A Reputation For Competence Must Be Earned

Tony Abbott wants everybody to know he’s running an “adult government”. This is a mistake.

That story is responsible for the strangely flat-footed response to the two scandals the Coalition has faced in government so far: expenses and spying.

To both, the Prime Minister’s defence has been a variation of “that’s just the way the world works”.

For nearly six weeks, Tony Abbott tried to bat the expenses scandal away. His colleagues suggested that weddings were more business than pleasure. But the ride-it-out, nothing-to-see-here strategy didn’t last. After letting the expenses issue fester for more than a month, the Government announced a crackdown in mid-November.

And Tony Abbott’s first response to the reports Australia had spied on the Indonesian political leadership was, “That’s hardly a surprise. It’s hardly a shock.”

In other words, the adults already knew. And adults don’t apologise for doing adult things.

This is an audacious new crisis management technique. Don’t deny the scandal. Don’t deflect. Instead, openly admit it. But admit it with a knowing shrug. Spies spy. Some expenses are questionable. So what? That’s just how it is.

It’s audacious, but it hasn’t been particularly effective. The Indonesian government found our Prime Minister’s reaction somewhat inadequate.

You may have missed it, but the Carbon Tax Repeal Bill was introduced to the Parliament on Wednesday last week. Just think how frustrating it must have been for Coalition strategists to watch the Indonesia spy scandal unfold at the exact time they’re trying to execute a political manoeuvre they’ve been preparing for four years.

The Liberal Party sent around campaign-style emails to inform its supporters of the tax’s impending repeal. Abbott made a YouTube video trying to goad the Senate into action. The Coalition is working hard to pin high electricity prices on Bill Shorten.

Despite all that, the carbon tax repeal has been overshadowed by Jakarta’s unhappiness.

The whole adult government thing was only ever supposed to be a critique of Labor’s internal turmoil. The point wasn’t that Tony Abbott and his team were particularly mature. It was just that the Labor Party was uniquely immature.

Recall that the best explanation for the otherwise inexplicable June 2010 spill is still that Kevin couldn’t get along with the other kids in the playground. This diagnosis became a big part of Coalition thinking. An internal Liberal Party document described Kevin Rudd as a “self-centred two-year-old in an adult body”.

It’s a mistake to assume a story that works on the campaign trail makes sense in government.

The Abbott government is full of former Howard government ministers. But most of them made their careers in the later years of that government.

They received their senior leadership roles after John Howard had held office for many years, after he had been firmly entrenched as an incumbent government, after he had built a degree of trust – that is, after he had proven to the voters that he and his team were adults.

A reputation for competence has to be earned, not assumed. The Abbott government is trying to skip this crucial step.

Sure, scandals come and go. They chip the edges off a government but rarely damage the foundations. A few months from now nobody will remember the expenses affair. The Indonesian relationship will recover.

The Coalition’s stubborn attachment to its campaign narrative could have more important longer-term consequences. Just ask Malcolm Fraser.

Fraser also came to power after a frenetic, unpopular, dysfunctional, and short-lived Labor government. His story in 1975 was the same as Tony Abbott’s in 2013. To vote Coalition would be to vote the adults back in power.

Yet once the Coalition was back on the Treasury benches they drifted. The aim had always been to aggressively break apart the Labor government, not develop an agenda for reform.

The Fraser government is now chiefly remembered in Liberal circles for missing the opportunity to open up the Australian economy.

Under Fraser the Coalition was slow and methodical. Take its approach to the stiflingly over-regulated financial sector. Malcolm Fraser first announced he would hold an inquiry into the financial system at the 1975 election. Yet it was only in 1983 that his government begun the process of opening the Australian market up to foreign banks. By that time it was too late. Paul Keating had to do it for them.

Tony Abbott has repeatedly promised to take any big reform proposals to the next election, rather than springing them on an unwilling public. Again, this only makes sense in comparison to Julia Gillard’s broken carbon tax promise.

Yes, the Coalition needs to get out of the shadow of the last government.