The Peter Principle 15. April 2015 Ad astra Opinion pieces/current affairs (17) It was way back in 1969, 45 years ago, that Laurence J Peter, Canadian educator and management theorist, formulated The Peter Principle, a concept in management theory in which the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate's performance in their current role rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. From this principle, he argued that employees stop being promoted only when they can no longer perform effectively, famously concluding that "managers rise to the level of their incompetence." He illustrated his principle by reference to a head gardener in a botanical garden who was highly regarded for his knowledge of botanicals and his skill in growing them, a man who spent all his day in the garden nurturing his plants. He was such an excellent gardener that when the position of general manager of the botanical garden became vacant he was considered the obvious choice. But with scant knowledge of inventory management, ordering, budgeting, financial control and staff supervision, he failed. He had reached his level of incompetence. All his knowledge of botanicals, and his ability as a hands-on gardener, was of little use in his new indoor role. His suitability for the managerial role was inappropriately judged on his current role of head gardener, not on the abilities needed for the new role of general manager. There is no more striking example in contemporary politics of The Peter Principle than the sheer incompetence of Tony Abbott and many senior ministers in his government. These politicians, purportedly well equipped to carry out their duties as ministers in government because of their performance in opposition, have spectacularly ‘risen to the level of their incompetence’. Yet all this should not to be surprising. Ever since Abbott was appointed Leader of the Opposition and set about his destructive work of opposition, first attacking the Rudd government and later the Gillard government, writers in the Fifth Estate warned that he was not fit for the job of prime minister, that he did not have the knowledge, the skills, and the attributes required for the leader of a nation of 24 million citizens with a national economy of over one and a half trillion dollars. Most of the Fourth Estate would not listen, or did not care, so long as this man, who in their eyes held out the promise that he would give them what they wanted, was given the prize of Prime Minister. The characteristics required of a national leader clearly were missing. He never told the people about his vision for Australia, of what sort of country he wanted to create and lead. Nor did he sketch any cogent plans about how he intended to achieve whatever veiled ideas he did have. We heard over and again about the things he was going stop or destroy: the boats, the carbon tax, and the mining tax. All this ‘policy’ was captured in three word slogans, repeated endlessly. This was the only sliver of Tony Abbott’s ‘Australia’ that ever materialized. He relied on this to get him over the line, which coupled with the support of the Murdoch press and the electorate’s dissatisfaction with Labor, succeeded. So we were given a Prime Minister with no more policy under his belt than killing things off. Why is anyone surprised that he has been such a flop, such a dud? Many commentators lauded him in opposition. Some said he was the most successful opposition leader in the nation’s history, a claim that could be justified if success in opposition was judged only by his capacity to oppose everything, to propose nothing, to demolish every government policy, to destroy every government minister, and to defeat the government at an election. On the other hand, if the formulation of creative, forward-looking policies that would ensure a vibrant, prosperous, egalitarian and harmonious society were the criteria of success, Abbott was the worst opposition leader in our history. However Abbott was judged as Leader of the Opposition, the attributes that made him suitable for that role were not those that he needed to be the nation’s leader. Yet so many commentators in the Fourth Estate, and indeed the majority of the electorate, failed to realise that. They thought the pugilist in opposition, bereft of ideas and hell bent on destruction would be just fine as the nation’s leader. How wrong they were then, how wrong they are now! Week after week we are confronted with the spectre of a man promoted to his level of incompetence. Apart from the plethora of lies and broken promises; apart from his never-ending missteps, blunders and errors of judgement; even more distressingly we see him unable to comprehend the very fundamentals of nation building and economic management, unable to bring to bear any semblance of economic knowledge and expertise to resolve Australia’s burgeoning economic problems. Abbott has been promoted way beyond his level of competence. The people know it, the polls show it, his colleagues are aware of it and very nearly tipped him out in February, and recently even the throng of sycophantic Murdoch journalists know it, but choke when they have to write about it. Rivaling him in the incompetence stakes is Joe Hockey. He mocked Wayne Swan’s award of World’s Best Finance Minister in 2011 by Euromoney Magazine, when Swan joined Paul Keating as the only Australian treasurers to have been conferred the title. Now Hockey runs the risk of becoming the World’s Worst! His first budget was based on a flawed ideology and the false premise that a fiscal crisis and budget emergency existed, was badly constructed, hit hardest the less well off and let the wealthy off the hook, was ‘sold’ poorly, and not surprisingly was rejected by the electorate, many Liberal supporters, and by much of the business community. A more striking cascade of incompetence upon incompetence would be hard to imagine. Hockey has been promoted to his level of incompetence. In opposition he expended much of his time and effort deriding Swan’s efforts to achieve a surplus, airily dismissing the adverse trading situations Swan faced, yet now bemoaning the same conditions that imperil his efforts. He gave no mercy to Swan, yet begs pitifully for understanding now! Under Hockey’s fiscal management, Australia’s financial situation has deteriorated badly, worsening budget deficits extend ‘as far as the eye can see’, and business and consumer confidence is lagging. Yet no ready solution has been offered. Indeed, we have been promised that the next budget will not harm householders, presumably by going into politically induced retreat. Meanwhile, the business community throws up its hands in horror at the government’s inconsistency. And on the side he is in an acerbic dispute with State Premiers about the carving up of GST revenue, for which all he offers is the paltry solution of ‘a freeze’, only marginally better than Abbott’s solution, which is to chicken out. It is not just Labor and Greens supporters and most of the Senate crossbench who are astonished by his incompetence. Only this week Peter Costello, lauded by Liberals as the nation’s best ever treasurer, said “…the tax proposals floated by the Coalition and other groups made the government’s stated aim of ‘lower, simpler, fairer’ taxes look “like some kind of morbid joke”!” Hockey rejects Costello’s criticism by wistfully wishing he had the same revenue as Costello! Compare the language used by Paul Keating with that used by Joe Hockey, and you will see the contrast between a smart, knowledgeable, articulate and supremely competent treasurer, and a bumbling incompetent. I could go on and on detailing the incompetents who surround Abbott, but let’s end with Christopher Pyne, who combines arrogance and flippancy with a heavy burden of incompetence. No more needs to be said! What has astonished me most in recent months is how consistently those who offered Abbott and his grown up team of adults such unqualified support before the 2103 election, are now expressing doubts, annoyance, even desperation. In just one issue of The Weekend Australian, that of 28 -29 March, this is what some who have supported the Coalition had to say: Peter van Onselen starts his article: Cost-Cutting? Leviathan State Alive and Well with “The Coalition is not doing anywhere near enough to reduce the deficit”, and concludes: “No wonder the Liberal base increasingly is ashamed of its parliamentary team. It is being defeated by a leviathan state.” Dennis Shanahan, little inclined to criticize Abbott, writes in his article: Budget the deadline that matters for PM: “Abbott and Hockey fumbled the 2014 budget politically and have few to blame other than themselves for the position they are in with a rebellious backbench, months of bad polling, and impressions of a dysfunctional government”. Towards the end he writes: “The threat to Abbott’s leadership continues to come from a broad and dissatisfied group. Unlike 12 months ago, ahead of the first budget, Abbott’s fate is not entirely in his hands, but he will be given no chances if he treats the 2015 budget in the same way.” Chris Kenny, one of Abbott’s cluster of Murdoch sycophants, echoes Shanahan with “Abbott’s fate is largely in his Treasurer’s hands” and concludes: “Abbott and Hockey must finally find a convincing and consistent economic narrative. And quickly.” With an incompetent treasurer to get him out of jail, Abbott is in serious jeopardy. And if any more evidence of the incompetence of Abbott and his government were needed, just look at the polls. Newspoll’s national results for the first three months of 2015, derived from the 4,500 voters polled, and published in The Australian, showed “...support for the federal Coalition in Western Australia had fallen, and the Prime Minister's approval rating in the state had plummeted. His approval rating in WA fell 17 points over the study period to 25 per cent. Support for the Federal Government dropped six points to 38 per cent, in a state seen as a Coalition stronghold. Labor led 54-46 on a two-party preferred basis. Nationally, Labor led the Coalition 55-45, and Bill Shorten lead Tony Abbott 44-34 as preferred prime minister, and is now ranked as better prime minister in all states for the first time.” This week’s Fairfax-Ipsos poll gives Abbott and Hockey no joy and while Newspoll is less damning, Labor is still ahead 51-49. Mark Kenny’s report on the Ipsos poll begins: “The question of the Liberal leadership could be revisited in months as support for Tony Abbott's government drifts south again, with Australians signalling they are not convinced by the sudden switch to ‘fairness’ and the promise of a routine second budget. With that budget just 4 weeks away and attention in national politics focused squarely on the economic sphere, Mr Abbott's woes appear linked to the sinking popularity of his Treasurer Joe Hockey, who as architect of the first politically toxic blueprint, has suffered a massive 45 per cent reversal in his approval rating over the last 13 months from plus 20 per cent in March 2014 to minus 25 now… “The result is a repudiation of Mr Abbott's barnacle-scraping efforts to rid the government of tough policies seen as "unfair" and his rhetorical switch from fiscal hardliner to a softly-softly approach to budget repair. Voters appear to have taken a second look since the Prime Minister narrowly saw off a spill motion in February, and decided they still do not like what they see.” This week’s Essential Report too gives Abbott no joy: his approval rating at minus 25 is the same as last month; only February’s result of minus 33 at the time of the leadership spill was worse. Already this article is long enough. It could be twice as long were I to document more fully the evidence supporting the now strongly held view that Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, along with other senior ministers, have risen to their level of incompetence – incompetence so gross that all but the blind-folded can see it: Labor and the Greens, Senate cross benchers, fellow Liberal politicians, pollsters, commentators, business leaders, and the electorate all over this wide brown Land. Is there any need to go on? What do you think? Ad astra is a retired medical academic, appalled that our elected leaders have been elevated to their level of incompetence. More about Ad astra here.