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Grattan on Friday: Roxon’s “household tips” for Labor have some messages for Abbott too

Tony Abbott is no doubt enjoying former minister Nicola Roxon’s blast against her old political boss Kevin Rudd. It has brought the attention back to Labor in an uncomfortable way for the opposition. Abbott…

Tony Abbott faces challenges adjusting to a prime ministerial style. AAP/Alan Porritt

Tony Abbott is no doubt enjoying former minister Nicola Roxon’s blast against her old political boss Kevin Rudd. It has brought the attention back to Labor in an uncomfortable way for the opposition.

Abbott knows Roxon well. They went head to head when he was health minister and she was Labor’s spokeswoman. Nicola can be sharp. In the 2007 campaign she ticked Tony off for being late for a debate, to which he said “bullshit”. He was the loser in that exchange. She’s one of those “don’t mess with me” kind of people.

In Wednesday’s John Button Memorial Lecture Roxon (who did not contest the election) took an axe to Rudd, accusing him of being a “bastard”, treacherous, and a hopeless manager of prime ministerial business; she said he should leave parliament ASAP.

Her account of Rudd could have been titled “A study in how not to be a PM”. She cast it as providing “housekeeping tips”. Her advice (directed to a future Labor government but also good for this government and PM) includes: don’t do too many things at once; keep your focus high level, on the things that really matter; delegate; welcome debate, rather than fearing it; be polite and be persuasive; have the diary tidy; and “accept you are not always right, and cannot always fix everything”.

Prime ministerships always start in hope and almost always end in tears. Consider those in recent memory (and put aside Gough Whitlam – to be sacked by the governor-general is beyond disaster). Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating and John Howard lost at the polls; Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard were toppled by their parties; Rudd had the distinction of being rejected by both party and voters. We have to go back to Robert Menzies in 1966 to find a benign ending – and he’d had a miserable first one in 1941.

If you are PM, the challenge is not so much the way you will end, because that will almost certainly be badly, but in delaying that end and doing as much as possible before it comes. Hawke and Howard both look back with equanimity because they and others feel they achieved a lot.

Abbott understands that what’s needed in power is different from what’s required in opposition, where, as he’s put it, one is “the leader of a tribe”. But knowing and doing are different. Bashing the other side is easy and addictive. A PM still has to don the warpaint periodically, but a government that is preoccupied with scoring political points against the opposition years out from the next election risks annoying voters, particularly now, when they are sick of all that shouting.

Abbott should concentrate on just governing. The election is over. Keep the attack dogs (Christopher Pyne, Scott Morrison) in the kennels more. Send out some of the milder mannered ministers. When parliament starts, remember which side of the chamber you are now sitting on; turn down the volume. Voters know you think Labor was doing a poor job – they thought so too and that’s why they threw it out.

It’s a similar story with discipline and control. Arguably the more the better in opposition. In government a balance needs to be struck. Abbott has said he wants ministers to run their own races, with him intervening when circumstances demand. (This comes partly from his own experience; when a junior minister he demanded his senior minister, Peter Reith, give him space.)

But the PM has ultimate responsibility, so walking the line is always tricky. Fraser wanted to be into everything; Howard understood the balance pretty well, as did Hawke.

Abbott needs to be careful that his office (run by his formidable chief of staff Peta Credlin) accepts that in an “adult” government, as this one likes to style itself, you get further by treating the colleagues and their staffs like grown ups too.

In managing cabinet, Abbott has had the advantage of seeing a good chairman (Howard) in operation, so he starts ahead.

Everyone in cabinet needs to be given a genuine say; ministers should be encouraged to speak up when they disagree and the PM should listen carefully to them (WorkChoices mightn’t have been so politically lethal if Howard had taken greater heed of Abbott’s reservations, expressed in cabinet, but industrial relations was a Howard blind spot).

There are salutary stories of Rudd both failing to bring important matters to cabinet and drowning it in unnecessary detail. Fraser’s practice of exhausting ministers with endless cabinet meetings is also to be avoided. It’s the same with the staff and public servants. Roxon’s account of Rudd demanding work before Christmas is a reminder that in normal times it is best to let these people follow ordinary routines. Their complaints will get you a bad name.

Kitchen cabinets, except in emergencies, are dangerous, as Rudd discovered: they may be an answer to “leaks” (though not always) but they narrow the advisory stream and create jealousies. A PM is managing senior colleagues who have in common big egos but often, also, surprising insecurities. Sensitive to the vagaries of politics, if they feel left out they can become unsettled or resentful.

Two of the most difficult areas for a PM are enforcing propriety and dealing with the backbench.

Howard started by imposing strict standards on frontbenchers but when they started falling like ninepins, he abandoned those standards and held onto people at all costs. In the current controversy about MPs' entitlements (where he was among those ensnared) Abbott has resisted toughening the system. More positively, he has banned members of party executives from being lobbyists. Whether he will be Howard Mark 1 or Mark 2 on propriety remains to be seen.

Managing the party room will be a test for Abbott. There are a few obvious stratagems, which he adopted to an extent in opposition, such as keeping the up-and-comers busy – committee work and the like - and feeling involved.

And it’s crucial to tune in to what the backbenchers have to say. It’s better that they let off steam, even if it leads to a few embarrassing media stories, than bottle up grievances. Rudd had the most quiescent caucus one could imagine. Unfortunately for him, it was equally quiescent when asked to go along with an extraordinary coup.

Fraser, Hawke, and Howard all had some difficulties with backbenchers over policy, and Abbott could well encounter the same thing. For a Liberal PM even the occasional floor crossing is not so serious. Coping with a degree of dissent needs to be part of a prime ministerial skill set.

It goes without saying that so does managing their own behaviour. In retrospect, given all we now know about Rudd’s conduct, it’s hilarious that when his then backbencher Belinda Neal had a hissy fit in a restaurant, he told her to get anger management counselling. Abbott mostly has a good temperament but there has been the odd incident in the past (such as the Roxon moment).

All PMs are prone to an impatient outburst but these carry far more political risk than a couple of generations ago, because of today’s intense media cycle. It’s the trivia that’s remembered and repeated – such as when Rudd had a tantrum over the food, or lack of it, in a VIP plane.

The trials of being PM are endless. Abbott is said to have been frustrated when, after appearing for his rural fire brigade duties last Sunday, he sat in the truck for the day, rather than being called out. Reportedly, he was complaining in the VIP on the way back to Canberra.

Abbott is trying to keep himself grounded by doing what he did when he wasn’t PM. That might be as tough a challenge as any of the others. There are whole industries – from spinners to security details – that attempt to cosset a prime minister. Good luck to Abbott if he can sometimes break away from them. It will make him better at his day job.

Listen to Clare O'Neil and Angus Taylor on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.