The Politics    Monday, August 3, 2015

The difficult art of political timing

By Sean Kelly

Tony Abbott with Bronwyn Bishop in happier times. Source
Yes, the PM sacked Bishop too late. But at least he didn’t sack her too early

Once a political disaster has come to its painful end – an office-holder has resigned, an apology has been offered, a policy retracted – it is easy to think “Why wasn’t this done weeks ago? If the government had acted immediately it would have been spared weeks of pain.”

And it’s easy to think that about the prime minister in the case of his now-departed Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop. Much of the commentary today has focused on the PM’s long delay. But politics is an invidious profession: in almost any situation, every “solution” you come up with will have its public critics.

It’s true that Abbott waited too long, but the general sense has been that he waited far too long – and in situations like this it’s instructive to ask when, precisely, would have been the right time to act?

Certainly not immediately. If the PM had asked for Bishop’s resignation at the outset, he would have drawn huge amounts of criticism. Some of that would have come from the media, but most would have been from his own MPs – who then would have briefed the media, copiously. He would have been attacked for losing his nerve. He would have copped bucketloads for setting a precedent on expense standards that several of his own MPs would fail to meet. And many in his own party would have been concerned about his lack of loyalty: if he was not even willing to stand by his close ally Bishop, what hope did the rest of them have if they found themselves in choppy waters? All this plus the inevitability that Bishop would not have gone at all quietly.

In fact, the PM had little choice but to wait for the scandal to build. Parliamentary resignations are not unlike difficult policy reforms in this sense: a coalition needs to be gathered; momentum must be steadily increased.

All of this is to say, yes, that timing is everything in politics, but also that timing is excruciatingly difficult to get right. The PM could not afford to act too late, but he also could not afford to act too early.

In the end, Abbott erred by at least a few days on the “too late” side. By waiting as long as he did, he looked not as if he were decisively responding to reasonable concerns, but acting only reluctantly, having been forced to it. When he finally spoke the necessary words they came from a position of weakness, emerging from an embarrassed prime minister backed into a lonely corner.

The concern for Abbott’s supporters is that this failure of timing, perhaps accompanied by the desperate hope that things will right themselves, that holding out will eventually justify itself as a show of strength, is becoming a pattern. It was there in his behaviour before the February near-spill. It has been apparent in his overlong loyalty to poor ministerial performers, most obviously George Brandis and Joe Hockey. It was there in his decision to stay out of the Goodes debate for too many days. And it has been there in his dogged pursuit since the budget of a political strategy based on appeals to his conservative party base, a strategy that has not done him any good at all.

Abbott is not entirely tin-eared. He has correctly and quickly distanced himself from several of Hockey’s worst pratfalls. But those occasions of acuity have too much been the exception. This latest saga lasted three weeks. The PM cannot afford another Bishop.


Today’s links

  • Reports Abbott just avoided a backbench revolt by acting on Bishop. Also here. Laura Tingle says the entitlements review is “another pathetic attempt by a government in trouble to squirm its way out by holding a review”. Lenore Taylor says some good may still come of all this. And a report on Speaker candidate Philip Ruddock’s travel expenses. Who will the next Speaker be?
  • Phil Hudson with a detailed piece on entitlements reforms: “MPs should be required to lodge all taxpayer-funded travel claims within 14 days. It should effectively be continuous disclosure. It should cover domestic flights, charter flights, Comcars, taxis, hire cars, travel allowance and overseas travel. It should list the date, the itemised travel, the cost and a satisfactory reason. If this is not done, it should not be paid. And all these details should be posted on a parliamentary website within 28 days, with the MP required to have a prominent link on their personal and party websites.”
  • In really bloody wonderful news Adam Goodes will return to training tomorrow. Chip Le Grand has an excellent story today about the AFL Commission’s insipid response to the Goodes controversy being driven by splits within the game’s governing body. Stan Grant is writing some great pieces right now. Another one today, though I’d like to hear more about what that “full reckoning” might include. Ben Eltham at New Matilda has lodged a complaint with the Australian Press Council about Andrew Bolt’s blog.
  • Senator Nova Peris with some strong words on general Indigenous policy. The prime minister has rejected a proposal from some of the nation’s most respected Indigenous leaders on how to proceed towards constitutional recognition.
  • Fascinating: Former NAB head Cameron Clyne wrote today that “business leaders ‘overwhelmingly’ share his conviction that Australia should move to a market-based carbon trading scheme but fear speaking out because they feel ‘this particular government is pretty hostile to criticism … they feel the distraction of getting up the government's nose is simply not worth it, and becomes a huge distraction from them running their business’.”
  • Several years’ worth of correspondence from the Sydney siege gunman were mislaid, an inquiry into the misleading of parliament has heard.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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