OPINION: Why Liberals Need To Find The Courage To Stick With Tony Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Getty / File

It takes courage to be loyal.

Think about that if you supported the election of the Abbott government. Think about why you didn’t support the re-election of the Labor government.

If you’re a member of the government then ask yourself if you seriously want to consider changing the Prime Minister in the first term of a new government – again.

Because of a knighthood?

In the current climate of poll-driven politics and social media storms it’s easy to get spooked. But you must have the courage to be loyal.

Firstly, despite very recent history telling us it is a particularly stupid thing to do, I cannot see that we are even slightly near any circumstances that could justify a challenge to the Prime Minister.

Everyone just needs to calm down, stop feeding the chatter and get on with their jobs.

Let’s put this latest ‘storm’ and leadership chatter into some perspective.

Rudd lost the leadership because his government had ceased to function. Decisions on major policy issues were being made in a vacuum without reference to Cabinet yet with massive implications – think school halls, pink batts, so-called health reform, NBN – all without a plan, costing, consultation or Cabinet. Tens of billions of dollars wasted and in the case of pink batts, four people lost their lives, more than 200 houses were lost and more than 1000 previously viable jobs in the sector disappeared.

Gillard lost the leadership because despite her desire to fix the problems Rudd had created, she ended up replacing the old ‘gang-of-four’ (of which she was part) with a new ‘gang-of-four’. She lacked authority because of the method by which she got the leadership and when the public had all but abandoned the ALP at the 2010 election, she lost any authority she may have had. Bad decisions flowed – such as the live export disaster when Australia cut off the food supply to one of our closest neighbours on the strength of one media story. The 2013 election result was inevitable.

The ALP returned to Rudd simply because polling suggested it might ‘save some furniture’. The Prime Minister-ship had been reduced to who could help me win my seat – not who could run a better government. How courageous.

Now let’s look at Tony Abbott. Sure, it’s easy to argue he has made a couple of ordinary ‘captain’s calls’.

He was heavily criticised for bringing back knighthoods – but this passed – largely because no-one could mount a decent argument against those who received them. The Prime Minister should have taken this as a lesson about appointments – make them good and people will warm to the concept.

Unfortunately, within a year he made a poor political decision and gave one to the Duke of Edinburgh.

Let’s be honest though, we did elect Australia’s Monarchist in Chief as our PM. He was the first National Executive Director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy and a leading player during the 1999 referendum. We shouldn’t be too surprised.

And there are precedents. Prior to the reinstatement of knighthoods, our highest award was the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC). We’ve given AC’s to foreigners on many occasions – including notably Nelson Mandela – who, while a great man, has far less relevance to Australia than the Duke of Edinburgh. If we were still awarding knighthoods then, I suspect he would have been given one.

We’ve also handed out AC’s to Aung San Suu Kyi, Jacques Cousteau, Jose Ramos-Horta, Joern Utzon, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Lord Shackleton and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa who had been a Dame for nearly eight years when she got the AC!

My point is – this is all just chatter.

Abbott is a figure some people love to hate – sure, he’s disappointed some people – but he has achieved a great deal too. And it’s only been 15 months. We’re less than halfway into the term and there is a long way until the next election.

His government, while being stymied in the Senate on some issues, has been functioning well. It has stopped the boats – which was an extraordinary effort involving the coordination of 16 different agencies focused on a single goal. I have never seen anything like that before.

Despite the Senate, he abolished both the mining tax and the carbon tax – as promised – with the support of the Palmer United Party that went to extraordinary lengths to suggest they were not going to support the government – including the incredible stunt of flying Al Gore to Australia as a (shallow) show of strength.

Abbott has signed three massively significant trade agreements with Korea, Japan and China.

His is not a dysfunctional government.

Governing – and campaigning

What the government does need to do is remember that as well as being administrators, they need to constantly be campaigners. It’s a key reason why public servants can’t run governments without politicians. You need to run political campaigns to bring the people with you, bring them into your confidence and convince them.

You don’t use polling (good or bad) to determine what you should do – like Rudd and Gillard did – you use polling and research to inform you of the best way to sell your policy, how to convince the people that you’re right.

John Howard failed with “Work Choices” because the policy was sprung on the people without warning. He wanted to capitalise on his new-found Senate majority. Understandable, but wrong. Unlike with the GST campaign, he didn’t bring people with him and it cost him dearly.

There are clearly some issues in how Abbott and his government are going about their business and the extent to which they are bringing the people with them. This can be fixed. But it sure as hell won’t be fixed by changing leaders.

There is frustration but there are, frankly, too many people who regularly criticise government policy from within the government.

Where there is policy disagreement, such as paid parental leave, have the internal debate – but then you need to just accept it is the policy and find the best ways to sell it in order to bring the people with you. You may think you’re a policy purist, but you’re undermining your own government.

Ultimately, it takes courage to be loyal – the benefits of successfully demonstrating this courage will be the continuation of the government and the ability to implement the things you really want to do. Otherwise, you’ll simply hand it back to the other side.

David Miles is the Principal of Willard Public Affairs and a former Howard Government adviser.

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