Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sunday Essay - Mr Abbott and the dangers of retrospection

There is something dangerously seductive about retrospection. We see patterns that were not clear at the time. We attach cause and effect to what may, in fact, have been random events. And we tend to reinterpret our own past positions and views in term of what happened later.

As I write, the political agony of Australian PM Abbott has entered its immediate end-game. Can Mr Abbott survive? I am not close enough to the numbers to know. I would have thought it unlikely.

As I write, the commentary and reporting outside the fevered analysis of what is happening really centers on two questions: why did this happen; what does it mean?

The why did it happen is heavily based on retrospection.We can see how Mr Abbott's rhetoric locked him into positions. We can see how a tightly controlled and focused opposition campaign carried into Government turned poisonous in a different environment.We can see how ideological stances formed in past campaigns, many old, came to set frames that overrode common sense.

And yet, somehow, that's not sufficient to explain what happened. How did Mr Abbott and the Government come to stuff-up so badly?

All new Governments face a choice between continuity and change. All new Governments need to recognise the importance of stability in people's lives. Finally, all new Governments need to recognise the importance of process and especially the time required to do things.

In saying this, I recognise that I am engaged in my own retrospection. Still, somehow, the Abbott Government managed to break all these basic principles. Consider this,

The Government wrapped its activities in a rhetoric about the need for basic change. It then changed or tried to change lots of things within the mantle of that rhetoric, placing everything under scrutiny. Finally, in its impatience to do things quickly, it ignored both process and time. In doing so, it outran both the patience of the electorate and its capacity to do.

These are some of the things that I have argued in my own retrospections. But am I right? The answer is that I don't know. I think that other things need to be considered.This is important because the answers given to the why it happened then determine the answers to the question what does it mean.

For example, those who conclude that the key lesson from the Abbott Government experience is that reform has become more difficult are in fact mounting a three pronged argument: there were reforms that were desirable to carry out; the Australian people and systems would not accept those reforms; and that, consequently, this shows the increasing difficulty of bringing necessary change about. This argument is often associated with another, the importance of bi-partisan support if change is to be achieved.

Looking back over Australian history, the first thing that strikes me is continuity, the way in which the past merges into the present into the future.Even in periods of major change such as the achievement of Federation or the end of the White Australia policy, the frame of the change is largely set by the past even where that change involves a major historical event that shifts national direction.

I am struck, too, by the way man proposes but God disposes to use a now old-fashioned phrase. From the ending of the depression of the 1840s to the crash of the early 1890s Australia experienced a long period of growth and prosperity during which everything seemed possible. Then came economic crash, the great drought, the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War, shocks every ten years or so that profoundly affected the nation. Even in longer periods of apparent growth and stability, there were recurrent crises that had to be dealt with. The growth of the 1950s and 1960s was followed by the oil shocks and stagflation of the the 1970s, then came another crash in Mr Keating's recession before growth resumed.

I make this point now because of a mind-set that says each Government must achieve significant change, because of a belief that things are controllable if only we plan properly. They are not and we cannot. Governments can only manage as best they can.

One of the interesting things about history lies in the way that particular Governments diminish in importance as time passes. The things that roused passion at the time cease to be of importance. The focus is on patterns within which each Government occupies a diminishing part. Even really big events such as the First World War that are now promoted as part of official myth-making shrink, the role of particular politicians or Governments shrinks further.

Looking at the troubles of the Abbott Government from this perspective, neither those troubles nor the associated discussions about the difficulties of particular types of reform are especially important. What is likely to be more important from an historical perspective are the patterns of ideas and attitudes displayed by collective governments, Labor, Liberal-National, Labor and then Liberal National over the longer time horizon occupied by those various Governments set within a context of change as defined in retrospect,

What is likely to be focused on? I'm not sure. It depends on what happens. My feeling is that changing perceptions of the role of the state, the rise of the environmental movement and of the new right may feature. However, I suspect that the three dominant drivers will be geo-political change, demographic change and climate change.

Taking climate change first. In fifty years' time we will know if the current projections of global warming are right. If right, that will dominate the history books. In fifty years' time., the current demographic trends in Australia and elsewhere will have reached their climax. That. too, will feature in the history books. Finally., none of us can know how current geo-political developments will play out. Major war is a statistically significant possibility.
It's time for me to end this muse. We will know Mr Abbott's immediate fate tomorrow. All this stuff is fun for the political fanatics like me. Just remember, it's actually not very important.


So Mr Abbott has survived the spill motion 61 votes to 39. From an immediate perspective, the issue he faces is where to from here. In writing on Julia Gillard, I said that she needed to find that quiet place in the midst of turmoil that would allow her to regroup. She was never able to do so. Mr Abbott is now in a similar position.

It's very easy for someone like me to prognosticate. I guess that if I was Mr Abbott I would now do two things.

The first is keep a low profile. Yes, I know that's hard, but by letting his Ministers carry more of the load, by staying out of the limelight, he buys some time. The second thing that I would do is to take some time to reflect, to properly plan a relaunch. I wouldn't make this high key. Rather, I would do it by a series of reflective speeches and initiatives intended to build over a period.

The centralisation of  power in the Executive and then, within that, the centralisation of executive power in the PM and his office makes things very hard. The physical processing load on the PM is crushing. If Mr Abbott is to survive, he has to break out of this trap. To retain power, he has to give up,power.

It will be interesting to watch.


Anonymous said...

Good to have this perspective Jim. Not sure that Mr Abbott will go today, but probably soon.

If/when it happens, I'd like to see Christian Porter put into the Treasurer's role. I think he is the sort of 'future Liberal' that will make a difference someday soon.


Jim Belshaw said...

I don't know Christian Porter, kvd. Now that you have nominated him,I will watch.

Evan said...

I'm sure you're right about the 3 big picture things over the next 50 years.

I think Tony is stubborn to the point of idiocy. He wants to rule by fiat I think - and seems to think that swearing at the Senate will somehow make senators pass his appalling budget.

He has always been a fairly negatively focused politician - at best making minor improvements. This is great in opposition but no good in government.

Jim Belshaw said...

Actually, making minor improvements is not so bad in government, Evan. It's a damn sight better than the constant instability that marks so much current policy.

Evan said...

A minor improvement is better than a large backward step (say punishing the poor and rewarding the wealthy) - definitely true.

Anonymous said...

A number of MPs have called privately for Ms Credlin to be replaced but others say it is her close attention to detail that has saved Mr Abbott from further mistakes of judgment.

Most damning sentence out of the many I've read today. More so, because it was just a throw-away, buried in the middle of a long opinion piece.


Evan said...

That is quite a sentence kvd.

John Stitch said...

Geez Jim - is it me or are politicians getting dumber. I hadn't heard the word "Collegial" before and now it's constantly being rammed down my throat. Has "Confer" or "Consult" suddenly become redundant. And whatever happened to the politicians old favourite "Team Player". Why is it that once Abbott gets on to some word or phrase he constantly repeats it over and over and over and again and again... in case we missed the point or maybe he isn't bright enough to think on his feet, to actually string a sentence together without parroting some hackneyed worn out phrase. And another thing whilst I blow off steam. I made a lifestyle choice to not get married or have children and yet all I hear from anyone (and this applies to both sides) is the word "Family". I pay my taxes, I receive no concessions and yet it's as if I'm a second class citizen. Every time one of these politicians opens his or her mouth it's Family this Family that, Hockey must have said Family about 15 times in a recent interview. For chrisakes there are other people out there and they have as much right to be represented as someone who made a lifestyle choice to have a family. Each generation of politicians appear to be getting dumber, how bad will it be when the next generation can't afford a decent education?

2 tanners said...

A few comments, Jim. Much of the reform that has happened over the past few decades has paid of for industry but not employees (see Greg Jericho's recent article on this). I think many people including commentators do NOT accept the need for reform at least in the areas on which this government is focused.

I don't think Mr Abbott can let his Ministers carry the limelight with them and I don't think Mr Abbot 2.0 can launch quietly. Partly it's a measure of who he is, and partly because handing the limelight to potential challengers might be sheerest folly.

If he wss capable of letting go occasionally, he might still be in the seminary. I think he has problems associated with two other short lived PMs. He has the 'crash through or crash' mentality of Whitlam and the reliance on close advisers rather than party members of Rudd.

I'd just like to point out that I probably have 15/15 hindsight at best.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree Evan, that's quite a sentence.

2T, I hadn't actually read the Jericho piece. For the benefit of others, the link is here -

As an aside, one of the interesting features in the discussion is the changing meaning of the word "conservative." Outside social issues, it is hard to classify Mr Abbott as a conservative.

I read and reread that copy of the Financial Review that Greg references because I was going to write a piece on it. It's actually a historically useful source document for it unconsciously captures the acute silliness of some of the current discussion.

Tony Shepherd and his commission of audit is referenced. I had the misfortune of trying to analyse that document from an operational perspective. I was being paid to do so, that's good, but it was just dreadful. So when the FR quotes TS to support its arguments, I shudder.

Collegial does has a different meaning, JS. I find it a useful world. I also find it ironic that a word drawn from religion and academe should be used in such a different context.

On family, I had a very similar reaction when I was single. I was quite pissed off. It didn't really improve after I was married with kids because the timing of the new "family" measures was always such that we could not benefit!