The Peter Principle

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 “ 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.

Comments (17) -

  • woodypear

    4/16/2015 6:03:27 AM |

    One of the other disturbing consequences of the 'Peter principle' is the wake of disaster left by these people's rise through the ranks.  A former (by my choice) friend discussed his meteoric rise in private industry.  He would go through a department with a blowtorch, reducing costs (mainly staff) and look quite impressive - on paper. The result was a promotion.  There was little recognition by top management of the disaster that he'd leave behind for his replacement; in fact, the replacement was often berated for being in charge of a dysfunctional department (largely a result of the 'scorched earth' policies of my former friend.  This is also true of Abbott.  Look at the good people that he has destroyed in his quest for the top job (on both sides of politics).  The 'Peter principle' is a truism.  Add to this, Abbott's ruthlessness and a compliant media and it is easy to see why our economy is rudderless (no pun intended).

  • DoodlePoodle

    4/16/2015 8:44:47 AM |

    Part of the problem is that these guys don't even know that they are not up to the job.  It's all other people's fault that their policies are not accepted.  Nor do they realize that their actions have made the economy so much worse by talking down the state of the economy.  

    I thought the recent stoush between Costello & Hockey was the pot calling the kettle black.  Costello's decisions of no tax for superannuants and the lowering of tax rates has really made it difficult for any treasurer to have the funds to go round.  At some stage these decisions need to be reversed but it will be very unpopular.  

  • ad astra

    4/16/2015 11:39:23 AM |

    Thank you for the illustrative case you quote. Was by any chance your friend’s name ‘Abbott’!

    Abbott’s destructiveness has characterized his career in politics, dating back to his student days. It was the most apparent feature of his period in opposition, and it has continued in government. Like your friend, he has left a trail of destruction that now threatens him and his government.

    Just today we have been reminded by the president of the AMA of the alarming aftermath of Abbott’s cutting of $1.8 billion in immediate funding over the next four years in the 2014 budget, and his reneging on a deal to help meet increased hospital costs in the long term, amounting to $57 billion.

    Professor Owler said: “The states and territories are facing a huge ‘black hole’ in public funding after a succession of commonwealth cuts. A perfect storm is building ahead of new commonwealth public hospital funding arrangements based on indexation and population growth, which will take effect from 2017-18. These new arrangements will be imposed on a system already struggling with insufficient capacity, a system that is underperforming against key benchmarks.”

    Destruction and disaster are hallmarks of Abbott’s stewardship. He was not much chop as Health Minister in the Howard government; now he has been promoted to the level of his incompetence, not just in the health arena, but also in almost everything he does. He does ride bicycles quite well though. But that would not necessarily make him suitable for elevation to the Minister for Cycling!

  • ad astra

    4/16/2015 12:24:39 PM |

    How right you are. In opposition, Abbott, Hockey, Pyne and many senior ministers crowed about how good they were, how ‘grown up’, how ‘adult’, how proficient at managing money and a national economy, how rapidly they would repay the debt and reach a surplus and how business and consumer confidence would soar when they were elected, how millions of jobs would be created and unemployment cut. Almost the exact opposite has occurred. They simply did not know how lacking in proficiency they were. Mind you, nor did the Fourth Estate, who supported them despite the fact that in all their pre-election utterances Coalition members advanced scarcely any evidence that they knew what to do in government. Apart from their three word slogans, they provided no sign of a vision for the nation, and no cogent plans to achieve it, other than their intention to destroy what Labor had put in place.

    Bernard Keane made some interesting comments in Crikey about the Costello intervention: “First there's the enemy within, sabotaging and blowing up whatever he can. There's no need for a Resistance moniker or a secret identity - he's happy to do it in the open in broad daylight. Peter Costello, one-time treasurer, these days highly paid public servant, is savaging the current government for not concentrating on cutting tax, with all the fury of a bloke who knows he could have been prime minister except first he lacked the ticker, then he lacked the patience.”

    Keane then went on to use a graph of tax receipts as a proportion of GDP from 1988 projected to 2017, which showed that taxes were always higher under the Coalition, notably while Costello was Treasurer. Costello is no more credible than Hockey.

    What these Coalition politicians say they can and will do bears no relationship to what they are able to do, and to what they actually do. Abbott’s past history is such that we should not be at all surprised at this. He has been elevated to the level of his incompetence, which was obvious from Day 1.

    You may like to read Keane’s full comment:

  • TalkTurkey

    4/16/2015 10:10:08 PM |

    So that's what the Peter Principle is all about, Ad, I didn't know. You sure found the ultimate example in Abborrrtt ... Promoted out of his depth and beyond his abilities by those around him who have used him as a stalking horse and who now have no further use for him.
    I had long already identified its reverse, what you might call the Paul Principle, where, e.g., some bloke is doing the lights for Peter Cundell's gardening program, Cundell calls in sick, the lights bloke happens to know just a bit about, say, hydroponics, he fills in for Cundell, does OK, studio boss asks if he'd like to do one more show next week, too bloody right, he does one more, and one more after that, boning up madly on gardening until suddenly he's a genuine expert with his own following, where really he hardly knew anything about it to start with.

    Abborrrtt is incapable of learning on the job. And today, he's still punching walls because Dan Andrews won the Victorian election and is keeping his promises.

  • ad astra

    4/17/2015 8:18:16 AM |

    Talk Turkey
    How good it is to have you commenting on TPS Extra. I like your ‘Paul Principle’. I have seen this in action in the workplace. I can recall a junior calling herself ‘just a ‘Girl Friday’, who when given the opportunity to undertake more demanding tasks, steadily developed into a superb secretary who then went on to complete a university degree.

    Abbott is not only incapable of learning on the job because he simply does not have the knowledge, skills, or attitudes required, but will not succeed because ‘the times do not suit him’.  John Howard famously said: "the times will suit me", and they did as the mining boom poured mountains gold into his coffers. Abbott has copped the reverse. Not only has the mining boom faded, not only has the economy turned against him, not only has he stuffed up in managing the economy and the federal budget, but he has also been hit with unanticipated problems, the most contemporary being the carve up of the GST across the States, which he has to deal with today. While trying to curry favour with Colin Barnett, the WA government, and the WA electorate with ‘sympathetic’ weasel words, he offers no solution save insisting that the States sort it out themselves. This shameful cop-out is called the ‘Abborrttian chicken-out syndrome’, which always ends badly, like treating a serious systemic infection with soothing words but no antibiotics. Watch for the fireworks later today.

  • pappinbarrafox

    4/17/2015 11:05:06 AM |

    Cripes, the Peter Principle crystallised for this lot within a year of each one entering parliament. A pity they didn't realise it and resign.

  • pappinbarrafox

    4/17/2015 11:16:43 AM |

    I channelled Abbott last week. I was giving a talk to a Chinese delegation brought to Australia by the HRC. I had an interpreter. I found I was talking about half or less of my usual pace (also pausing after every short sentence to allow for the translation) and began using wildly exaggerated hand gestures inappropriately as my brain was starting to run away on me. Seriously. I then had this wave of insight wash over me just for a moment that this is what standing in Tony Abbott's shoes must be like. Except he is talking to English speakers so does not have the excuse of talking to a different language group. Then it struck me that it felt like I was communicating with really dumb English speaking people who could not understand what I was saying so I was treating the group listening like morons. But then I realised that, no, that was not quite it - the moron was me (ie the Abbott channelling Abbott me) because I did not know how to talk to this group without appearing to talk as though I was talking to my intellectual inferiors. Does that make sense? I can tell you it was a scary moment for me. Any psychological analysis of this condition is welcomed.

  • ad astra

    4/17/2015 2:32:19 PM |

    Thank you for your initial comment, with which I concur, and for the description of your experience talking with Chinese visitors. Your experience gels with me as I too have had the experience of talking with Chinese speaking people.

    When the audience has limited capacity to understand the words being spoken, whether it is because they speak a different native language, or whether they cannot understand the technicalities being used by the speaker, misunderstanding or no understanding at all results. I imagine this is why Abbott uses colloquialisms and short sharp slogans to transmit his message. This amounts to ‘talking down’ to a normal audience. If the audience seems mystified by the inappropriate ‘sparceness’ of the Abbott message, it evokes from him exaggerated non-verbal attempts to persuade. That's my theory anyway!

    All this reminds me of another of Laurence J Peter’s quotes: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

  • Bacchus

    4/17/2015 6:54:31 PM |

    Testing time TPS Extra

  • DoodlePoodle

    4/17/2015 7:50:44 PM |

    I thought Colin Barnett acted like a "spoilt little brat" today.  Really spat the dummy at the wrap up of the day.  

  • ad astra

    4/17/2015 9:36:54 PM |

    And after talking up today's COAG as "good and strong constructive meeting", Tony Abbott looked sheepish when Colin Barnett said that he must have been at a different meeting!

    Although spitting the dummy himself, it was good to see Barnett prepared to call out Abbott's verbal crap. It should happen more often.

  • Pappinbarra fox

    4/18/2015 6:24:52 AM |

    I have noticed that if I go to TPSExtra through the home link i do not have access to Comments. But if I use the link Ad provided in the comments section I do have access to Comments. Can this be checked please?

  • ad astra

    4/18/2015 7:51:06 AM |

    If you go directly to TPS Extra, to gain access to the Add Comment area, click the title of the piece for which you wish to add a comment, and previous Comments will appear under the piece, with the Add Comment area at the end for you to make your comment.

  • Bacchus

    4/18/2015 10:45:40 AM |


    You can also click on the number of comments to the right of the title of the piece (in brackets next to the "speech bubble" icon) - this will take you to the first comment if there is one.

  • DoodlePoodle

    4/18/2015 11:01:48 AM |

    If only the voters could have seen how well off they were with such a wonderful PM.  The fourth estate were so determined to bring Julia down.  How different things could have been now.

  • ad astra

    4/19/2015 1:38:31 PM |

    Doodle Poodle
    Interesting article about Julia.  Abbott pales into insignificance beside her.  What a loss to our governance!

Comments are closed