Defence Minister David Johnston had an eventful week. After claiming during Senate question time that he wouldn’t trust ASC (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation) to build a canoe, he was pilloried by the opposition and forced to retract his comments. But it was not enough for an angry Senate, which on Wednesday censured Johnston for — among other things — insulting the men and women of ASC and undermining confidence in Australia’s defence capability. Amid the calls for Johnston’s resignation, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the lower house he backed the Senator.”The minister engaged in a rhetorical flourish, he said the wrong thing in the heat of debate in the Senate. He’s admitted he said the wrong thing. He’s withdrawn it. He’s apologised.” Johnston, said Abbott, had his “full confidence”.
Terms such as “full confidence”, “total confidence” and “complete confidence” are often used by politicians to vouch for a colleague’s character or credentials. It means, “I trust her, so you should, too.” It says, “Calm down. He knows what he’s doing.” These phrases are most often heard amid a scandal or crisis. As a rule, if your leader or a colleague has to state publicly that he has full confidence in you, chances are you’re not landing a rover on a comet (unless you’re wearing an “eccentric” shirt) or busy treating Ebola patients. Chances are, in fact, you’re clogging headlines for all the wrong reasons. But is a public declaration of confidence from a high-ranking colleague always good for your situation? At times it almost seems like a kiss of death: a scandal breaks, someone publicly backs the person involved, then comes the inevitable sacking or resignation.
Back in 2000, then-workplace relations minister Peter Reith was in trouble for allowing his son to use his taxpayer-funded phone card. The card was subsequently used by other people, and a $50,000 bill emerged that Reith refused to pay. There was talk he could lose his position in the cabinet, but prime minister John Howard backed him strongly. “Mr Reith retains my full confidence,” Howard told ABC radio. Asked by Tony Jones on the ABC’s Lateline program whether Reith would lose his cabinet position, then-backbencher Chris Pyne said, “I think he’ll survive, and I think he will go on to make an even greater contribution in government than he’s already made.” Reith was moved to the Defence portfolio, but just a year later, after announcing he would quit politics at the next election, he found himself at the centre of one of Australia’s most egregious political scandals — the infamous children overboard affair. Perhaps the backbench would have been a better way for him to see out his career, after all.
For others, the kiss of death comes more quickly. On February 14, 2009, then-opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull came out in support of beleaguered shadow treasurer Julie Bishop. “Julie Bishop has my total confidence, both as the deputy leader and as shadow treasurer,” he said. Bishop would quit the role just two days later, though she insisted it was her decision to step aside. Earlier this year, as then-assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos was facing questions from the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, Abbott told Parliament the Senator has his full confidence. The next day, Sinodinos stood down indefinitely.
The curse happens plenty overseas, too. Senior British MP Chris Huhne had the full confidence of Prime Minister David Cameron, but quit anyway after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice. Bureaucrats, department heads and appointed chairs are not immune either. The head of the UK’s child sex abuse inquiry was forced to resign a week after Cameron backed her. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the media he had full confidence in chief of staff Nigel Wright amid claims of dodgy expense claims, but Wright later resigned anyway. Sometimes not even the most powerful man in the world can help you: US President Barack Obama expressed full confidence in the secret service after a series of security incidents at the White House, but director Julia Pierson still fell on her sword soon after.
The public confidence motion rarely seems to be effective in either a) shutting up the media and/or opposition, b) stifling internal party ructions, or c) saving anyone’s job. So what’s the point of it? More than anything, perhaps, it has simply become part of media procedure. Those in positions of power — whether politicians, football managers or heads of police forces — make declarations of confidence because they know they are going to be asked to make declarations of confidence. But there’s another element to it too, which allows the person at the centre of the scandal to exit the stage with some dignity intact. There are those who go quietly and those who, like Craig Thomson, refuse to relinquish their place regardless of the pressure. Whether Johnston will stick it out remains to be seen, but Abbott has seemingly nudged the door ajar, just a little.