Lessons from the Modern Prince, Part 3: He was against it before he was for it (aka: the Barnaby principle)

March 31, 2010

This week has seen what appears to be the end of the honeymoon period for Tony Abbott, coinciding with his triathlon run, resignation of key powerbroker Nick Minchin, reshuffle and demotion of Barnaby Joyce, and his disastrous health care debate with Rudd.

Abbott’s reversal of fortune is a case study of Machiavelli’s advice to “avoid flatterers” as advisors, and to stick to your guns. Following the advice of flatterers and flip flopping is a recipe for a prince (or political leader) to be held in contempt.

This series of posts is part of Project 52 – one post per week throughout the year.

It is that of flatterers, of whom courts are full, because men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that they are preserved with difficulty from this pest, and if they wish to defend themselves they run the danger of falling into contempt…

With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XXIII

There is a tendency for political commentators to look at a poll and then search for the most recent things that happened while the poll was being conducted to explain the results. In my view however, polls don’t measure what people thought of the week before the poll. Rather, most people (who don’t follow politics or current affairs regularly) are impressionistic. They get their political news in small bursts over a period of months (or even years).

Thus, polls measure people’s impressions of politics that have been formed over a long period of time. Polls closer to elections (such as the week before the election) are far more likely to find people at the time they are turning their mind to politics.

How are we to see the recent Newspoll that has Abbott’s personal ratings drop significantly, Labor’s TPP to rise, Rudd’s popularity to return to 2008 levels and the Liberals’ economic credibility to crash?

There are two reasons.

It is that of flatterers, of whom courts are full“… Tony Abbott has surrounded himself with a shadow cabinet full of flatterers. In modern political parlance, these people are his ideological clones: ideas free populists. Barnaby Joyce is the standout of these flatterers, praised by Abbott as an outstanding “retail politician”.

Political parties that rely on flatterers as shadow-ministers “fall into contempt” with the Australian people, who can see that the shadow-ministers simply give advice to promote their own ideological interests. Barnaby and his ilk (the Peter Duttons, Cory Bernardis, Sophi Mirabellas, Greg Hunts, Eric Abetzs, and Bronwyn Bishops) are seen as Abbott yes-men (and yes-women). They have no credibility on policy. They are simply ideological warriors.

Because Abbott only listens to these flatterers, and because the people can see they are without substance or wisdom, he has fallen into contempt.

Abbott highlighted this fact when he first elevated Barnaby Joyce to the shadow cabinet as Shadow Finance Minister, and then dumped him in favour of Andrew Robb (another flatterer).

Tony Abbott is a flip flopper

Tony Abbott's problem is that he flip-flops.

…outside of these, he should … pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions.” Tony Abbott compounds his political sins of listening to Barnaby Joyce by being a flip flopper. He is the modern equivalent to Emperor Maximilian (Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire during Machiavelli’s time).

Fra Luca, the man of affairs to Maximilian, the present emperor, speaking of his majesty, said: He consulted with no one, yet never got his own way in anything. This arose because of his following a practice the opposite to the above; for the emperor is a secretive man — he does not communicate his designs to any one, nor does he receive opinions on them. But as in carrying them into effect they become revealed and known, they are at once obstructed by those men whom he has around him, and he, being pliant, is diverted from them. Hence it follows that those things he does one day he undoes the next, and no one ever understands what he wishes or intends to do, and no one can rely on his resolutions.

Tony Abbott didn’t consult over his announcement on paid parental leave and opposition to the Government’s scheme. There was a great commotion and dissent in the Coalition Party-room over the business-tax element of the plan. Similarly, his shadow ministers were annoyed that they weren’t consulted. As a result, Abbott announced that he may end up supporting (or at least not opposing) the Government’s parental leave scheme.

Tony Abbott was against health care reform, saying “it’s a bad plan”, yet after the horror Newspoll, he said: “The coalition will not necessarily oppose the government’s public hospital changes”.

The constant flip flops demonstrate that (apart from the fact that Abbott should be an acrobat rather than an ironman) the Opposition Leader is incapable of being steadfast in his resolution. At the first sign of trouble, he changes direction – like a political weather-vane.

This view was established from the start of his leadership, when Abbott supported, then opposed the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Malcolm Turnbull branded Abbott a weathervane over this issue.

Looking at the recent Newspoll, Machiavelli’s advice seems apt for Abbott’s poll-plummet: “He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.

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