I was working in the Prime Minister’s media office when I learned that Nine Network Political Editor Laurie Oakes had just written a column condemning Kevin Rudd’s chances at the next election.
“Sorry Kev,” he wrote, “you’re probably cactus.”
Just over a year into my job, I tried to see things in the best possible light. It was just one column. We were – narrowly – ahead in most polls. One of my more experienced colleagues put an end to my Pollyanna act.
“Mate, who do you think knows best? You or a bloke who’s been covering this shit for 40 years?”
On Monday night, on the 6pm television news, Oakes handed down his judgment on the current PM’s decision to hand a knighthood to Prince Philip.
“If the Prime Minister was a TV show, you’d say he’s jumped the shark with this decision.”
Those in Abbott’s office trying to look on the bright side should know that five days after Oakes published the “cactus” column Julia Gillard was sworn in as PM.
Luckily for them, history isn’t repeating, at least not precisely. This time around Oakes wasn’t quite as damning. The TV show Happy Days, which gave rise to the “jump the shark” phrase, wasn’t cancelled immediately following Fonzie’s absurd water-skiing jump over a shark. The series dragged on for another seven years – but it was all downhill from there.
Whether or not Abbott gets the Marie Antoinette treatment anytime soon there is no doubt he has entered a dangerous phase.
Later, as Julia Gillard’s senior press secretary, I witnessed a protracted leadership instability spiral up close.
Leaks come first.
Leaks are often talked about as symptoms – of division, instability, a government in which processes have broken down. But they are also causes of those very things.
Cabinet leaks are the worst. These don’t need to be constant to be effective. As long as they are of sufficient frequency they cause suspicion. Suddenly, everyone – especially the PM – is looking over their shoulders. Soon this suspicion leads to important decisions being made outside Cabinet, in small groups, without sufficient stress-testing. In Cabinet, one minister’s blind spot can be compensated for with another’s expertise. Cabinet’s exclusion leads to mistakes, both political and substantive.
The same goes for seemingly trivial decisions that would never go to Cabinet anyway, like awarding someone a knighthood. If they are only examined by a tiny group of people who spend much of their lives in each other’s company – which describes any Prime Minister’s office – then dumb stuff is going to happen.
The second stage occurs once those mistakes have been made. Discontented MPs step in and magnify them. “Senior sources” upset with the Prime Minister’s “judgment” become ubiquitous. Uttering the word “judgment” in politics is akin to pulling up your shirt to show your enemy the glint of your knife. The weapon isn’t being used, not yet, but you want your foe to know you have it.
In a delicious irony, treacherous MPs can then compound their attack on their leader’s judgment by pointing out the PM hasn’t even followed proper processes by consulting his or her colleagues.
This is the phase Abbott has entered. In fact, he’s been there for some time. The Prince Philip episode has simply upped the intensity.
The third phase, (just a hop, skip and a jump from judgment stories) is a series of “leadership yarns” in which the top job is seen as up for grabs and other MPs are spoken of as serious contenders.
This final stage was made easy for Gillard’s enemies by the fact that most journalists had not seen Rudd’s removal coming. This created a desperation in some quarters of the press gallery not to make the same mistake twice, which in turn meant some weak stories appeared that would once have been dismissed as idle gossip.
This paranoia – which the ALP brought on itself – has not entirely vanished today, and will affect Abbott more as conditions worsen.
The past week, in which the PM was forced to publicly deny he might be removed even before the Philip episode, might seem the beginning of this final phase. It’s not – not yet.
We won’t enter that phase until there is an obvious alternative to the current leader. At present Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull dangle in a fine balance.
To give Abbott his rare due, this is in part the result of deft political management. Abbott’s recent reshuffle was clever in this respect at least, giving Morrison the chance to broaden his experience and improve his job prospects relative to the other two.
At the same time, while Joe Hockey is an awful Treasurer, replacing him with either Bishop or Turnbull would have given their status as potential successors a huge boost. Some people believe Hockey is still a chance to lead his party but I think those days are gone.
Beyond the question of who comes next, the barriers to Abbott’s removal are still significant. In the 2016 campaign the Liberals will be desperate to argue “at least we’re not the last mob”. Get rid of a first term sitting Prime Minister and they lose that significant advantage.
Still, Abbott is running out of lives.
The solution is simple to articulate and almost impossible to achieve. The Prime Minister must have an error-free few months, depriving his enemies of ammunition. Right now he seems a man incapable of an error-free week.
At the same time, he must put forward dramatic new policy which changes the debate and fires the imagination of voters, re-energising his MPs and reassuring them he knows what he’s doing.
The second task demands risk-taking. The first discourages it. Managing both is therefore fiendishly difficult.
But that’s no excuse not to do it. And if he can’t, it won’t be long before Laurie Oakes is looking for a new and damning turn of phrase – “dead meat”, anyone?