Abbott’s corporate-change plans for Australia

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Tony Abbott and his gang of extremist conservative ministers have wasted little time unpicking the century-old social compact in Australia.

They’re targeting education, health care, penalty rates, our international obligations, antagonising our neighbours, trashing our natural heritage and violating long-standing Cabinet conventions.

But the Abbott Gang’s actions are not random. They’re part of a well-established corporate strategy to “implement change” — business code for massive restructures and sackings.

The business world has used the same playbook for almost 20 years, when it was first developed by management guru John Kotter. “Organisational change” is a euphemism that often hides a lot of nasty stuff. We’ve seen the kinds of organisational change at Pacific Brands when they shut down their Australian manufacturing and sent those jobs off-shore. We’ve seen organisational change at Qantas and Telstra, which involved the mass-sackings of staff and shift to casualised, precarious work for many remaining staff (now reclassified as “contractors”). The list of corporate crimes goes on, obscured by the veil of “change management”.

This is Tony Abbott’s playbook. Many in his government believe that Australia should be governed like a corporation. It should aim for efficiency and to deliver a “profit” and dividend (by which, I mean, giving public funds to billionaires like Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, and massive private companies like Rio Tinto, BHP, Goldman and the Big 4 Banks).

To do this, Abbott and the long-standing objectives of the Liberal-National Party of reducing the function of government to its “core business” — that is, they want to privatise vast swathes of the public sector and hand over those activities (and money) to private, for-profit companies.

What is the Kotter playbook?

On the surface, it seems like common-sense (and it is). But when you consider the failure for the previous government to use this template, you’ll see why Abbott is (mostly) following the plan very closely.

What’s more, Abbott is only in the early stages. One of the reasons that in the first few months his government looked like they were set on “drift” is because the “vision” and “communication” efforts don’t come first. You can’t argue for a new Australia if you haven’t made the case for why the old one has failed.

1. Establish a sense of urgency

This is the primary activity that Abbott is engaged in right now. Think about the various reviews, judicial enquiries and Royal Commissions, all being used for the political end to manufacture a crisis.

This is the most fundamental aspect of “change management” — often called in the business world a “burning platform”: jump or die. If Australians don’t feel that there is a problem, then they won’t take the “medicine” of wage-cuts and the dismantling of Medicare.

The Royal Commission into unions for example is solely about justifying the pre-determined reintroduction of WorkChoices and other anti-worker laws. The review into the Renewable Energy Target is solely about creating a false crisis about the cost of electricity and later justifying the expansion of coal and gas.

Creating a sense of urgency is about shaking people out of their comfort zones. It is what Naomi Klein called the “Shock Doctrine” — if a people are traumatised and demoralised, or believe themselves to be in imminent danger, they they will accept (or at least, won’t fight) significant change.

This is where Labor failed in its 6 year term. It never successfully made the case for change and instead tried to ride the wave of good will from 2007. The closest it came was during Rudd’s final months when he barnstormed the country advocating for massive reform of our public hospitals, and later under Gillard with the introduction of the NDIS (although it was the Every Australian Counts campaign that created the sense of urgency for that). On most other major policies, Labor was too scared to argue that something was broken, and preferred to squibb the problem. This can help explain the failures of the carbon price, the mining tax, the Building the Education Revolution program and so on.

2. Form a powerful guiding coalition

To create change, a CEO must form an internal group that has the capability to advocate for and implement the desired change.

For Tony Abbott and his gang, this means assembling a mish-mash of loonies and extremists like Maurice Newman and Dick Warburton, as well as most respectable conservative business men and women of the Business Council of Australia and Chamber of Commerce and Industry variety.

The purpose of this “guiding coalition” is to publicly advocate in favour that a crisis is happening and the change is needed, and to actually do work in implementing the policy change.

The coalition does not include members of the government, so even though Abbott and his ministers are also publicly advocating that Australia is on the verge of a “wage explosion” or that our welfare system is “unsustainable”, they also need “independent” people to support what they’re saying.

A supportive coalition also helps keep in check potentially wayward members of Abbott’s own team, and pressuring the so-called “moderate” Liberals to fall in line behind the climate denialism and anti-worker mentality of the most extreme elements of the party.

Again, this is where Labor fell down during its term of government. Although there were at times various groups supporting change, such as the union movement and the replacement of WorkChoices, or disability groups and the NDIS, or education professionals and Gonski, the coalition was never truly powerful enough or diverse enough to be useful. Instead, it often made Labor appear beholden to sectional interests. Business never embraced the Fair Work Act or the carbon price, and the support Labor received from unions or environment groups was often heavily qualified. This isn’t to say that Labor didn’t try to build these coalitions, just that they rarely succeeded.

3. Create a vision and communicating it

Abbott was elected without a vision for Australia; instead his platform was the most relentlessly negative, angry and spiteful platform in modern Australian history. But, Abbott didn’t need to be elected with a vision, because he knew that he could create one, and argue for it, from the position of being prime minister.

He’s not here yet. Almost nothing Abbott has done to date suggests that he is in this phase of the playbook. He understands that he needs to build a sense of urgency and cohere his supportive coalition.

However, we can see glimpses of what this vision will be: a nightmare made from the nastiest fantasies of American Tea Party movement. Corey Bernardi’s recent book and Abbott’s own Battlelines paints a picture of what to expect.

And once the Australian people have been beaten over the heat with the Royal Commissions and judicial inquiries, and thoroughly terrified by the prospect of Indonesian retaliation or invasion by boat people, and filled with loathing for people requiring welfare… only then will Abbott unveil his vision.

Abbott will use every vehicle available to him to promote that vision. As we reach 2015, expect a barrage of television and newspaper ads promoting the government’s actions to reduce electricity prices (by cutting renewable energy), to introduce “workplace flexibility” and to justify the need to change our health and education systems. Expect endless propaganda efforts on the part of our highly consolidated newspapers to push this agenda.

Think about the reaction of Republican billionaires after the 2012 US presidential elections, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Obama. Rather than complain that they had wasted their money, billionaires like Sheldon Adelson said the problem was that they didn’t spend enough!

So, when I say “expect a barrage”, I mean that Abbott and co are likely to spend significantly more than any previous government on mass-media persuasion communications.

4. Empower others to act on the vision, remove barriers, highlight short-term wins

The longer-term objectives for Abbott is making systemic changes to Australia’s laws to empower the corporate sector and reduce the ability for civil society to resist these changes.

In practical terms, this means things like being the debt guarantor for Qantas as it sacks 3000 of its staff. It means things like joining the Fair Work proceedings of Toyota to reduce the rights of its workforce. It means things like handing over environmental approval powers to state governments. There are any number of things that the Abbott government can do to give up the role of the government to the private sector.

It also means attacking the ability for organised groups to oppose these changes. We’ve already seen George Brandis de-fund the Environmental Defenders Office. Expect changes to the law that directly attack unions and charities that advocate for change. Obviously, Abbott can’t and won’t remove all his obstacles in his first term. Even Howard, after 11 years, couldn’t do that.

Finally, every little victory for Abbott will be cheered on by his allies in the business world and the main-stream media. Every little finding from the pink-batts inquiry or the Royal Commission will be emphasised and paraded to demonstrate the virtue of Abbott’s actions, and the turpitude of Labor and progressives more generally.

5. Long-term consolidation

Conservatives learned a painful lesson from Bush, which is “don’t declare victory too soon”. Abbott wants to fundamentally change Australia (for the worse).

This means two or three terms — minimum — of this corporate change management playbook. Each erosion of rights or support will be met with fresh calls for more change, more cut backs.

Each short-term victory creates another “burning platform” for even larger, more vicious change, and at a hastened pace.

Systems and structures, appointments, endless culture wars. The final objective for Abbott is to create an Australia where his nasty vision is seen as “the way we do things around here”. It’s a continuation of the Howard decade, with a 6-year interval, and a renewed sense of arrogant “born to rule” mentality thrown in.

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