06 February 2015

British audiences love Aussie soaps. And a classic one is playing out down under right now as Prime Minister Tony Abbott attempts to fend off a leadership challenge triggered by the impact of some disastrous ‘captain’s calls’ which underline the importance of getting prime ministerial style right.

In the past 10 years the two major parties in Australia have had 10 leaders between them (we have clocked up five in the same period). Being ‘spilled’ by the ‘partyroom’ is an occupational hazard for Aussie party leaders. Indeed about the only thing keeping PM Tony Abbott in office, after his election just 16 months ago, is the perception that the Liberal-National (LNP) coalition doesn’t want to replicate the hokey-cokey in and out of the last Labor government, where Julia Gillard pushed out Kevin Rudd – only for him to rise from the political graveyard to push her out in turn.

But the interesting question is why Tony Abbott has let his leadership come under threat so quickly. In our report Centre Forward we argued that prime ministers have to choose their style of governing – and one aspect of Tony Abbott’s style has let him down big time – his determination to make some big calls – what he calls ‘captain’s calls’ without consulting his colleagues. One big call was an expensive ‘signature’ plan on paid parental leave – which the LNPs business backers said was just too expensive.

But another has proved even more disastrous.

Ardent monarchist Abbott decided shortly after taking office to reintroduce titles ‘knights and dames’ which had been abolished by the Labor government way back in 1986. And they were supposed to honour great Australians. But last Australia Day, bewildered Aussies, including his own Cabinet members, were astounded to discover that this year’s eminent Australian was none other than Prince Philip whom Abbott proposed to knight. At a stroke he not only reopened the debate about Australia’s relationship with the monarchy, but called his own judgement into serious question. Colleagues made very clear that this was his – not their – decision and they had not been consulted. Collective responsibility was as on ice as a case of beer for an Australia Day barbecue.

In the week that followed things went from bad to worse. In the immediate aftermath, fire turned on Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin. But she appeared to be saved (for now) by a tweet from former Aussie Rupert Murdoch demanding her head – and a realisation that she was unlikely to be responsible for so personal a misjudgement as the princely knighthood. A first term LNP government, regarded in the Australian press as a ‘mini-me’ version of the government in Canberra because of its similar approach on austerity, was then booted out in Queensland despite the Labor leader there forgetting the rate of GST (VAT equivalent) in an interview three days before the election because she hadn’t had “her morning coffee” and the leader lost his seat (Australians seem to do this quite often to their leaders). Rumours circulated about leadership challenges from former leader Malcolm Turnbull or foreign minister Julie Bishop. Abbott was forced to declare that he had confidence in himself.

The culmination was a relaunch speech on Monday to the National Press Club in Canberra – and a promise of a change of prime ministerial style. No more captain’s calls. Future knights and dames to be decided by committee. His ‘signature’ paid parental leave scheme ditched. And a promise of much, much more internal consultation both with ministries and with backbenchers. In the latter there were some parallels with the new arrangements David Cameron put in place after he lost control of his backbenchers over House of Lords reform.

The next couple of weeks will show whether this change of approach is enough for Abbott to see off next week’s challenge or whether he has holed himself irreparably below the waterline. But his travails are a warning to all prime ministers to think about style of governing before taking office – and to make sure that they have – and listen to – advisers who can challenge them on even their most personal decisions.