most of his ministers and backbenchers are only too aware. With Abbott, what you see is what you get. And that’s the problem. There is nothing to reset.

If Abbott was even an inch a leader, he would do away with his sycophant “political warrior” advisers and surround himself with intellectual rigour, diversity and candid counsel. Over a year into government the Prime Minister’s office remains consumed with putting out brush fires, many of them of their creation.

Abbott insists his private office delivered the Coalition government. Fine. Send them flowers, and on their way, because their job is done.

Even if Abbott lacks the self-awareness to be his own worst critic, has it occurred to him that given the dire straits of his government that perhaps his office is not as flash as he thinks it is?

Abbott and his office refuse to acknowledge how deeply unpopular the Prime Minister is. And it’s not because of atmospherics. It’s because Australians are on to him, and they always have been.

Australians were at no stage convinced that Abbott was PM material when they went to the polls in September last year, but Kevin Rudd was unable to provide them with enough reason to follow their instincts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Abbott couldn’t even crack it for the traditional first-term honeymoon period.

Honeymoon over before it started

On 25 November 2013, the first Fairfax Nielsen opinion poll published since the September 7 election showed that Federal Labor, under new leader Bill Shorten, led the Coalition in the two-party preferred vote 52% to 48%. It was a major boost for Shorten, and just the first of many indicators that this was a government in trouble.

At that time I wrote in BRW: “The Abbott government should be in no doubt about the import of this poll: it reveals an unprecedented case of voters’ remorse that should be taken as a warning that voters expect much more of this government.”

One year later, voters remain unimpressed with the Abbott government, and Abbott himself. On 18 November, The Australian published the results of the 14th consecutive Newspoll to show Labor ahead of the government, on this occasion 55% to 45%. Shorten, without having to lift a finger, was ahead of Abbott as preferred PM 43% to 37%.

The government is so unpopular that it was unable to use the acclaim for Abbott’s handling of the MH17 tragedy as a circuit breaker. Nor was Abbott able to translate being a “war time” Prime Minister – when he committed Australian military forces to Iraq to fight the Islamic State terrorist group – into a galvaniser of public support for his government.

The government could not have ended 2014 on a lower note: its relationship with the Senate is in tatters; its May budget strategy is gutted; beleaguered Treasurer Joe Hockey has every reason to fear what the new year will bring; criticism of the PM’s office, and Peta Credlin in particular, intensified; and the government’s policy agenda, including university deregulation, the GP co-payment and even Abbott’s “signature” paid parental leave scheme are in limbo.

Abbott’s abundant weaknesses as a leader might not have been so glaringly obvious if he had a ministry of talent, vision and resolve. Instead, we have one of the weakest government frontbenches in living memory. Any ministry contains its deadwood, shirkers and beneficiaries of political favours, but that comes nowhere near explaining the weakness of the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott is no John Howard

With an election not due until 2016, Tony Abbott has time to save his prime ministership and his government. As he is fond of pointing out, most recently at the December 1 press conference, there is recent precedent:

“Let’s not forget that the Howard government had a pretty rocky first term. The Howard government was in a diabolical position at different periods in the first term and yet it recovered to win its second election and then went on to be arguably the most successful post-war government Australia has had.”

Except that Abbott is no John Howard. If Abbott is to avoid Denis Napthine’s historic fate, he has some tough decisions to make.

First, Peta Credlin has to go, and his private office must be overhauled. Secondly, he has to decentralise decision making and devolve accountability in his government. Abbott has professed to be an admirer of Westminster-style cabinet government: it’s time he put his text-book theory of government into practice. Thirdly, he must have a ministerial reshuffle early in the new year, not just to give the impression of renewal, but to ensure that the best men and women are entrusted with the government of the nation.

That means Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton and David Johnstone, for starters, must be demoted to more appropriate junior portfolios, if not out of the ministry altogether. Fourth, Malcolm Turnbull should be appointed to the job he should have had in the first place – Treasurer – even if that is politically inconvenient for Abbott.

Were Abbott capable of doing these things, he would be well on the way to achieving the final plank of his rescue mission: Tony Abbott has to grow up. The government of the nation does not require a smirking, winking Opposition Leader with a grab bag of catchphrases, talking points and slippery slogans.

He won the position he fought for; now it’s time he started behaving like the Prime Minister. If he doesn’t, the voters will surely deliver their verdict in 2016 – if his own colleagues don’t beat them to it first.

The same old political solutions won’t fix Tasmania’s economic woes: what Tassie needs is a Gail Kelly

Tasmanians must be sick of hearing about their state being an “economy in decline”, a “basket case economy”, the “nation’s worst” economy and other choice epithets that leave little to the imagination.

Professor Jonathan West, founding Director of the Australian Innovation Research Centre at the University of Tasmania wrote a searing analysis of the state for Griffith Review:

“Tasmania ranks at the bottom among Australian states on virtually every dimension of economic, social, and cultural performance: highest unemployment, lowest incomes, languishing investment, lowest home prices, least educated, lowest literacy, most chronic disease, poorest longevity, most likely to smoke, greatest obesity, highest teenage pregnancy, highest petty crime, worst domestic violence. It seems not to matter which measure is chosen, Tasmania will likely finish last.”

That article was published in January 2013. Optimists might argue that Tasmania has since elected a Liberal government – Will Hodgman became Premier in March this year, ending 16 years of Labor government – a “pro-business” government, and a majority government at that.

The business community seems much happier with the Hodgman government than the previous government of Labor Premier Lara Giddings, and they certainly won’t miss the Labor-Green minority government.

And the Hodgman government seems to be sympathetic to the long-time and oft-expressed view of respected economist Saul Eslake that Tasmania’s economic salvation does not lie in a single “mega-project” – such as the aborted pulp mill project.

“A cargo cult mentality is not an economic development policy. And if Tasmanians can come to terms with that, there will be far fewer shattered hopes and dreams than there have been as a result of the economic development failures of the past three decades,” Eslake wrote in the Tasmanian Times.

(Eslake, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Australia, has a particular interest in Tasmania. He was born in England in 1958 to Australian parents, originally from Sydney. The family settled in Tasmania when they returned to Australia in the 1960s. Eslake is an economics graduate from the University of Tasmania and was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by the university in 2012.)

But all this pre-supposes that Tasmania’s entrenched economic woes – which stem from its unique situation as an island state with a population of just 513,000 people – can be solved politically.

Barriers to change

The reality is that even a shiny new Liberal government with solid business credentials is going to find it hard going to solve Tasmania’s seemingly intractable problems.

Professor West argues that Tasmanians have grown so dependent on mainland financing that that the deep structural change that is required presents governments of any persuasion with barriers to change.

“Tasmania has developed a way of life, a mode of doing things, a demographic, a culture and associated economy, that reproduces underachievement generation after generation. …The reality is that Tasmania has bred a dominant social coalition that blocks most proposals to improve. Problems and challenges are debated endlessly, with no resolution. …Ultimately, Tasmania doesn’t change because its people don’t really want to.”

What is striking about this critique is that it could not be written about any other state. It is because Tasmania is so small – “both a region and a state”, writes West – that it is even possible to speak in such sweeping terms.

Political parties can promise to attract investment, create jobs and build a modern economy when in government – as the Liberals did in this year’s state election – but Tasmania’s issues don’t change, the challenges don’t change and the inadequacy of political solutions don’t change.

The mainland states have the critical mass, economic diversity and financial resources that provide governments with powerful levers to influence the course of economies.

The Hodgman government, like its predecessors, is limited in its options to revitalise the economy. Its “Change for a Brighter Future” economic blueprint was by and large more of the same.

In that document, the Liberals offered predictable platitudes – “growing our tourism industry”, “tackling Tasmania’s unemployment rate”, “backing small business”. Sometimes they were aspirational (if vague) – “building a stronger West Coast”, “looking to the future with energy”. But very often, with limited options, even the all-conquering Hodgman government has to make do with bland and piecemeal policy tidbits: “more tourists on TT-Line”, “unlocking the potential in our parks”, “growing jobs in the creative industries”.

Such a predictable laundry list of promises underlines the difficulties Tasmania has when it relies on political solutions: electorates to please, favours to curry, competing interests to balance.

Good public policy, democratic principles and pragmatic politics are as relevant in Tasmania as they are in any state, but given the depth of Tasmania’s economic malaise and the uniqueness of the region-state’s circumstances, an out-of-the-ordinary solution is essential.

This is a job for a CEO

On Twitter recently I made this suggestion: “An idea to toss around: Tasmania should appoint a bluechip CEO, responsible to the govt and the Plmt, with a 3/5yr brief to ‘grow Tasmania’.”

By “blue chip” I mean a CEO of, say, Gail Kelly’s ilk. Not a senior bureaucrat, not a businessman with an impressive LinkedIn profile, not an association executive or former politician, but the real deal. It wouldn’t be someone on $300,000 a year, it would more likely be someone on $3 million a year (which rules out Kelly, who is more than three times that, but you know what I mean).

This CEO would head an autonomous authority that operates within a democratic framework. The CEO would have a mandate that codifies powers and specifies objectives, budgets and community and environmental safeguards.

Within a defined mandate, the CEO would have the authority to pursue growth and development. (The CEO wouldn’t be the “CEO of Tasmania” – that remains the Premier; he or she would, for example, be the CEO of the Tasmanian Development Corporation.)

The Australian Innovation Research Centre recently identified six critical areas of economic opportunity for Tasmania: wine, dairy, aquaculture, horticulture, mining, and tourism. The CEO’s brief might specifically encompass some or all of these areas in fulfilment of the mandate for growth. Within a broad strategic framework set out by the government, the CEO would make the decisions required to make these profitable and sustainable sectors of the economy.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, with characteristic immodesty, has offered his economic-revival services to Tasmania, but Kennett, not famous for his deft touch, is not the solution.

The Hodgman government has gone some way towards the CEO concept when it announced the creation of the Office of the Coordinator-General. The office, according to the Department of State Growth, is “responsible for attracting and securing investment in major development projects in Tasmania that maximises their contribution to Tasmania’s economic growth”.

“The Coordinator-General will help streamline the Tasmanian business environment, promote competitiveness and assist with the assessment and approval of investment opportunities.”

However, in what is a perfect illustration of the inadequacy of government and political processes to solve Tasmania’s economic troubles, eight months after being elected, the Hodgeman government has yet to appoint a Coordinator-General.

In anycase, the CEO would have more substantial responsibilities and would not be a glorified public servant. The CEO’s role would not be to act a conduit or to streamline processes, but to make decisions – to build the infrastructure required, to forge commercial relationships, to hire the people needed for the job, to implement plans: to achieve agreed outcomes.

This remains an idea to “kick around”. But the salient point is that innovative thinking is required to solve Tasmania’s problems. More of the same – the same ideas, the same political foibles, the same bureaucracies – will not work. The longer Tasmania’s depression continues, the harder it will be to build a sustainable future.

Tasmania’s unique beauty and magnificent natural wonders deserve to be recognised as a great national (and international) asset. Dishing up tired clichés and discredited ideas, however well intentioned, again and again, will be to squander Tasmania’s – and Tasmanians’ – potential. Tasmania deserves and requires a solution that is as unique as the state itself.

Shallow political times in which parties are brands, voters are consumers and the electorate is a market

One of the worst things to happen to Australian politics is the emergence of political parties as “brands”. Perhaps this trend should not come as a surprise. This is a time when management babble claims all before it, like a merciless flow of volcanic gibberish. And so it is that parties once known for their values now see themselves as “value propositions”.

Political parties have become products. The back-room wunderkinds will tell you that standing for something, being guided by values and philosophies, having purpose, are sure ways of alienating voters (consumers) and never tasting power – and isn’t that the only purpose that matters?

Because power is an end in itself, getting there, and staying there, occupies far more attention at modern party headquarters than any considerations about the higher purpose of power.

Gough Whitlam was a paragon of purpose and conviction, but he was also pragmatic. He understood the futility of principle at the expense of power, as he famously derided the implacably left-wing end electorally unsuccessful Victorian branch of the ALP in 1967. He recalled, 40 years later:

“I had to combat a growing attitude in some quarters that expressing the purity of our principles in permanent opposition was better than applying them in government. As I had to admonish the Victorians: ‘Certainly the impotent are pure’.”

But nobody could accuse Whitlam, or Labor under him, of standing for nothing. When Whitlam said in his 1969 election policy speech, “We of the Labor party have an enduring commitment to a view about society”, Australian politics could not be further removed from today’s small-target, policy-free election campaigns.

Tony Abbott’s supporters will argue that “stop the boats”, “abolish the carbon tax” and the “PPL” were policies.

But these were not part of a coherent nation-building plan or premised on set of fundamental principles; they were opportunistic, cynical and in the case of the paid parental leave scheme off-the-cuff, ill-conceived and economically irresponsible.

Political parties have always had to “sell” their election manifestos, but at least Australian elections used to feature competing platforms. Slogans once underpinned policy credos, now the slogans stand alone.

The election manifesto has become a barren parody of itself: the political version of a Harvey Norman sale catalogue – lots of big numbers and pizzazz.

For Abbott in the 2013 election it was the $5 billion PPL and the 15,000-strong Green Army; for Rudd it was big-ticket items such as shifting naval headquarters from Sydney to Brisbane and making the NT a low-tax special economic zone. Sale, sale,sale. Every semblance of policy integrity must go.

Political parties as washing powders

Political writers and headline writers have picked up the “brand” concept with the same practiced ease that a marketing reporter writes about the “unique value proposition” of a washing powder. Take these examples:

  • “POLL: ALP brand battered by spill,” Newcastle Herald, 21 March 2013. “Prime Minister Julia Gillard faces an uphill battle rebuilding her party’s shattered brand after Labor’s crippling leadership crisis…,” ran the story from Fairfax’s Canberra bureau.
  • “Federal woes trashing state Labor’s brand,” The Age, 2 May 2013. “The big question causing considerable angst within state Labor ranks is the extent to which the ALP’s federal woes have infected the state Labor ‘brand’,” wrote state political editor Josh Gordon, who at least applied killer quotation marks in mitigation. But not so Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews who in the same piece said of a disappointing byelection result: ”I think it would be naive and it would be less than straight to the Victorian community if we pretended there are not challenges for Labor in a brand sense.”
  • “Brand new: How to sell Campbell Newman,” brisbanetimes.com.au, 26 July 2014. “What do you do with a brand like Campbell Newman?” posed political reporter Amy Remeikis. “The Can-do brand has been tarnished.  And with it, the government has seen its popularity…crash”. Next comes insight not from a political science don, but ANU marketing lecturer Andrew Hughes: “They need to rebuild that brand, because the family market has now seen someone who has turned on them… their perception is it has made their lives even harder than it already was – and remember, perception is the reality… If Campbell Newman becomes can’t-do, not can-do, then the brand is gone.”
  • “Dysfunctional brand at the core of Labor’s current crisis,” The Conversation, 14 April 2014. “If the disastrous results and campaign in the WA Senate re-election are anything to go by,” wrote University of Adelaide politics professor Carol Johnson, “the ALP seems to be losing the ability to brand itself and its policies as appealing to the public.”

Former WA premier, federal MP and national Labor president Carmen Lawrence understands what’s happening. “The major parties are failing our democracy and have been for some time; they are not parties any more, but, win-or-lose, hollow corporations run by a handful of paid officials,” she wrote in 2012. “The parties have been too clever for their own good, embracing simplistic, lowest common denominator policies designed with one eye on the polls and the other on the immediate public reaction, especially from the media.”

Politics shouldn’t be a business, but that’s what it has become. The most disturbing case in point is Clive Palmer’s so-called political party, the Palmer United Party.

PUP takes politics to new low

Palmer’s “party” is nothing of the sort. It’s a business, it’s run like a business, and Palmer is its sole proprietor. He runs PUP in exactly the same way he runs his myriad business interests – unpredictably, idiosyncratically, autocratically.

Palmer United Party, or Clive’s Discount Sofa Barn, same difference: their business is seats. At some point, PUP will be out of business, but in the meantime this non-party has degraded Australian politics to a new low.

PUP’s Senate members may well end up surviving the business and its proprietor. Perhaps that’s why Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie is so keen to promote her “personal brand” above the corporate brand – the calculated outspokenness, the swagger and her “trademark” scarves.

But PUP, Palmer and Lambie are symptoms of the diseased Australian polity. The long-term damage to the core of the nation’s parliamentary democracy is being done by the major political parties.

The professional political class considers the political party a marketing staple no different from great Australian brands like Vegemite, Bushells and Holden; all that’s missing is the foreign ownership. And we shouldn’t discount that possibility either.

Instead of Arnott’s biscuits, we have Abbott’s government. His year in office has left a sour taste in the mouths of consumers. Perhaps the war on terror will keep Abbott in the Lodge beyond 2016, or perhaps the war will prove the final nail.

Political strategists view poor opinion polls in the same way a product manager is concerned that 18-25 year-olds are buying fewer ice-creams. This might explain why we end up with so many plain-vanilla politicians, more concerned with the message that the colour of their tie sends to the electorate than explaining what the hell is going on in Canberra.

Voters that switch off political parties because of internal wranglings, policy failures, ineptitude, lack of direction and poor leadership are treated not like thinking voters who demand better but as dim-witted consumers that can be lulled into signing up for another three years by shiny new logos, catchy slogans and smart patter.

Some people are, and always have been, attracted by the bells and whistles. But judging by the 2010 and 2013 elections, possibly the most vacuous since Federation, voters are switching off in droves as political parties fail to convince people that they stand for something, have a plan for the nation and possess the talent to implement it.

Who will be the first to say ‘no more’?

When parties lose elections, back-room geniuses simply “recalibrate” their political “brands” rather than tackle the real reasons for the voter malaise. It’s not as if nobody can see what’s happening. Carmen Lawrence, John Faulkner, Steve Bracks, Bob Hawke, the late Neville Wran and many other Labor elders have over the years urged their party to reconnect with Labor values, but to no avail.

It’s inconceivable that the political players are blind to the long-term damage being done to Australian politics, but nobody wants to be the first to pull back and say “no more”, lest they lose the political advantage to their opponents.

There is a prevailing view that in the politics of perception-as-reality, nobody gets rewarded for doing the right thing. Labor strategists point to Simon Crean who as Labor leader sought to reform the party’s corrosive organisational structure and for his trouble was deemed colourless, inwardly focused and unelectable. The Liberals have seared into their psyche the dangers of being candid with the electorate and the failed experiment of John Hewson and his Fightback manifesto.

There is no single source of blame for the continual dumbing down of Australian politics into a battle of the brands: the rise of the political class, the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, the apathy of voters, the short attention span of social media consumers … take your pick.

But there can be only one source for the return to a political system which places a primacy on policy, vision, values and integrity. And that’s the political parties themselves, and the men and women who lead them. On the Coalition side, perhaps that challenge will one day fall to Malcolm Turnbull. For Labor, that challenge now rests with Bill Shorten. Whether Turnbull gets his chance, and whether Shorten makes the most of his – or whether the future rests with an entirely new guard – will tell whether Australian politics gets its brand new day.

No more tinkering around the edges: time for a royal commission into violence against women

When Julia Gillard announced the royal commission into child sex abuse in November 2012, it was a decisive and historic moment in the life of her troubled government, and long-overdue formal acknowledgement of the horrific suffering endured by thousands of defenceless children. The royal commission will be remembered as one of Gillard’s greatest legacies.

Like most royal commissions, this one had a somewhat ungainly title: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. But it makes sense. The commission isn’t just collecting harrowing stories – albeit an essential function; it is also “investigating how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse”.

Crucially, “It is the job of the Royal Commission to uncover where systems have failed to protect children so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”

Taking the lead of this landmark commission, it is time for another long overdue royal commission: a royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women.

On 17 May 2014, Victoria’s Leader of the Opposition, Daniel Andrews, announced that a Victorian Labor Government would establish a Royal Commission into Family Violence. This was a welcome call and reflected deep community unease over a spate of heartbreaking examples of this scourge.

But we need more, and Australian women in particular need more. Women are victims of unspeakable violence in the family home, but violence against women is a society-wide blight that seems deeply ingrained in our culture. Any inquiry must delve more deeply into violence against women, not just in the family home, and any response must be a national response.

I can anticipate the reaction to such a call; I might have made it myself once: why a royal commission into violence against women only? If such an inquiry were necessary, why not into violence against men and women?

Because the violence I have in mind is not random violence in which the gender of the victim is incidental. It is violence – sexual, physical, mental – which specifically targets women, committed through a sense of entitlement, superiority or right by some men.

It is violence (very often family violence) which considers women a possession, a spoil or prey. It is violence predicated on a sense of superiority, power and conquest. It is a violence as old as time itself, and which despite every progress by humankind, remains an evil undiminished.

Simply and only because they are women

Yes, anyone can walk down a dark, isolated street at night, jog through the park in the early hours of the morning, wait alone at a bus stop at dusk, or pass a mob of drunks in a club district, and be robbed, bashed or harried.

But only women are targeted simply and only because they are women.

Only women are subjected to assault and physical violence by male partners who feel this is a legitimate – even natural – expression of power, entitlement and manly authority. Only women face sexual harassment in the workplace because some men consider them available fruit; only women must fend off the unwanted advances of men who believe that buying them a drink or dinner entitles them to just reward; only women walk a lonely street or secluded pathway and wonder if this will be the night that a stranger will consider it his right to claim her body and possibly her life.

Women are enjoying unprecedented and overdue freedoms, opportunities and recognition. This is a testament to those feminist activists who over generations have demanded their rights, and also to the ability of societies to adapt to changing times and attitudes.

But women know there is much more to be done and that progress is often illusory; women know that entrenched attitudes, norms and laws that disadvantage them and them alone remain; women know that being a woman, even in 2014, is enough to expose them to danger.

The very fact that the unspeakable crime of rape persists to the extent that it does is society’s shame. That women continue to be victims of violence in the family home demonstrates that age-old power relationships remain undiminished and too little challenged. That women feel unsafe and vulnerable in a whole range of settings and circumstances that would not trouble a man reveal fundamental flaws in a society that considers itself refined, enlightened and fair-minded.

This is not a sudden and dramatic awakening of my inner feminist. The sisterhood and I have many points of disagreement, and on the corporate front I’ve written against boardroom quotas for women, “panel pledges” and the existence of the glass ceiling. But such matters are on the edges of this discussion.

Indeed, when a male CEO stands up and declares his support for the Panel Pledge – promising not to participate in any conference panel that does not include a woman – there are congratulations all round about the wonderful advances women are making in society.

“This is not the kind of society I want to live in”

But in the real world, too many women are finding that too little has changed.

When I hear of the latest Jill Meagher (the Melbourne woman who was raped and murdered, her final moments before meeting her predator captured on CCTV) or Rosie Batty (whose 11 year old son Luke was killed by her estranged husband), my heart breaks and I think, “This is not the kind of society I want to live in, it’s not the kind of society women should be living in: why are we letting these women down like this?”

Whenever one of these tragedies occur there’s a spontaneous community call for action and a flurry of activity ensues: governments vow to toughen sentences, police promise to overhaul internal processes, government departments appoint task forces to improve communication between agencies, newspapers launch campaigns.

But this is just tweaking around the edges, and somehow, no matter how genuine or well intentioned these responses are, nothing seems to change.

A national royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women is the best hope of achieving meaningful systemic change across all jurisdictions and instrumentalities. To adapt the wording quoted above, the job of the royal commission would be to “uncover where systems have failed to protect women so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”

It would hopefully make state and federal governments obsessed with “efficiency dividends” think twice before cutting funding for women’s shelters, community programs, police forces, judicial systems and legal aid services.

A modern, liberal and wealthy society such as Australia should find it intolerable that violence against women continues so endemically and habitually. Something is desperately wrong. We need to understand why violence against women occurs, how we as a society respond to it, and how we can more effectively act to stamp out this blight on our community, and in the meantime better protect those women who are its victims. Only a royal commission can place us on this path.



One-Term Tony simply isn’t up to the job of PM: the man who should have been Sports Minister

Tony Abbott: personable, amiable, decent and generous behind the scenes, a nice bloke to have a beer with, a family man. Everybody says so. Tony Abbott: not much of a Prime Minister. Everybody says so.

Unfortunately, nobody is really surprised. Few voters, if any, were convinced that Abbott was PM material – even as they voted the Coalition into government. If ever a Prime Minister was elected against the better judgment of voters , Abbott is it. In the post-Menzies era, it can be argued with some conviction that Abbott is the only PM to have led his party to electoral victory without first establishing his bona fides as a potential Prime Minister.

Gorton, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd – whatever judgments may have been passed after the event, each was elected against a backdrop of anticipation, an understanding that each man represented an era in the making. By whatever measure they were understood to be leaders. They were up to and worthy of the office. (In different political circumstances, minority Prime Minister Julia Gillard might have made that list too.)

During the 2013 federal election, Abbott was praised for his discipline, for keeping his party of ragtag lightweights and ticking time bombs under control, for staying on message, for keeping gaffes to a minimum, for making himself a small target.

But such endorsements were all about winning an election; they had nothing to do with what he was capable of once he won that election.

There were no plaudits for Abbott’s policy vision, his credentials as a nation builder, his gifts as a unifier, or his skills as a leader who would bring out the best in his team, and indeed in all of us.

It took only one opinion poll after the election to reveal the unprecedented voters’ remorse at having made Tony Abbott Prime Minister; it took only one budget for his Ministers to be briefing journalists about the dog’s breakfast of a budget, the broken promises and the political ineptitude of a Prime Minister and his leadership group so out of sync with the mood of the electorate, and so infuriatingly oblivious to why voters are angry.

Memories of “mean and tricky” times

This government bears every hallmark – and then some – of the “mean and tricky” phase of the Howard government, as infamously described by then party president Shane Stone in an internal memo in early 2001. But the Abbott government won’t be saved by the Tampa affair or September 11 as Howard’s shaky government was. And whatever might be said of Howard and his opportunistic politics during this time, it’s also true that Howard came into his own as a leader after this period.

As for Abbott, perhaps he was hoping that his tough stance on asylum seekers – complete with a very visible role for the Australian Army, including the appointment of a three-star general to head Operation Sovereign Borders – would have the Howard effect on his prime ministership.

Like his hero Howard, Abbott has besmirched the nation with his vilification and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, but whatever political lift he was hoping to achieve from his stance, it hasn’t worked. The shambles and shame of the Manus Island detention centre; the violence, suffering and confusion that has bedevilled the centre from day one; and its impact on Australia’s relations with the region, reveal a government out of control and out of its depth.

But the true measure of this government – and the man who leads it – was laid bare with the handing down of Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget this week. With the leaky lead up to the budget, including the ideological theatrics of the Commission of Audit report, and the budget itself, the government was revealed in all its duplicity.

Broken promises, barefaced lies, bad policy, breathtaking arrogance and bereft of any coherent long-term plan for the nation, the Abbott government bears not the slightest resemblance to the government that was promised to Australians.

This from The Australian’s Paul Kelly, dated 18 September 2013, now reads like a priceless piece of satire:

“Tony Abbott has signalled a new style of Coalition government based on collaborative ties with business, a clearer set of priorities, less frenetic, more predictable and geared to stability, not fashion.

“For Abbott, the Rudd-Gillard years are his anti-model. He aspires to deliver what he calls ‘adult government’. … He is not interested in running an exciting, dramatic, high-expectations government, lurching into dysfunction and promising to improve every second aspect of your life.

“Abbott sees this style as immature and ineffective. In the end, he wants government to do less and people to do more. He believes the public is tired of Labor’s egoism, boasting and endless self-obsessions. Announcing his ministry, Abbott said the people wanted a government that was ‘upfront, speaks plainly and does the essentials well’. Decoded, this means cutting the spin, delivering his promises and getting the economy ticking in the teeth of rising unemployment.”

Calling Malcolm Turnbull?

The Abbott government is very much dysfunctional. It looks, feels and sounds like a tired and disoriented government struggling through its third term of office. But this government is still several months from its first year in office, and as things stand, shows every sign of being a one-term government.

Not that you would guess this from the arrogance on ready display in the government’s leadership circle. The photo of Hockey and his ever-present offsider, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, smoking cigars in the cold Canberra autumn air, on the eve of bringing down the toughest, meanest federal budget in living memory, said it all. And if that didn’t speak volumes enough, Christopher Pyne dropping the c-bomb in federal Parliament certainly did the trick.

The pity of Tony Abbott being the Prime Minister is that he would have made an excellent Minister for Sport – he has the Lycra for the job – or perhaps Minister for Administrative Services, or Special Minister of State Without Portfolio. Nothing too taxing, unlike his government.

No doubt the thought of more suitable portfolios has occurred to many of his colleagues, and one in particular.

There is only one person who can keep the Coalition in power after 2016 – threats by Abbott to incoming crossbench senators that he will call an early election if they do not respect his mandate are laughable – and that is Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull is in the right place, now he is just waiting for the right time. 

Sooner or later, Coalition MPs will have to confront that inevitable decision. If Abbott doesn’t get his act together, that will be sooner rather than later.


Tony Abbott’s knighthood surprise: who are you going to trust to take us back to the 1950s?

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Australian honours system by the Whitlam government. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has decided to celebrate this historic milestone early: by reintroducing knighthoods. Just four knights or dames a year, he hastens to add, as if this will sweeten this retrograde pill.

It is 2014 and Australia suddenly finds itself with knights and dames again. Tony Abbott plainly thinks it’s 1954. Or that’s what he wishes.

It’s difficult to know what disappoints the most. The fact that outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who recently caused a sensation by alluding to a better time when Australia would be a republic, accepted a damehood? That just last December Abbott unequivocally ruled out the reintroduction of knighthoods? That Abbott, self-described champion of the Westminster system who vowed to restore the primacy of cabinet government, did not consult his cabinet before dropping his regal bombshell? That Abbott promised, again and again, that this would be a government of no surprises?

This is a Prime Minister who campaigned for office on the promise of restoring trust in government and the political process; a Prime Minister who has vowed that the government he leads would not deviate from the election manifesto that got it elected.

Only days ago he told The Australian: “My ambition…is not to be a big-noter; my ambition is to get done the things that we said we would get done.”

One might think there was a hint of big-noting when he triumphantly announced on Tuesday that the Queen had “graciously” accepted his recommendation to reintroduce knights and dames in Australia – like she had a choice.

This was a decision based on what Abbott wanted, nobody else. There was no consultation with the community, no popular clamour for the return of knights and dames, no hint that it was on anyone’s agenda, much less the government’s.

Did this bizarre decision not constitute a surprise? The only surprise, according to Abbott, is that anybody could make such a suggestion.

Surprise? What surprise?

“I don’t think it is any surprise that I am a supporter of the existing system and that I want to enhance the dignity of our existing system and I want to particularly acknowledge and recognise the place of the Governor-General in our system. So, I don’t think it is really any surprise.”

The first recipients of the new honours are Dame Quentin Bryce and her successor Sir Peter Cosgrove – leading one to the conclusion that this was not quite the snap decision it appeared to be – and future governors-general will be accorded the honour at the commencement of their terms as part and parcel of their vice-regal office. At his press conference, Abbott explained that “it is fitting that the Queen’s representative be so honoured”. What it fits is the ardent-royalist PM’s idea of monarchical nirvana.

The titles, Abbott went on, will “honour people whose service has been extraordinary and pre-eminent”, but will be reserved for Australians “who have accepted rather than sought public office”. Examples of such personages include governors-general, state governors, defence force chiefs, chief justices and “people of that ilk”.

Assuming the new honours survive Abbott, the automatic bestowal of knighthoods and damehoods on future viceroys raises the spectre of prominent Australians refusing to serve in the role rather than join Abbott’s “bunyip aristocracy”. (The term was coined in 1853 by firebrand NSW lawyer and politician Daniel Deniehy who decried William Charles Wentworth’s proposal for the creation of a colonial hereditary nobility. The idea of a home-grown aristocracy was ridiculed out of existence, until now.)

This was a divisive decision. Abbott has created an unnecessary, anachronistic and jarring honour in a society that prides itself on being egalitarian (irrespective of how true that may be).

Such an important matter as the reintroduction of knighthoods in a modern society should at the very least have been canvassed in the community, and more properly should have been the subject of a referendum.

The stuff of student politics

This is an example of selfish leadership at its most arrogant. Abbott the ardent monarchist uses his position to sneak in archaic honours with little regard for the national mood or interest.

It’s the typical in-your-face surprise manoeuvre of the university politician Abbott used to be. It obviously suits his royalist ardour, but it also creates a welcome diversion as well as catching the Opposition off guard. And so much the better that the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, just happens to be Dame Quentin’s son-in-law.

But Abbott is not a student politician now; he’s the Prime Minister. And he is not behaving like one. He may have provided himself with instant gratification but the new honours are unlikely to survive his prime ministership (which might very easily be one term, especially if he keeps up this sort of nonsense) or the life of a Coalition government. Abbott’s short-sighted legacy will be a rump of knights and dames stranded in history.

As well as treating the people of Australia with contempt, Abbott has treated the very institution he adores, the British monarchy, and the Queen herself, with hamfisted disrespect by politicising honours which are at least nominally in the gift of the monarch.

Gough Whitlam abolished knights and dames in 1975, Malcolm Fraser reintroduced them in 1976 and they were finally abolished – or so we thought – in 1983 by the new Hawke government. John Howard, arguably even more devoted to the British monarchy than Abbott, declined to reintroduce knights and dames in the 1990s: he believed Australians had moved on from imperial honours, but he also felt that the on-again-off-again gongs were an insult to the Queen. Abbott had no such sensitivities.

Unlike Howard, who for most of his time as Prime Minister had a masterful sense of what the electorate would bear, Abbott has shown himself to be out of touch. Nor, it would appear, does Abbott mind dragging the Queen into this latest stoush. By unilaterally making this decision Abbott has placed himself above all. Judging by community reaction so far, the reintroduction of knights and dames has attracted the scorn and ridicule it deserves.

In the great scheme of things, does it really matter that knighthoods are back? Perhaps not. But as an indicator of the Australia that Abbott dreams of, and the Australia in which most of us live in, and the future we aspire to, the gulf could not be greater.

The reintroduction of the knighthoods show a Prime Minister who is self-absorbed, selfish, sneaky, secretive and reckless.

When Australians voted for a Coalition government at last year’s election, they did so knowing very little about the kind of Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be. Now they know.


Another royal visit, another reminder of a nation that refuses to grow up

There is nothing amiss with Australia enjoying affectionate ties with Great Britain, but there is every reason to blush a scarlet hue whenever the issue of the republic arises – particularly when there is a fawning conservative government in Canberra.

The latest example of Australia as the forever awkward adolescent too uncertain, or afraid, to assert its maturity, much less its independence, comes courtesy of Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop. The issue was not the republic, but the Australian flag, and in particular the place of the Union Jack.

Quizzed on BBC radio, while in London for meetings with UK government ministers, Bishop was asked if Australia would be following the lead of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key who has promised to hold a referendum on the future of the NZ flag.

“Believe it or not it’s not an issue that actually draws much attention in Australia,” Bishop responded. “I believe we will stick with the flag. There’s no great demand to change it and many Australians have fought and died under that flag, sadly.”

Even by Bishop’s standards, this was an insipid defence of the national flag. Rather than a full-throated, heartfelt endorsement of the flag, Bishop’s principal reason for retaining it appears to be people’s indifference. Her response to the BBC interviewer might easily have been: “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

It’s an argument, such as it is, that constitutional monarchists are fond of. “There are no demonstrated benefits from the proposed changes,” then Prime Minister John Howard said during the republican referendum of 1999.

The case for the retention of the monarchy in Australia is rarely sophisticated or nuanced. The typical conservative response to change is to argue “better the devil you know”, dressed up with a few platitudes, and for good measure an aspersion or two directed at the proponents of change.

The issue of the flag is often entwined with the future of the constitutional monarchy in Australia – no doubt because of the prominence of the Union Jack. This is not an unreasonable association, but these are ultimately separate issues.


The republic, perhaps more than any other issue, highlights just how gutless and puerile our political leaders are when it comes to change. In the absence of any leadership on the issue it is true that there is no groundswell of agitation for a republic; but remaining a constitutional monarchy by default is hardly a resounding endorsement of the institution.

Paul Keating stands alone as a leader who stood up for his vision of Australia as a confident, independent nation with the maturity to break free of its colonial shackles. He convinced reluctant Australians to confront the anachronism of having a British royal as Australia’s head of state.

Keating paid the ultimate political price for his courage on this and other issues of identity, but he paved the way for the referendum on the republic – and Australians voted to retain constitutional ties with the British monarchy. The referendum was widely considered to have been sabotaged by Howard, a fervent monarchist. He ensured that the vote was not a simple yes or no on whether Australia should be a republic. Instead, Australians were asked to vote on a specific republican model:

“To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”

The monarchists’ tainted victory (54.9% v 45.1%) – won with the support of republicans who did not favour the proposed model – was predicated on preserving the status quo by default. (Malcolm Turnbull famously predicted that Howard would be remembered as “the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart”. It will be interesting to see whether Turnbull will be true to his republican convictions should he ever become PM.)

“We should not lightly put aside something that has worked so well and helped give us such stability,” Howard said during the referendum campaign.

This is a familiar argument for remaining a constitutional monarchy. Yet, despite this claim being made repeatedly, I do not recall ever hearing an explanation as to how having a British head of state has provided this much vaunted stability.

Conservatives’ anachronistic relationship with the British monarchy reached its obsequious zenith under Howard, but Prime Minister Tony Abbott is proving no slouch when it comes to tugging the forelock. (I am more forgiving of Sir Robert Menzies’ pilloried ode to the Queen in 1963, “I did but see he passing by. And yet I love her till I die”. It suited the times, perhaps only just, and it was also a very personal tribute from the ageing statesman to his young sovereign.)


When Prince Harry, the fourth in line to the British (and therefore Australian) throne was in Australia in October 2013 for the navy’s centenary, Abbott, who is no Menzies, was excruciating in his devotion to the young prince.

“Prince Harry, I regret to say not every Australian is a monarchist, but today everyone feels like a monarchist,” Abbott gushed. “You grace us as your family has graced our nation from its beginning, as the Crown is a symbol of our stability, continuity and decency in public life.”

The depth of Australia’s relationship with the royal family, and the institution of the monarchy, these days depends not on popular sentiment, but on the political hue – or the political cowardice – of the government in power.

Abbott knows that Australians are at best fair-weather monarchists; that the extent to which crowds respond to the visits of young royals has more to do with celebrity than deference. Just because Abbott happens to be an ardent royalist does not suddenly make Australia a nation of monarchists, and it certainly does not give him the right to impose his ardour on the rest of the country.

If Abbott was the true leader of vision and substance he imagines himself to be, he would be occupying himself with the task of ensuring that Australia embarks upon the necessary constitutional reforms to prepare it for the challenges that lie ahead in the “Asian Century”.

Instead of concerning himself with shaping Australia for the future, Abbott is more interested in playing fairytale kingdoms. But brace yourselves for more vomitous fealty from the Prime Minister. If we thought Abbott was over the top in his cloying attempts to impress Harry, just wait until William and Kate (and baby George) hit our shores in April.

Grow up Australia? Not while Tony Abbott is PM. Unfortunately, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is in no hurry to disturb the status quo either. While supporting the retention of the flag, Shorten prefers to play it safe on the future of the constitutional monarchy: “The republic’s a different issue … I think that’s one which the people of Australia sort of have to show a level of interest in.”

No, Bill, it’s an issue on which somebody who would be Prime Minister sort of has to show a level of leadership. We know where Abbott stands – or kneels – on Australia’s constitutional future. But where do you stand?