Government failed to prepare community for reforms: Robb

Trade Minister Andrew Robb was highly critical of how the government had handled the past year. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Cabinet minister Andrew Robb has criticised the government’s inclusion of its Medicare and universities reforms in last year’s budget, saying budgets should return to “straight fiscal issues”.

As debate about the leadership continues ahead of Tuesday’s party meeting, Robb said backbenchers were sending a very big message to Tony Abbott and also the cabinet that “they don’t want a repeat of some of the mistakes of last year”.

Robb, minister for trade and investment, said there should not be a spill next week. Abbott and the cabinet should be given time to show they had listened.

But Robb was highly critical of how last year was handled.

“We had surprises that we dropped on people through the year. In particular, in the budget there were items, a couple of very big items that related to education and to health.

"Many people woke up on the Wednesday morning after the budget and found two very big packages looking to provide a solution to problems that they weren’t aware we had.

"In other words, we hadn’t tilled the soil. We hadn’t developed an argument for why there needed to be behavioural changes in health and why there needed to be a greater focus and specialisation in universities and how these changes would deliver those,” Robb told Sky.

The government had not carried out the process and “it’s hung around our neck ever since”, overwhelming and overshadowing all the major achievements the government had had.

There had been a tendency by both sides in recent years to put big structural changes in budgets. This caused problems when they were not preceded by the necessary debate. It would be better to get back to traditional budgets dealing with “straight fiscal issues”, like taxation.

Asked whether Abbott himself had been part of the government’s problems, Robb said: “Well, we all have and he’s part of it. He is a big part. He’s the leader.”

Robb pointed to the broken election promises. “We had promised not to do certain things and we did it. They all added to this tendency to not take people with us.” The Prince Philip knighthood “was a symbol of a lot of the types of surprises that people didn’t expect”.

“We’ve just got to be smarter this year about how we execute policy, how we introduce new policy, how we explain it, carry people with us and therefore make sure we’ve got a more stable political environment,” Robb said.

The government had to be “far more careful about how we go about the practice of politics this year”.

Abbott deserved enormous credit for the achievements made and “I think it’s certainly proven that he’s got ability to carry people with him as long as we conduct the political debate and the political process in a more time-honoured fashion and [one] which takes account of the fact that people are looking very closely because they don’t want instability”.

Abbott should be given the opportunity to turn things around. If something happened on Tuesday which led to a spill “we would be seen as a bunch of amateurs”.

To have that “without providing any opportunity for the prime minister to show how he would respond to the legitimate concerns is just amateur hour.

"I do think we’ve got to look at what message we’re sending to the community if we act as though we’re panicked.”