Grattan on Friday: Howard and Baird offer lessons in the art of persuasion

If Tony Abbott had followed the John Howard prescription from the start he’d be much better off today. AAP/Joel Carrett

Saturday’s New South Wales election will be seen as a major test of whether a popular leader can sell the public a much-disliked economic reform policy.

On the polls – and I stress that qualification – Premier Mike Baird is on track to win, with the Coalition’s position improving in recent days. Assuming that happens, judgements will then be based on the size of the victory, given the inevitable anti-government swing that will occur.

A good, or solid, win for Baird would inject a degree of predictability back into the political system. Players and observers are always somewhat discombobulated by a leader losing the unlosable election, as Campbell Newman did.

It would show that voters will buy robust reform, in this case privatisation, if the case is properly made by a credible advocate.

The lessons about leadership would be up there in lights. On the one hand is Baird, regarded by voters as trustworthy and persuasive. On the other are Newman, seen as the opposite, and Tony Abbott, struggling in the polls and personally unpopular.

A comfortable Baird victory would assist Abbott in the short term – the “Abbott factor” hadn’t been fatal. But in the longer view, it would also reinforce how vital it is to have an acceptable leader. And that mightn’t be so helpful to Abbott.

John Howard on Thursday gave an address titled “Advice to the leaders of tomorrow” to a University of Canberra conference. If Abbott had followed the Howard prescription from the get go he’d be much better off today.

“The most important thing about leadership is to believe in something,” Howard said, and then bring to the battle of ideas “the capacity to persuade. Persuasion is far more important in politics as a skill than anything else.”

Howard also stressed “the relationship between the leader and the immediately led”. The leader’s relationship with “the general constituency to which he or she is appealing is important, but what is super important is the relationship between the leader and the immediately led. Because it is impossible to transmit your ideas and … articulate your goals effectively without having the assistance of other people.

"You cannot as a prime minister take your cabinet ministers or your parliamentary party for granted. A prime minister in our system is merely a first among equals,” Howard said.

“The people immediately around you have got to be involved in the decision-making process. This idea that command and direction is what leadership is all about is substantially false,” although Howard conceded that it “works on occasions”.

“Prime ministers who run their cabinet by telling the members of their cabinet via the newspapers or on the morning of the cabinet meeting what the decision is going to be get into a lot of trouble.”

Asked what a leader under severe pressure should do, Howard said “apply the checklist”.

First: “Is the public and the party sufficiently clear as to what you stand for?” Second: “Is your relationship with the people you immediately lead in good order?” Third: “Have you got the big things right?” Included in this last point is Howard’s familiar argument that for reform to be successfully sold it must be seen as fair.

It’s instructive to look at Abbott’s present attempt to revive his leadership against this checklist.

The government has always had trouble with its messaging and, as Abbott tries to accommodate public opinion, this becomes particularly complicated, especially in relation to the budget task.

The old “budget emergency” message has given way to a new one, saying solid progress has been made on the fiscal front, though there’s more to do. Abbott routinely tries to deal with this message-pivot by referring to his experience as a fireman. “The instant the fire brigade turns up, the emergency starts to ease,” he said again on Thursday.

Let’s leave aside the cheap shot that despite the brigade’s arrival, houses often still burn down. Poor communications, different emphases by various government members, and policy backflips have meant a confused, sometimes contradictory, narrative.

What about Abbott’s relations with his followers? He has been recently making an effort to consult the backbenchers, who in turn are giving him time while reserving judgement.

As for relations with ministers: clearly the government is fractured at its highest level. Malcolm Turnbull waits, knowing this term is almost certainly his last chance to achieve the prime ministership. The tension between Abbott (and his office) and deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, another potential alternative, has been on display for months. Team Abbott is the facade behind which lurks a good deal of distrust, competition and frustration.

Finally, on the check point about the “big calls”, the government has got these wrong in the past, with the overreach and unfairness of the 2014 budget, which makes getting right the subsequent calls all the harder. If Abbott is to be believed the May budget will have few “big calls” – rather, a series of small ones. As for the broader calls ahead – on tax reform, federalism – it’s anybody’s guess where they will land.

Having said all that, Labor recognises that Abbott’s new style is helping him. Policy somersaults, populism and dog whistling (such as the attack on Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs) are regarded as having some modest pay-off. And voters are also conflicted: they don’t like Abbott but they’d prefer to do the execution themselves.

Any serious revival by Abbott would be double-edged for Labor. It would put more pressure on Bill Shorten. But it would also make harder Abbott’s replacement by Turnbull or Bishop. Labor’s opponent of choice is Abbott.

In Howard’s view, a leader’s situation comes down to a fundamental point. “In the end, politics is inexorably driven by the laws of arithmetic and if it’s self-evident that a change of leadership is going to dramatically improve a party’s polling position, they will do it.”