Who do you talk to, Tony?


Only (15) months after achieving a solid lower-house majority in the Australian parliament under the leadership of Tony Abbott, and after observing how leadership ructions destroyed the foregoing Rudd and Gillard governments, the Liberal Party are seriously contemplating replacing Mr Abbott.

Given the arresting examples, provided by the Labor Party and of which all politicians are aware, of how leadership conflicts can both impair a government’s effectiveness and cause it to lose elections, you can only conclude that the problem with Abbott’s leadership is serious and severe. And it is. The opinion polls are heavily against the government and against Abbott himself, and the press are reporting complaints from anonymous Liberal parliamentarians about the faults in Abbott’s leadership style.

From what I’ve read in the newspapers, the complaints suggest that Abbott’s consultation with his colleagues is minimal, that when it happens it is perfunctory, being focused more on being seen to consult than actually to listen to opinions, and that Abbott occasionally takes important decisions without engaging in any consultation at all.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Abbott’s judgement was consistently superb. His colleagues might grumble that their ideas were being neglected, but that grumbling would be tempered by the electoral popularity resulting from their leader’s exercising his judgement.

But it isn’t. Quite the opposite – it is rubbish. On three occasions, Abbott’s ‘captain’s picks’ have caused surprise in the community and dismay and disquiet among his colleagues:

  • the Paid Parental Leave scheme, announced years ago while Abbott was in opposition, which is expensive at a time of fiscal straitening, and economically unjustifiable at any time;
  • the reintroduction of Knighthoods, announced in 2014 to a community which had completely moved on from the issue; and
  • the awarding of a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh, a man with few official and zero unofficial links to Australia, contradicting Abbott’s previous statement that knighthoods would be awarded only to deserving Australians.

In each case, Abbott has used his judgement to produce a solution to a problem which existed only in his mind, and which certainly wasn’t in the minds of the electorate.

Compounding that problem have been two other problems:

  • Abbott’s judgement in selecting his ministers and advisers has been poor – he has weak people in the ministry, while strong candidates remain on the backbench, and his chief advisor is using her position to shut him off from all advice not controlled, and in agreement with, her;
  • this has meant that, even when he consults his colleagues and others, the quality of the consultation, and of the advice that he receives, is poorer than it otherwise might be – causing government policy also to be less than optimal, and the government’s actions to be unpopular and counter-productive.

So, in short, the problems seem to be (to me, anyway):

  • the prime minister relies most heavily on his own judgement, and that of his closest advisors;
  • his judgement, and the judgement of these advisors, is poor; and
  • his processes for consulting his colleagues, and receiving advice from external experts, are poor and less than optimal

All of which result in the PM making poor decisions which cause him to lose popularity in the electorate and to alienate further the colleagues on whom he relies for his position.

Matters came to a head on Australia Day. Already in a weak position electorally, the news that Abbott had, alone, decided to award a knighthood to Prince Philip – a man who already has no shortage of awards and titles, who is not an Australian, and who has weak links to the country – caused further disillusionment among the community and dismay among Abbott’s colleagues.

The resulting disquiet has put Abbott on notice that he has no more chances left – another false step and his colleagues will, with great reluctance, decide to replace him.

Abbott has received this message. To placate electoral and party-room disquiet, he announced yesterday that the Paid Parental Leave scheme would go, and that allocations of knighthoods would become the responsibility of the Australia Day Council.

But – and for me, this is the most worrying aspect – he made no announcement regarding his processes for policy deliberation and decision-making.

Abbott has addressed the symptoms, not the cause, of his problems.

What should he do? What unsolicited advice would this lowly consultant in thinking and decision-making offer to Abbott?

Here is my analysis, which follows the suggestion of a letter which appeared in yesterday’s Australian: ‘We need a PM with bigger ears’.

To resolve the problems identified above, Abbott ought to:

  • first, talk to a broad range of people with experience of the policy-making and deliberative processes, in order to gain their thoughts on how he should organize his office, identify advisers and ministers with appropriate talents, consult colleagues, and arrive at decisions;
    • he must do this, because his inability to identify those who will give him quality advice means that without this large sample he may end up relying on poor advice from unqualified advisors;
  • create processes for identifying talented advisors and backbenchers, and appoint people whom these processes identify to the key advisory and executive (ie, ministerial) positions;
  • create processes for consulting his ministers and external experts on policy questions, so as to get the best advice from the people around him and in the community.

What I immediately notice from these recommendations – and what you likely have noticed too – is that they rely on Abbott having the self-awareness to realize that, no matter how good his judgement, he needs to augment it by listening to the people around him. The process of improvement cannot start without that self-awareness. What you will no doubt also have noticed is that, throughout his tenure as leader, Abbott has lacked that self-awareness. All of the recommendations above should have occurred at the start of his leadership, if not before. That they didn’t happen, and still haven’t happened, suggests that Abbott lacks the self-awareness necessary for effective leadership.

That’s not all. If you’ll forgive me for quoting at length from a recent essay by Miranda Devine, Abbott has handed important decisions over to his chief advisor, who is abusing her position to aggrandize her power, even at the expense of her employer’s position:

IN a funny way, the media overreaction to the Prime Minister’s knighthood gaffe has given him breathing space.

The real narrative of his ailing leadership gave way to the laughable hypothetical that a prime minister should lose his job for such a frippery.

No, Prince Philip’s gong is not the reason Abbott’s job is at risk.

It was simply the match that lit the bonfire of disappointment that had been building among his colleagues and supporters for almost a year, and on which he kept blithely throwing petrol.

The violent reaction that followed was a catharsis that has temporarily relieved pent-up tensions. Paradoxically, the famous tweet of my boss Rupert Murdoch on Wednesday, calling for Abbott to replace his chief of staff Peta Credlin, has been used as an excuse not to do what needs to be done.

Abbott showed a smidge of contrition on Friday when he said gonging the Queen’s husband would be considered a “stuff up” in the local pub.

But then, in a premeditated insult to colleagues, he claimed the reason they, “are able to perform so well is because they have got a very good captain.”

That went down like a lead balloon.

So did Christopher Pyne’s declaration of support for Credlin earlier in the week, when he claimed she won the 2013 election for the Coalition. “We couldn’t have done it without Peta Credlin. I think that Peta Credlin is absolutely intrinsic to our success.”

What an insult. How unhealthy for a government to be so dependent on a mere staffer.

The implication is that Abbott is such a liability that he could not be trusted to get through an election without Credlin keeping him under control.

Is Abbott really so desperate to hang on to his chief of staff that he would debase himself so?

“It’s absolutely humiliating,” said one influential Liberal. “Once upon a time staff used to defend ministers. Now ministers are defending staff.”

Of course, Pyne was echoing comments Abbott made last year when he accused his colleagues of sexism for criticising Credlin.

The damaging irony of Abbott using the misogyny line seemed to escape him, if not his colleagues, who were incandescent with rage. They were stymied from speaking their minds at the last party room meeting but home truths are ready for the next one on February 9.

The Prince Philip gaffe has had the effect of eliciting a more complete and detailed criticism of Credlin from a growing number of increasingly loquacious sources.

It is a tale of a thousand small atrocities that add up to a crippling of the government’s political capacity in everything from dealing with crises to wrangling the Senate.

“She has deconstructed the apparatus that got him elected” says one former intimate. “No one is allowed to have contrary views. There is no contestability.”

Anyone who has objected has been sidelined, demoted, pushed out by Credlin. She has centralised control in Stalinist fashion, determining all staff appointments, and pay, vetoing the wishes of even senior ministers to hire a chief of staff or adviser of their choice.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin have come under fire for a
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin have come under fire for a number of issues recently.
Some of the tactics used to get rid of contrary people are so petty as to be unbelievable. Crucial staff are undermined by being left off email lists so they miss meetings, for instance.

Tony O’Leary, a skilled Howard era media adviser, was seen being escorted out of the Prime Minister’s private election night party in by a security guard. He resigned two days later.

Staff have been forced to move to Canberra, with the absurd outcome that they are separated from their bosses who return to their electorates when Parliament is not sitting.

All this has occurred in the Prime Minister’s name, “under his benign gaze”.

The end result is that government is trapped in the unreal bubble of Canberra, and Credlin dictates who sees Abbott and what advice he receives.

Anyone who has objected has been sidelined, demoted, pushed out by Credlin. She has centralised control in Stalinist fashion, determining all staff appointments, and pay, vetoing the wishes of even senior ministers to hire a chief of staff or adviser of their choice

A cursory knowledge of group psychology will tell you that a small group with no diversity of opinion is a sure-fire recipe for bad decisions.

“You used to have a smorgasbord of people who had input,” says one former insider.

“But she has hunted out of that office anyone with an independent opinion.”

As soon as Abbott settled into office, Credlin took over his diary and made it secret, unlike the open book of Howard’s era. Under Credlin, staff had to look out the window into the Parliamentary courtyard to even see if Abbott was in town.

The most astute political operators, those with corporate memory and an understanding of the dark arts, have left. The resulting brain drain demonstrates itself regularly with embarrassments such as the easily avoidable photograph of Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann enjoying a cigar during Budget deliberations.

The horrendous serial confusion over the GP copayment was another example of amateur hour in the PM’s office, which left him looking like a goose, not knowing what his staff had been telling journalists.

There are stories of tantrums and tears if anyone challenges Credlin. Visitors tell of Credlin yelling obscenities at the PM. Staffers have been instructed by Abbott to buy her flowers if they fall out with her.

Meanwhile her profile keeps growing. She hit the front pages last year talking about the burqa ban, and again to deny telling Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (“Julie”) that she could not attend a climate meeting in Peru. Bishop’s anger at the effrontery resulted in a story in which the two women were described by a colleague as “like two Siamese fighting fish stuck in the same tank”.

Unedifying barely covers it.

Credlin appears frequently in photographs with the PM, at the top tables with world leaders. Business leaders complain she is present whenever they meet Abbott. Some claim she answers questions on his behalf.

One story has her kicking up a fuss when there was no chair available for her in an ambassadorial meeting, with the result that Abbott’s foreign affairs adviser had to vacate the room for her.

There is more, much more. The so-called Credlin Choke is strangling the business of government. Important people can’t get her to return their calls.

In the Liberal Party, John Howard is God. He had dinner with Abbott at Kirribilli House before Christmas and spoke bluntly about the Credlin problem. Others reinforced the message, to no avail.

Abbott won’t be dispensing with Credlin’s services. He appears to believe he cannot survive without her.

But she owes it to the government to resign, in the great tradition of staffers who have fallen on their sword once they become a liability.

It is the decent thing to do.

This is a toxic situation. And because the consultative processes available to Abbott for improving his judgement are few and weak, any improvement in his position are likely to be the result of luck.

Paul Monk, the great Australian ‘thinker about thinking’, emphases that the first requirement for good, effective policy is that policy makers be educable in basic facts:

The key to effective use of intelligence is the capacity of policy makers and decision makers to learn. This means three things. First, being educable as to basic realities. Second, being able to adapt policy as those realities change. Third, being capable of reframing policy itself when intelligence findings cast doubt on fundamental assumptions. These might be summed up as the capacities for awareness, understanding and rethinking. “Intelligence failures” occur when one or more of these conditions are not met, whether due to the deficiencies of the intelligence process or the obduracy of policy makers. Policy disasters occur when the third, in particular, is not met.

Without this, there is no chance that they can consistently create good policy.

I remember hearing, many years ago when the businessman Frank Lowy took over Australian Soccer, he had a discussion with the then coach of the national team, Frank Farina. Inquiring about how he came to his decisions, Lowy asked ‘Frank, who do you talk to?’

Who do you talk to, Tony?


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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