Features Australia

Abbott and the Gumbys

Tony Abbott could learn a lot from John Key, including getting rid of lacklustre ministers

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

Backbenchers call them the Gumby ministers. The reference is to Monty Python’s sketch about a dim-witted brain surgeon and his bone-headed patient, a devastating critique of the duds on Tony Abbott’s front bench.

T.F. Gumby, sporting a toothbrush moustache, wire-rimmed spectacles, Fair Isle vest, trousers rolled up to the knees, shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, gumboots and a knotted handkerchief on his head, stomps into a Harley Street surgery backwards shouting, ‘Are you the brain specialist?’ The brain surgeon, dressed identically down to the moustache shouts, ‘No, no, I am not the brain specialist. No, no, I am not … Yes. Yes I am.’

There was plenty of Gumbyism in last week’s submarine story. What should have been good news – clarification that the ASC would be allowed to bid to build Australia’s new submarines – descended into confusion about competitive evaluations, open competitive tenders, even a bid by North Korea. It echoed the farcical muddle at the end of last year about whether the government did or didn’t support Medicare co-payments.

There must be no more Gumby moments if the Abbott government wants a second term not a second spill motion. To turn around his fortunes, the man mocked as One Term Tony should look across the Tasman to Teflon John. New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key has no time for Gumbys. He relies on his ministers, not his office, for advice and expects them to develop and sell policy. If they don’t succeed, they are sacked.

At investment bank Merrill Lynch where he made an estimated $NZ50 million, Key was known as the smiling assassin for cheerfully firing non-performers. As a result, Key has a stellar team, particularly finance minister, Bill English, (the equivalent of our treasurer) who is central to developing the government’s strategy and tireless in selling it.

Reshuffles also give hope to talented backbenchers. As one commentator put it, ‘Ambition must be satisfied. Otherwise there is a risk of frustration turning to dissension… National cannot be complacent… There is simply no room for indulgence.’

Abbott’s decision to sack Chief Whip Philip Ruddock is a start but Key would dump all the dopes and promote the brightest and the best. Key is a close friend of Abbott and Abbott has twice referred to New Zealand recently as a model. On the ABC’s 7.30, Abbott praised New Zealand cutting the size of government from 35 to 30 per cent of GDP and at the National Press Club, he said New Zealand had shown that ‘a good way to achieve (a sustainable surplus) is simply not to make any unnecessary new spending commitments’, a reference to Key’s ‘zero budgets’ – in which all new spending was funded from cuts.

Key inherited even more debt and deficit than Abbott and although New Zealand’s Labour Party is more responsible than their Australian counterparts, they generated surpluses by raising taxes. Key stimulated the economy by cutting income taxes, increasing the reward for work and investment. In the GFC he passed over Keynesian pump priming and instead cut the top tax rate from 38 to 33 per cent, raised the GST from 12.5 to 15 per cent – breaking an election promise – and used part of the revenue to compensate the poor.

Key aimed to make New Zealand more competitive saying, ‘I think the big challenge for everybody is global trade. If you want to look at what drives economic outcomes, it is access to markets, it is education – the skill base of your people – and flexibility of your labour markets. All the other things will take care of themselves.’ It seems to be working. New Zealand’s free trade agreement with China has turbo-charged dairy exports. GDP is growing at 3.2 per cent per annum, above the long-term average of 2.2 per cent and Australia’s 2.7 per cent. Unemployment is down to 5.7 per cent from a peak of 7.3 per cent in 2012 and the government is on track to deliver a surplus this year.

All this has paid off at the ballot box. Key was re-elected last year for a third term with an increased majority, and he is apparently the most popular leader in the western world, with an 80 per cent approval rating, a model for centre-right governments everywhere. Oliver Hartwich, in a recent Menzies Research Centre monograph wrote that Key’s success is founded on four P’s: patience, preparation and a judicious blend of principle and pragmatism. To which one might add prudence, passion, popularity, even a Productivity Commission, modeled on Australia’s, used to lay the groundwork for economic reform. Key has also picked his battles carefully, adopting many of the policies of the previous Labour government and seeking consensus on issues like smacking children and parliamentary seats for Maoris. He steers clear of the rhetoric of reform, which scares people, and doesn’t talk about cuts, simply explaining how changes will create jobs, improve services, help those on welfare get work. Unlike Abbott he has courted media coverage, conscious that if he didn’t his opponents would fill the void. He unapologetically embraces ‘selfies’ with supporters as an effective way of campaigning. And his office doesn’t micro-manage the media coverage of his ministers.

Key is not above making a captain’s call. In 2009, he re-instated the honours of knights and dames without warning and in 2012, bestowed New Zealand’s highest award on Prince Philip. His moves may have inspired Abbott but Key attracted only minor criticism. Despite his wealth, Key is seen as an ordinary bloke who started life in a council house and made good. And despite being a monarchist, he is not a social conservative – he supports gay marriage and believes in climate change, albeit with a Clayton’s ETS, a perfect illustration of principled pragmatism.

Abbott can’t simply become popular like Key, but he has triumphed in the past in spite of that. Those who dismissed him as unelectable have written him off again but Abbott is a fighter, in the fight of his life.

Channeling Key, Abbott has a chance. But not surrounded by handkerchief-hatted knuckleheads. If he doesn’t dispatch them soon, he risks being dispatched himself by a popular self-made millionaire who has probably also been studying the key, so to speak, to success.

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