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How are we to decide between Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd?

By John Burnheim - posted Monday, 22 July 2013

What Australian voters generally look for is competent, effective management of our public institutions. They are not easily bribed. Start throwing too many targeted promises around and the public rightly gets suspicious, as John Howard found. Should we be choosing on managerial performance?

It is interesting to compare David Marr's portrayal of Tony Abbott in a managerial role with his portrayal of Kevin Rudd. Rudd, on Marr's account, was a dreadful manager, meddling, indecisive, intemperate, alienating his staff and colleagues. Abbot as Health Minister was hard-working, prepared to listen carefully to others, to trust those on whom he must rely and to curb his streak of impetuosity and intolerance. Abbot's forthrightness about his unpopular convictions shows he is not a dissembler, and he is now sufficiently realistic to avoid attempting to impose his views on those who do not share them. But doubts persist.

The managerial perspective accords with a popular conception of how government works in practice. We look for good management, a CEO for a complex enterprise. In many portfolios, such as Health, the minister has such a role. In the case of a Prime Minister, that conception is very inadequate. Both the voters and the factions in the major parties are split many ways on a variety of important policy questions. Many are confused and undecided. The task of a PM is to construct a viable program out of a host of conflicting demands, negotiate coalitions of party members and politicians that are prepared to back it and assemble a team of ministers who are willing and able to implement it.


Managerial competence is not enough in this role. A party in government is not like a commercial firm or a government department, where there are clearly agreed purposes, and the members of the organisation are constrained to obey. It is an alliance of rivals with diverse interests and opinions, often with their own strong bases of support. The crucial task of the leader is to negotiate coherent policy from the conflicting factions with their links to opposing interests in various communities, as well as their personal ideological prejudices and careerist ambitions. Given her precarious position, Julia Gillard did a remarkable job in this respect, but it is the sort of achievement that the public is slow to recognise and even slower to value. The resultant policies bear the defects of the process of finding workable compromises, and the process itself is dubious. What counts most in everyday politics is to have crucial votes or undertakings to trade with those whose support you need. Too often it means that issues are decided for irrelevant reasons. Deals are made to downgrade important general interests in exchange for sectional gain, or to engineer tactical alliances against opponents. Short-term considerations predominate. A "political decision" is rarely a matter of the merits of the case.

It is not a very good system, but at the moment we are stuck with it. So how is Abbot likely to perform as a negotiator? The track record is sparse and unclear. He got to his present position partly by default and partly by patronage, rather than by negotiation. His relentlessly negative style of opposition spares him the need to negotiate a consensus among his supporters. When he throws out a positive policy suggestion it is often just that, a suggestion that remains to be negotiated into party policy. His electoral strategy seems to rest on the assumption that, given the likelihood that Labor will lose the election, because so many voters want to punish it for its performance, enough voters will vote for him, provided he is not unelectable. So what are we to make of Abbot as a negotiator?

There are two approaches to negotiation in politics, which, tongue in cheek, we might describe as that of the professional politician and that of the statesman. For the professional, negotiation is a matter of getting the votes you need to get into power and hang on to it. That strategy fits both the power-hungry and the more single-minded of conviction politicians. The statesman, by contrast, strives to negotiate a position that accommodates conflicting interests in the hope of securing widely based and more durable support. Democracy, on this view, is a matter of finding ways of giving people as much as possible of what they want.

Conviction politicians who are unconcerned about interests other than those they espouse are vulnerable in negotiation, because they declare themselves willing to do whatever they have to do to get what they want. They invite hard bargaining. Abbot often portrays himself as belonging to this camp. "I'd shop my arse…" Democracy, on this view, is a matter of getting the numbers for what is right or best, which the conviction politicians understands already, and their opponents do not. Perhaps the professionals in the Liberal party prefer Abbott to Turnbull because they feel they can manipulate him more easily in the bargaining process. His public appeal is weaker, so he needs them more.

Granted that Abbot is prepared to negotiate on almost any issue to gain and retain power, not just for its own sake, but in the hope of steering things in the right direction, what may we expect from him? One problem is that many of his ideological convictions are not very popular. He may disavow any intention of imposing them in government, but basically he comes across as uncomfortable with compromise, a true conviction politician. Given the opportunity he is unlikely to resist acting on his own view, even if it is generally unpopular. Sometimes, of course, that may indeed be the right thing to do. Public opinion isn't infallible. But we are reluctant to vote for somebody who firmly believes we are completely wrong on many important matters of public morality. Quite apart from those specific issues, he is likely to be insensitive to many values we feel are important when it comes to other issues.

Abbott, unlike John Howard, clearly does not habitually think in economic terms. In some respects that is attractive. We need to base individual and social wellbeing on broader considerations. But in practical negotiations a lack of economic focus may result in ignoring the systemic effects of policy decisions. In its more important aspects, economics is not just about money, but about the ways in which decisions impact on each other quite independently of what the agents think they are doing. Those who do not think systematically in economic terms often fail to take account those impacts, both in their own thinking and in their understanding the positions of those with whom they are negotiating. That often results in poor decisions. Having the "right priorities", rightly valuing the relative importance of things in general terms is not enough. In practice priorities among desirable objectives ought never be either absolute or rigid. What is best is always a matter of relative urgency in the circumstances and also of relative costs. It is only at the other end of the spectrum that we find evils to be avoided at all costs.


Coming to office Prime Ministers routinely pay lip service to the ideal of inclusiveness, promising that they will govern in the interests of all Australians, even of those who did not vote for them. That is clearly what most of us want. There is not much evidence that Abbot can deliver it. His opponent doesn't seem appreciably better as a negotiator, but at least he seems to aspire to inclusiveness.

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About the Author

John Burnheim is a former professor of General Philosophy at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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