The Politics    Monday, July 20, 2015

The price of loyalty

By Sean Kelly

The PM is standing by Bronwyn Bishop. It may not give him the result he wants

Not long after Tony Abbott came to power, I met up with a veteran Canberra journalist. We swapped observations of the new government and the recent, inevitable demise of the last. He told me that Abbott, after four years of being Opposition leader and just a few months of being PM, had not yet realised the authority he now had. There was a sense that Abbott was still treading cautiously around his colleagues, overly anxious to preserve their loyalty, and that this risked exposing him to much greater mistakes – killing his own government with kindness.

We are now almost two years into Abbott’s first term, long enough for that problem to have gone away. Instead, it seems to have become worse.

That’s understandable. Shattered by the threat to his leadership of the February near-spill, when almost 40 Liberal MPs voted against him despite the lack of an opposing candidate, Abbott has done what he can to shore up support.

Mostly that has consisted of fighting a trenchant ideological battle. As I’ve noted before, that fight – on national security, terrorism, and the ABC – has yielded him few poll gains. Even the budget-in-retreat did little for him, with early May signaling the end of his personal approval improvement, and not the beginning. But the ideological battle helped him with the right wing of his party. And the budget didn’t do more to frustrate already frustrated backbenchers. For Abbott, within his party, those decisions did the trick.

That’s one way of shoring up loyalty: by giving your backers what they want. Another is by showing loyalty to others. This is a gesture most often apparent in the absence of action. In December’s reshuffle, some significant moves were made, most notably the shift of Scott Morrison to social services. But the moves that weren’t made were more significant. Their consequences are still being felt.

Joe Hockey was left in place. Yes, this year’s budget was fine, politically, but it was pretty clear from the many abandoned pre-budget thought bubbles from Hockey that most of its substance was foisted on the treasurer by Morrison and Abbott. And then there was the “get a good job that pays good money” debacle. I acknowledge it might have been difficult for Abbott to move Hockey, internally, but that’s the point: Abbott chose the easy option at the cost – potential then and real now – of a treasurer who is not up to one of the most important jobs in government.

George Brandis, too, was allowed to stay despite multiple gaffes that should have been an adequate warning sign of the mistakes he has made since.

And now we have Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, and her helicopter.

There are two reasons people lose their jobs in politics. The first is principle. This happens only very occasionally, because prime ministers hate the stain it leaves on their party, failing to recognise the often larger stain created by inaction. The second reason, much more common, is that sacking becomes the only way to stem spreading political damage.

So far, Abbott has held his nerve in the face of immense pressure on Bishop. I thought it was likely the story would go away after Bishop repaid the helicopter fare. It didn’t, because Bishop has failed to show remorse, and because it looks like this might be part of a pattern of behaviour. Labor is doing everything they can to pile on.

Five days later, and the Bishop story is still going. Meanwhile, Labor leader Bill Shorten, caught between a Trade Union Royal Commission appearance and a difficult ALP National Conference this coming weekend, has been under no pressure whatsoever. The NSW premier, Mike Baird, has done Abbott an enormous favour on the GST today, calling for it to be increased to 15%, and the story has played second fiddle to Bishop.

Abbott is unlikely to move on his Speaker for the same reason that he has stayed loyal to other MPs. He knows that solidarity works both ways. He also has specific reasons to reward Bishop, given her assistance at the local level and her help in making him Liberal leader. It can be a bad look to get rid of the one who brung ya.

One way to get out of this scandal without sacking Bishop might be to announce a dramatic reform of the rules governing politicians’ expenses, as Laurie Oakes has suggested. It would be popular with the public and show that Abbott gets what the problem is (rather than just saying he gets what the problem is). But that is unlikely for the same reason. MPs would hate it. It would make their lives harder, and possibly cost them more out of their own pockets. It would buy him some short-term electoral goodwill, along with a lot of long-term resentment within his party.

And so Abbott has signaled nothing on reform, and said that Bishop is “on probation”, which is really saying he’s made up his mind that this is the end of it, provided nothing else emerges.

Abbott is right that loyalty is important in politics. But there is always a tipping point, the moment that MPs’ enthusiasm for loyalty is overshadowed by their concern about polling numbers. Abbott is betting that point hasn’t been reached yet.  


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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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