Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
- Gimbel/Fox Killing me softly
When I first read this article I thought Switzer was pitching for Peta Credlin's job.
When I read it again it looked as though Switzer was explaining and covering for his mate Abbott, who (like him or not) occupies a job for which he is not suited and not capable. Switzer is hoping to set a high bar for any who might be in a position to displace, or even replace Abbott. He is, however unwittingly, highlighting Abbott's inadequacies: killing him softly while appearing to defend him. Deft work, that.
Sometimes a little straight talking among mates is a good idea. That's especially true when your mate runs the country.You'll note that this advice is printed in the newspaper - and in the non-Murdoch press at that - rather than being communicated directly mate to mate. If Switzer had wanted to talk to Abbott directly, neither Murdoch nor Fairfax correspondents in the press gallery would ever have found out about it.
Even Bob Hawke says he's a "not a bad bloke".Is that the same Bob Hawke who said, during the election campaign, that Abbott was a nutcase? Who gave him an earful at Whitlam's funeral?
The following paragraphs are basically Switzer reinforcing his credentials as a friend of Abbott. In times of stress people are quick to see a public statement like this as piling-on - et tu, Switzer? - so he has to do a bit of tip-toeing here around delicate sensibilities and load on the praise with a trowel:
As Prime Minister, Abbott has been courageous and right to advance his belief in border protection. He spoke for Middle Australia in doing so - including many ethnic minorities who support a tough stance against boat people to help boost public confidence in an orderly, large-scale legal immigration policy that serves the national interest.When you refuse to process applications and return people to certain persecution and death, you can't claim that as orderly. Many people have come to this country from places where demagogues blame foreigners for more problems than they cause, and they are accommodating rather than validating a badly-run and self-defeating policy.
Still, Switzer got where he is by getting along. Abbott and his increasingly skittish supporters are the audience for this tosh. It is not intended to be useful information on how you are governed, dear reader.
Virtually every Liberal and conservative I know agrees that Abbott is in political trouble and that he needs to get back on the policy offensive.But it is the policies themselves that are offensive, and the ideological monoculture of the party can neither conceive of a new direction nor concede fault with the current trajectory. Switzer's very praise for his mate and his policies limits his scope of action. All that stuff about gradual, incremental change (see below) seems to go out the window once the arse falls out of the polls.
This is a delicate moment for the government and its supporters such as Switzer. They risk falling victim to the old syllogism:
- We must do something!
- This is something!
- Let's do this!
... like guests at the last party on the Titanic, his office seems oblivious to imminent disaster.They're not oblivious. They are demonstrating their loyalty in the same way they always have, batting away any and all criticism and getting on with it.
Any member of the PM's staff who started developing and expressing bright ideas would be excoriated for grandstanding and disloyalty - by people like Tom Switzer, who would also be responsible for preventing Abbott from strangling the miscreant(s) with his bare hands:
- When Abbott worked for John Hewson, he briefed against his leader.
- When Downer stumbled as leader in 1994-95, journos transformed Abbott (a junior backbencher) into a "senior Liberal source" who briefed against his leader.
- When Costello started getting uppity about Howard, Abbott briefed against him. When Costello accuses Abbott of being an "economic illiterate", this is really what he's upset about: Abbott could have played the decisive role in easing out Howard, like Graham Richardson had with Hawke.
- Abbott briefed against Nelson and Turnbull.
If Abbott's staff were ordered to put an extra charge on medical visits, they'd do that. If Abbott's staff were ordered to bury the Great Barrier Reef beneath mine tailings, they'd do that. If Abbott's staff were ordered to turn up to a drinks party aboard a cruise ship (Perfectly safe! Largest ever!) and make light conversation, they'd do that. Any staffer looking out a porthole and pointing at the looming iceberg, or eyeing the path to the lifeboats, would have someone like Switzer or Credlin sidle up behind them and hiss: "it's not your job to do that!". The idea that such people are letting Abbott down is bullshit.
I've had my say about Peta Credlin and so have others, but three things have to be said about getting rid of her. First, as Bernard Keane pointed out, Abbott can't get rid of her without looking (even more) like Murdoch's puppet.
Second, getting rid of her will be more important to this government than reshuffling its ministers. Very few of them will be able to develop, implement and defend their own policies in the absence of Credlin, let alone do so in any coherent way.
Third, Abbott's defence against misogyny accusations rest pretty much entirely on his relationship with her. His accommodation of her reproductive issues, his ability to defer to and mix it with a strong, intelligent and capable woman, rest on her central role in his professional life. Rudd, Howard, Keating, Hawke, Fraser, and Whitlam did this by bringing their warm and clever wives to the forefront (well, Jeanette Howard made John look warm by contrast, and that was the main thing).
Margie Abbott's relationship with her husband is stilted and awkward, a throwback to the beard that was Sonia McMahon or the resentful Bettina Gorton. Tony Abbott tries so hard to present as the 'daggy Dad', the self-assured but unthreatening man, that Tim Mathieson was. If Abbott dumps Credlin when the going gets tough and appoints some bloke like Switzer or Murdoch castoff Chris Kenny, he'll be a schmuck.
Abbott's staff are loyal to a fault: Switzer's slur notwithstanding, that's the way he likes it. You can understand why the government is keen to legislate so that all managers and employers have compliant, even docile, staff like them.
Still, one fundamental question must be asked: and it is not simply about whether Abbott will survive as Liberal leader and Prime Minister. It is whether there is any politician of standing in our country who understands what has to be done to govern us in our poll-driven political culture and noisy 24/7 media and internet era; and if so, whether he or she will have the ability to do so as the economy shows serious signs of contraction.All that stuff about polls and internet is not just reactionary revulsion to modern technology, but to democracy itself.
The idea that you not only have to see things as they are and develop policy responses, and convince people to come with you, and keep on doing that, is Switzer's real issue. Abbott's core problem - his refusal to believe that you have to explain yourself, fully and honestly and continuously, to citizens who vote and pay taxes - is not one Switzer can help fix. It's why he has refused Liberal preselection in safe seats: sooner or later Switzer will just roll his eyes and declare "that's just how it is!" and start ad hominem jeering at those who want more and better than he and his mates can offer.
Remind you of anyone? The idea that Tony Abbott has any mates, and that Switzer is one, should be less of a surprise by now.
Switzer is also seeking to imply that anyone who would replace Abbott - from within the Liberal Party or beyond it - must prove themselves, as Abbott never did with the widely-held but groundless assumption he'd be better than Rudd or Gillard.
There is complacency in the community, a widespread assumption that, because Australia has not suffered a recession in nearly a quarter century, the good times will roll automatically. But as any seasoned economist will tell you, we are living beyond our means.Look at the satisfaction levels under Howard, after about 2003 but before Workchoices. Look at the satisfaction levels under Rudd before the GFC slapped everyone out of it. That's what "complacency in the community" looks like. Tony Abbott never had those levels of
The economy faces serious challenges, such as weak productivity, falling terms of trade and an ageing population, which will threaten living standards. And if the economy does not undergo a new wave of reform to help insulate ourselves against the next bout of market contagion, we are storing up big trouble down the road.Seasoned economists are flat out defining labour productivity across the economy, so nobody would expect someone like Henry Ergas to do so. All agree labour productivity beats capital productivity. Labour productivity is the joint responsibility of employees and managers, while capital productivity is the province of managers alone; quibbling about penalty rates starts looking somewhat petty.
In terms of falling terms of trade - all that busywork around 'free trade agreements' seems wasted, unless keeping Andrew Robb out of the country is somehow productive. Maybe we're just selling the wrong things, and policy settings propping up low-value exports over higher ones does us fewer favours than the incrementalists might hope.
To his credit, Abbott appears to recognise this reality. His government's first budget sought to address fiscal repair and growth reforms. But the measures were poorly explained and amounted to broken promises.Abbott put in place the wrong measures. Nobody in Australian politics has more experience in dealing with the media, and in writing and delivering speeches, than Tony Abbott: if he couldn't explain those measures and why they were necessary, perhaps it just can't be done.
Why did Tony Abbott make promises that were bound to be broken? Remember all that stuff about the trust deficit being more important than any economic metric? This goes to the judgment and responsibility of a man of whom Switzer thinks more highly than most.
Add to this the malaise within the political system, which a hostile Senate exacerbates ...Again this revulsion for democracy, and the lack of wonder why Abbott is less successful in getting the agenda through than Gillard.
What to do? The Productivity Commission review into workplace relations could provide a circuit breaker for the government.Or not. To reform the workplace relations system, we need a government that won't screw us over on other cost-of-living issues, and which distributes both upsides and downsides of sovereign risk more broadly than this lot.
Abbott is not a true believer in free markets. He is instead a traditional conservative, someone who likes to do things in settled and familiar ways.That's nice. The challenge for the nation is not to adapt to Abbott. The challenge is for him to adapt to it. Between him becoming Liberal leader and the 2013 election Abbott's supporters, including Switzer, convinced us that Abbott had in fact made this adjustment. They lied.
As our mutual friend Christopher Pearson was fond of saying, Abbott, given the choice, prefers incremental and consensual change to the large and radical variety.But he hasn't been given the choice. John Curtin was a pacifist who led the country through war. Bob Hawke was a union leader who saw union membership plummet. Christopher Pearson might have been given the choice to live as he pleased, but Tony Abbott was not.
The nation will not adapt to him, and nor will he adapt to the nation. One of them must go, and I nominate Abbott to go for the sake of the nation rather than the reverse.
But Abbott is also conscious that policy changes are justified when the circumstances change. And to prepare for a downturn, he must instinctively believe in a new wave of reform.Abbott has to convince people what should be delivered, and he can't do that: not one to one with individual Senators, not with voters at large, not with anyone.
In that light, he should reduce burdens on the public purse, including jettisoning an overgenerous paid parental leave scheme. Stop subjecting employers to cumbersome regulations on penalty rates and unfair dismissal. Embrace individual-negotiated work contracts that were once a godsend for small business. What he has to do is convince the people that such plans are practical and that his government can deliver them.
Tom Switzer is a public servant, employed by a university and by the ABC. He has no real idea what it is to be in the private sector. If cumbersome regulations were so cumbersome, if work contracts were such a godsend, business would have fought harder for them. The absence of business from defending Workchoices in 2007 should have awoken the Liberal Party to the necessity of unsupported reform.
Why must Abbott fight for a policy he doesn't believe in, and that nobody will defend when it comes to the crunch? This is the question Switzer begs.
In his important book Triumph and Demise, Paul Kelly laments that a reforming PM cannot succeed in this country given the decisive shift in the system and malign culture against needed change.Kelly has been doing that for 40 years, describing reforming PMs and then declaring what he has described to be impossible. What a funny old man he is! He also gave a job to the otherwise unemployable Tom Switzer at one point, too.
Having a joined-up policy agenda doesn't make you some sort of egghead. It just means that all your policies reinforce each other: you can be a bit looser with working conditions if you have health and welfare safety nets, if you make it easier for people to retrain and upskill, and if you don't drive up unemployment.
When you say one thing and do another it confuses people. They/We become hostile if you deny you're playing people when you are, when you so lack confidence in your policies that you have to lie about them.
But the low standing of the government and its prime minister in the polls is an advantage: there is nothing to lose by taking risks with public opinion when it comes to promising a radically different approach to the economy.Gillard took the same approach until Labor decided to 'save the furniture' and turf her. If Abbott did what you propose he'd be gone by Easter, replaced by a smarmy do-nothing like Bishop or Turnbull who'd "restore the Liberal brand" with a cosmetic approach.
So the Liberals will be best served by keeping Abbott as leader until the next election.Switzer hasn't made his case. Having failed to explain current policy, Abbott cannot be expected to take on more contentious policies. How do you expect it to explain, justify, and refine a whole new set of policies that proved too hard for John Howard?
They would do well to move irrevocably back towards their erstwhile commitment to a deregulated environment in which enterprise and prosperity will flourish.Knocking off penalty rates is a disincentive, and a measure requiring a lot of work for little reform gain. Until you understand that, save your arguments and your fancy words like 'erstwhile' for the university common room.
But they must also construct a more substantial rhetoric than the social media gibberish that increasingly defines public discourse. In other words, take a leaf from John Howard's playbook, have a conversation with the Australian people and show the Coalition is better prepared than the clueless Labor opposition in dealing with the coming economic downturn.Switzer really hasn't learned anything at all from 2007. I thought that the Liberals wouldn't return to government until they had learned those lessons, and though I was mistaken learning the lessons remains important.
Facebook and Twitter were in their infancy in 2007. It was easy for Howard to ignore them, and easy to imagine him having more trouble with social media than Abbott is having now. Switzer has no answers: why are we even listening to this guy?
When he returned to the Prime Ministership in 2013 Kevin Rudd had the conversation, but nobody believed him - his credibility was shot. So it is with Abbott. No further reform is possible under Abbott, not going back nor going further. Whether fast or slow, whether far-reaching or incremental, whether you feel pleased or sad or angry, Abbott is out of reform momentum. He's out of credibility. He's out of time.
How do you convince a Coalition backbencher who's worked their way up to a marginal seat to commit career suicide? Just because Switzer has shirked that challenge it does not mean others must be as blithe as he is. In many cases (e.g. Indi, much of Queensland, places Tom Switzer can't imagine), Labor are the least of this government's problems.
Surely a true conservative would be better working to limit the scope of Labor initiatives than actually proposing and selling and defending changes generated in-house. Switzer has feelings about the country that few others, including his mate Tony, share. Switzer can't be bothered engaging with the mob because he knows there's nothing in his proposals for them/us - not even in the enterprise stuff that sounds really exciting to self-hating public servants.
Whether the flag is blue or white, Switzer doesn't really care so long as he can cock a leg at the base of the flagpole. Same applies to Abbott, it's why they're mates. He wants to help his mate but he can't. Switzer has put the best case possible for Abbott, but in doing so has made him less flexible, and shows his mate is hiding an agenda that is not only unpopular and harsh, but half-baked.