Tony Abbott: Architect of his own Demise

It is impossible not to feel for Tony Abbott after the events of Monday this week. There is no doubt that he is a well-intentioned man with, what he considered to be, the nation’s best interests at heart.

It must be acknowledged how devastatingly effective he was as an Opposition Leader; albeit using his core strengths (dogged determination, a boxing blue, and, yes, three word slogans) to lower the tone of Parliament, and the approach to national politics in general. In this endeavour he had many willing co-conspirators from both sides of the Chamber and beyond.

During that period one could argue that he effectively took down three Prime Ministers (Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd – twice), no easy task. What no one recognised during what appeared to be his ‘Howitzer’ phase was that he was also drawing up the plans for his own downfall.

He wasn’t a mere draftsman; he was an architect.

He demonstrated how to exploit a broken promise with a zeal unlikely seen anywhere outside a relationship on the rocks. It would be almost impossible to calculate the number of times a high-vis Abbott reminded us about the carbon tax that should never have been.

He was a pathfinder, illuminating the way for future Oppositions.

That’s what makes the Budget of 2014 so mystifying.

A litany of broken promises that drained the pool of credibility, which had been partially filled during the long years he had led the Opposition (granted, it was not terribly deep).

Compounded by the perception that it was highly inequitable, that Budget triggered a response from our collective reptilian brain that fairness was still an Australian trait. Assault fairness – insult the nation.

The sales job was carried out via the echo chamber. Yell an idea in; hear a slogan echoed back. It worked, but only on those doing the yelling. No one had considered informing the electorate of the need for action, let alone contemplating taking it along for the ride.

The appalling politics and communication of Budget 2014 made our former PM (and his fledgling government) an easy target; transforming him from a man of whom the nation was wary but willing to give a go; to another promise-breaking, untrustworthy, administratively inept leader.

Tony Abbott had morphed into what he had previously destroyed.

It is this aspect that generates an increased level of empathy in me for how Mr Abbott must be feeling today. The galling knowledge that in attempting to emulate one of his political heroes, that he had executed his plan so poorly he found himself at the trailhead of destruction. Ironically, he was the cartographer responsible for the map that identified his position so precisely.

It is impossible to gloss over the fact that every time he managed to give his hunters the slip, he, or one of his coterie would send up a flare alerting them to his whereabouts. From Sir Philip, to Bronwyn, to Peter Dutton’s trés hilarious joke – he was Canberra’s Tantalus, almost reaching his goal but not quite being able to reach it.

I hope that history remembers former Prime Minister Abbott with more than just a PutYourOnionsOut hash tag. He deserves better than that.

I also hope that the team of Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop go forward to deliver on their commitment of communicating with the nation, as opposed to treating us as mere tax-paying minions. After all, their decisions will likely have fairly substantial impacts on the lives of us tax-paying minions.

Finally, there’s a chance that the tenor of our national debate will improve and that we will witness some non-poll/focus group driven leadership and policy development.

Who knows, good government might have even started yesterday.

Circling the wagons…

Circling the wagons is fast becoming the common idiom for governments and corporations today.

It means that you stop communicating with people who don’t think the same way as you. You want to avoid their ideas.

In business, it is often an indication that you are losing your competitive edge and need to re-think your engagement strategies. This thinking shares the common theme of providing a defense from circumstances that can seem overwhelming when, in reality, it is not the case.

Adopting this head-in-the-sand approach sees governments and companies becoming paralysed in engaging with stakeholders and in taking a leadership role in a debate.

Communities throughout the world are now seeking leadership and forward thinking on issues and want to be engaged in the debate. However, governments, in particular, are steeped in the ‘old thinking’ of ‘testing the water’ with small sections of the community before putting leadership ideas to the broader community.

The Australian newspaper recently highlighted the issue when business, unions and community groups called on the federal government to give the nation ‘real reform’, rather than engage in a ‘race to the bottom’ of not doing anything. Former Treasurer Peer Costello also highlighted the issue in the Herald Sun (Read here).

The federal government should have a stakeholder engagement strategy in place to engage and lead the community on the reform agenda and highlight how it will be achieved.

Political strategists will ague that it is not prudent to telegraph desired outcomes too far in advance. This thinking highlights the weakness in the communication strategy and understanding of the stakeholders.

Strong stakeholder engagement strategies allow you to adopt sound ideas, promote them and use them to strengthen the foundations of your agenda.

The frustrations of the current ‘circling the wagons’ approach defy its origins. In reality, the idiom was not about protection against attacks (by local Native Americans or outlaw gangs), but protection of livestock from wandering off.

If your stakeholder engagement strategy allows your ideas or agenda to ‘wander off’, those protecting it need to demonstrate there is no substitute for leadership. The adoption of sound stakeholder engagement strategies not only protects proposals (i.e. the livestock), but also adds to their value and appeal.


The power of speech

Whatever one may think of USA President Barak Obama’s policies and performance few doubt his ability to deliver a stirring speech. In fact many would argue that his oratorical skills were an obvious driving force in his rise to power. Of course it would not be the fist time that the ability to orate has helped achieve such high station.

Leadership is much more than a good speech but a good speech certainly helps underpin leadership.

A few months ago a crazy white guy walked into a black church in South Carolina and killed nine people including the pastor. This against a background of racial tension at its highest in the USA for decades.

President Obama chose not only to attend the funeral of Reverend Climenta Pickney but also to deliver the eulogy. Obviously it presented an opportunity to try to heal but, rather more delicately, it also offered a chance to shine a light on the unfinished work of USA race relations.

It’s 37 minutes long, so most won’t get to the end. However, for students of oratory, it is well worth it. The pacing the structure, the emotion, the pathos the empathy, it’s all there. It’s not cynical to call it text-book oratory. It is obviously heartfelt. Such oratory has the power to move, emotionally, just like other art forms.

People look to their leaders to express what they are feeling, to inspire and to reassure. That is just as true in business as in politics or religion. Yet in the digitally interconnected world we increasingly lament the lack personal connection that an engaging and arousing speech can deliver.

Few, thankfully very few, circumstances will require the oratory skills of Churchill, Roosevelt or Obama but the ability to deliver a good speech can help drive business objectives or calm a situation in manner that even the most artfully constructed communiqué cannot. For any leader it is a skill worth developing.

That skill can be trained and can be supported by seasoned speech-writers. ICG has decades of experience in presentation training and speech writing for CEOs, senior managers and public figures. We can help develop and support the ability to use the spoken word as a powerful business tool.

Social media. The potential for digital quicksand

I am reliably informed, by my 14 year old daughter, that “you’re too old for social media. Who would want to see what you’re doing?”

Who indeed? Heaven knows half the time even I don’t.

Never-the-less social media is here to stay and anyone in a position of authority and power, be that in a business or in government, needs to understand a few rules about how and when to engage and, perhaps even more importantly, when to stay clear.

Let’s start with the obvious. Ashley Madison.

Surely the rule around that particular site should have been obvious. If you want to conduct a clandestine affair it is probably not wise to advertise your desire to do so in the digital equivalent of the town square.

Yes, the site administrators will assure you that confidentiality is their guiding principle but you are on a public communication platform. It is most likely that the aforementioned 14 year old possesses the skills to ensure that your confidential information is shared with the rest of the English speaking world.

So the rule is: Private is not on the net.

Now for something a little trickier. Personal social media presence impacting on professional lives.

 An example:

You have recently started a new relationship with someone from your office. The two of you decide on a romantic getaway in scenic Tasmania, no doubt to study the plight of the Tassie Devil. Your new squeeze posts lovely images of your trip on her Facebook page. All her mates are chuffed for her.

Trouble is you are a federal government minister and one of those images turns up on the front page of The Australian, years later, to highlight the hypocrisy of your indignation at another parliamentarian’s profligacy with the public purse in taking unnecessary helicopter rides. Come on down Tony Burke.

The rule here is just as important for business leaders as it is for politicians: If you are in a position of power and in the public eye (even if it is a limited industry specific public) you need to carefully consider your need for a Facebook or Twitter, or other social media presence, and what you post.

We have lost count of the number of careers ruined by an undisciplined Tweet or Facebook faux pas.

If you are a captain of industry, a community leader, politician or media personality or even if you’re just in a career that requires a degree of social sensitivity, not only should your social media presence be very circumspect but those of your significant others should be as well.

I’m looking at you Eddie McGuire, Mark Latham, Anthony Wiener, PR exec who tweeted that she hoped she did not get AIDS in Africa, “…no wait… I’m white”

In today’s world the personal can also rapidly impact on the collective and corporate. Think of the young KFC staff who thought it would be funny to post pictures of themselves bathing in the chicken fryers they were cleaning out. If the CEO needs to be social media savvy then most certainly there is a need for a staff social media policy in any organisation with a public interface.

Now we come to brands, corporations and government bodies on social media.

Even trickier.

A recent episode of the ABC satire Utopia featured an exchange that holds more truth than most would credit.

When talking about launching a major new road tunnel project the group discussed choosing a name for the tunnel-boring machine. When asked why a tunnel-boring machine needed a name the straight-faced answer was “for its Facebook page”. One can only imagine the value of such a Facebook page and the fans that ‘Churro’ (that’s the name they chose, because the machine came from Spain) would attract.

While the Utopia gag illustrates a comical waste of time and effort on social media. There are myriad examples where unnecessary, inappropriate and/or poorly timed and ill-thought-through social media presence has backfired, spectacularly.


Here are some examples:

Qantas brilliantly timed a participatory twitter campaign #QantasLuxury with the grounding of their fleet due to an industrial dispute. Result;

#QantasLuxury Flights that leave on schedule because Management doesn’t arbitrarily shut down the airline


#qantasluxury is the dream world Alan Joyce lives in where all the feedback to the Qantas action has been positive.

Thousands of tweets on everything from late flights to poor inflight food continued for the four days of the campaign.


LG tried to make fun of Apple’s perceived issue with early iPhone 6 units allegedly bending at #bendgate by tweeting from the LG France account that “Our smartphones don’t bend, they are naturally curved ;).The only problem, the Tweet was sent from an iPhone.

To celebrate July 4, USA cotton clothing purveyor American Apparel used its tumblr page to post a picture of what they thought was a firework, that was actually space shuttle Challenger exploding. After receiving lots of negative feedback the company apologised, saying that the social media manager was born after the Challenger disaster and didn’t realize what the picture was.


All of the above could have been easily avoided by ensuing appropriate disciplines were in place to check and double check social media interactions. Not to mention to interrogate what value the proposed engagement against the possible risk. In other words; what could possibly go wrong?

Now back to the 14 year old.

She and her fellow digital natives may feel that social media is only for them but the fact is everyone had bought-in, if only in a small way. The lesson her school, not to mention her parents, keep reinforcing is that once it’s out there it’s out there, forever! And forever is not just the next 6 months.

If you need guidance through the social media maze, a corporate social media policy or just a fresh set of external eyes ICG has built a thorough understanding of social media value, opportunity and risk and can advise on appropriate strategies.