Government may be learning from mistakes, except for slow learners

The pragmatic Tony Abbott some expected of him as prime minister has begun to emerge, but Joe Hockey is still on a course of crash or crash through. AAP/Alan Porritt

A few days ago in a tutorial on political leadership, a student asked me, given my past professional contact with Tony Abbott, if the prime minister has what it takes to be a long-term success in the job. My answer was that after observing Abbott’s first year as the nation’s leader it’s too early to say. He could still make it. Or not.

The ultimate test of all leaders, especially in the unforgiving and incredibly febrile atmosphere of contemporary politics, is how much and how quickly they learn from their mistakes. Because they always make mistakes, especially early in their first term of office.

Being open to the prospect of Abbott succeeding as prime minister – that is, steering through meaningful legislative change and retaining office for multiple terms – will be regarded as absurd and even appalling by many Australians, including quite a few who read The Conversation.

Putting a poor first year behind it

This is especially so in the case of the Abbott government because it has been so cack-handed on many important issues during its first year. Having made iron-clad assurances on funding and delivery in key service areas all the way up to last year’s election, and having promised no new taxes – and pledged to remove the carbon and mining taxes – the government set about trying to wriggle out of some of these commitments within weeks of being elected.

Christopher Pyne’s contortions on tearing up the pre-election ‘unity ticket’ on education funding were something to behold. AAP/Alan Porritt

Christopher Pyne’s late-2013 attempt at self-interpretive dance on education funding will long remain a textbook example of what not to do as a minister. Pyne’s solo effort expanded to a full-scale production with the release of Joe Hockey’s first budget in May, which a substantial slice of the electorate saw as a breach of faith.

What voters heard from the Coalition before the election was a simple, attractive message: the only thing needed to get the nation back on track is to elect us; we’ll fix the finances and you won’t feel it at all. But the 2014-15 budget was an ideological text aimed at smashing Hockey’s despised “entitlement mentality”, raising the cost of basic medical care and tertiary education to name but two measures.

The budget was also an acknowledgement of reality: no matter what it said pre-election, the new government couldn’t possibly keep all its spending commitments and get the budget back into surplus without substantial reconstructive surgery.

Astonishingly, in the period after the release of the budget, the Treasurer, having found himself in a hole, just kept digging. As the extent of public opprobrium became clearer and the Senate lined up to block key elements of the budget, he threatened to come up with new cuts.

It was a cold winter for the government. Difficult decisions, poorly sold, were followed by bad decisions.

But are there signs that the government has started to locate the capacity to climb out of the trough?

Coalition finds a circuit-breaker

In terms of public support, the circuit-breaker for the Coalition has been the rise of Islamic State, the spectre of home-grown terrorism and the government’s decision to deploy RAAF jets and SAS troops to an international coalition to fight IS in Iraq.

This has not been the decisive game-changer that decisions to go to war have been for governments throughout history. While polls taken in recent weeks suggest that the public supports the deployment, the memories of the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are fresh. But the movement of the public discussion from the government’s continued inability to pass its unpopular budget to a forthright national stance on a perceived threat has put a floor under the Coalition’s support.

When he made his “Team Australia” announcement in early August, Abbott took the opportunity to clear the decks of the dead weight created by his plan to rewrite section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. Another ministerial underperformer, Attorney-General George Brandis, had rendered that proposal unworkable once he framed it as a mechanism by which the government wanted to be able to defend the free speech rights of bigots.

Lately, there have been other signs that Prime Minister Abbott might be learning on the job. In order to get at least some of its spending cuts through the Senate, the government split its welfare bills. This meant that some changes, including those to the Family Tax Benefit (part B), could be legislated with support from either Labor or the crossbench. It was a tactical retreat, a piece of common sense in which the government got a lot less than it wanted but it got something.

And in recent days, the government dropped the idea of forcing job seekers to apply for 40 jobs a month and endure a six-month wait for Newstart. That it even came up with such a poorly conceived proposal and then took months to come to its senses does not reflect well on those who created the policy and dug in on it. But the backdown suggests that inside the government there are some who are learning that the voyage of incumbency can’t always be taken on the high horse.

Bluster won’t help political recovery

Of course, the involvement in Iraq is open-ended, far from guaranteed to be a strategic success and expensive. The Labor opposition chose to back it because its leadership is genuinely alarmed at the spread of IS and because it wanted as much as possible to keep the domestic political focus on the budget and the government’s determination to create an “unfair” society.

Labor did not want to be drawn into a new debate about its patriotism or lack thereof. The opposition calculates that its best chance of winning in 2016 is to keep focusing on the Coalition’s financial policies.

Abbott is said by people inside the government to be nervous about how the military’s return to Iraq will play out, both politically and practically, over the longer term. But for the moment he takes comfort from Labor’s position. If it goes right, he’ll get most of the credit. If it goes wrong, he won’t get all of the blame.

Not everybody in the government is willing to learn from experience and make the necessary compromises. Hockey’s attempt in Washington to cast Labor as unpatriotic unless it passed the budget, thus paying for the Iraq deployment, was a reminder that there’s a vast gulf between talking the talk in opposition and walking the walk once you get into office. And of how the ability to bluster and take up media space will never be a substitute for statecraft - or a guide to political success.

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