Tony Abbott: too clever by half

Friday, 9 October 2009 

While the Liberals implode on climate change, Tony Abbott is playing a clever game – but not an original one. On one hand he is saying that the Coalition needs to negotiate with Labor for political reasons and to acknowledge the strong electoral support for action. On the other hand, he tells sympathetic audiences that the global warming science is ‘crap’.

Asked by Laurie Oakes to explain this the other day, Abbot put it like this:

Don’t forget the context here, Laurie. I am confronted by a hostile Liberal audience on this particular issue. I am trying to bring them around to support the position of the leader and the shadow cabinet. And I think I was reasonably successful on the night.

In other words, to get his audience to support the leadership line, he portrayed it as a sceptic line that is the complete opposite to what their leader actually thinks.

Readers will recognize this tactic, of formally supporting climate change action because of political necessity, while distancing himself from it to his own audience, as a hallmark of that well-known Conviction Politician, our former Prime Minister. Howard’s two-faced act was the way he adapted to the changing political environment in the electorate while keeping his party on-side.

Readers will also remember that it didn’t work that well by the end. Certainly, for a while those little ‘gestures’, like his refusal to sign Kyoto and apologise to the Stolen Generation enabled Howard to ride the vacuum with a phoney right wing ‘cultural war’ that kept Labor confused and his own side happy.

Howard could get away with being two-faced around climate change because the international climate was in transition. His approach represented acknowledgement of what was coming in the US’s accommodation to the changing world order, but also the remnants of a time when the US briefly could get away with a unilateralism that included ignoring the global agenda on climate change. The changes in the international environment shifted and Rudd’s assumption of the Labor leadership exposed the charade and underpinned Howard’s defeat. In the end, Howard’s tactic may have satisfied his own party, but didn’t fool the electorate, who suddenly started to think Howard looked old, mainly because he was getting left behind by events.

Abbott’s revival of the tactic now just looks like political games. On The 7.30 Report last night, it was quite clear what he was doing. Two-timing on climate change enables Abbott to keep close to Turnbull, while still maintaining his stance as an alternative when the need arises. Being close to Turnbull is important for any challenger. Firstly, the situation is too volatile to risk an overt challenge as, although the press sees the party as polarised, in fact the case on both sides is too weak to be that defined. The sceptics spell electoral disaster but the believers can’t satisfy the party’s search for what it stands for. So straddling both sides gives Abbott some flexibility and might even allow him to win over the odd disillusioned Turnbull supporter.

Being close to Turnbull is also a nice place from which to undermine him through that special Liberal ploy of faint praise. So we had Abbott last night talking about this being a ‘character building’ period for Turnbull, nicely focussing on what is seen as Turnbull’s chief short-coming that Rudd has exploited so well and is focussing doubts about Turnbull across the party.

So all this is great internal tactics. The trouble is that for anybody looking from outside the tent, Abbott just looks opportunistic because he doesn’t have the international cover that allowed Howard to appear like he had principles when he so clearly did not. In doing so, Abbott is both undermining what is supposed to be his greatest asset, his ‘conviction’ while still apearing to be taking a position that is electorally unpopular.

Kerry O’Brien brought out how far Abbott is talking to his own party rather than the electorate, in the following exchange:

KERRY O’BRIEN: But it would seem that if the Government does come a long way to fall into line – this is what you are asking the Government to do, to fall into line with the Opposition’s amendments – but even if the Government moves that far, there are still going to be dissenters voting against it from within your ranks, aren’t there?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, there may be one or two, but I think if the Government substantially accepts our amendments, that will make Malcolm, in effect, the co-author of this ETS. I think that would be a good position. It would be a rare … it would be a great win for an Opposition. Let’s face it, it’s quite unusual for Oppositions to effectively be co-authors of major legislation, and if they were to accept our amendments, if they were to accept that their bill was, in important respects, very gravely flawed, I think that would be a good deal for the country, and obviously a political win for the Opposition.

Abbott is so internally focussed that he thinks it is more important that the Coalition might end up feeling good about themselves by watering down what even their own supporters do not think the political parties are doing enough about.

The irony is that Abbott is doing what Turnbull did in reverse, but with the same negative consequences. Just as Turnbull accommodated to the party by being a climate change believer but talking like a sceptic and so undermining his appeal to the electorate and the party, Abbott is a sceptic talking like a believer to manage the party. In his own mind, Abbott probably sees himself as holding a fragmented party together and allowing Turnbull to take the cop for the election disaster coming, but in reality he is caught up in the same mess.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 9 October 2009.

Filed under Political figures

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8 responses to “Tony Abbott: too clever by half”

  1. Ad astra on 9th October 2009 12:03 pm

    What a leadership mess the Coalition is in.

    Tony Abbott is playing a more astute game than Hockey in positioning himself to take over from Turnbull, should the Liberals decide on a change. A year ago I would have rated Hockey as the best alternative, but he’s been disappointing since then. His economic credibility has taken a dive, following as he has the disingenuous Turnbull line, his parliamentary performance has been substandard, and he’s reported as lacking energy, and some say he is lazy. Notwithstanding all that, according to Possum on Pollytics, he still rates above Turnbull 16% to 12% and above Abbott 7% in an August Essential Research poll, and 20% to Turnbull’s 16% and Abbott’s 10% in July’s Newspoll. As an aside, the sad thing for the Liberal Party is that in the Essential poll ‘someone else’ topped the ‘best leader’ stakes with 33%. I guess it’s Hockey’s geniality that gives him his ratings. It’s certainly not his intelligence or political nous as the events of the last few days testify. In a less-than-serious ABC News Radio poll the ratings of the listed replacements were: Phar Lap 75.8%, Joe Hockey 13.8%, Tony Abbott 7.4% and Andrew Robb 3.0%

    Of the currently touted replacements for Turnbull, despite his relative unpopularity with the public, Abbott might be the best bet. Although his ‘people skills’ are suspect, he’s well ahead of Hockey on political skills. He would have appeal to the conservative elements in his party, and to the climate change sceptics. He could serve as a ‘nightwatchman’ until after the next election and save some of the furniture that may be lost if Turnbull continues.

    Until he became ill, I thought Andrew Robb might be a better nightwatchman. He still may be if he makes a good recovery. Crikey’s ‘The Stump’ had an interesting piece yesterday titled ‘Traffic Cones!’ by Guy Rundle that canvasses who might be ‘parked’ as leader until after the 2010 election. It concludes: “They [the traffic cones] retire post the 2010 loss, and Jumpin Joe or The Mad Monk takes over.”

    If I was forced to lay bets, although Turnbull’s leadership seems fatally wounded, I would still punt on him surviving until the next election, only because the two most favoured replacements, Hockey and Abbott, are so wanting in the necessary skills, and the Liberal Party so impotent in managing the dysfunction it is experiencing. The likelihood of the party extruding Turnbull seems much less than him walking away. In that event however, I would now place Abbott as ‘the most likely to succeed’ Turnbull. Not a great prospect!

  2. Ad astra on 9th October 2009 2:12 pm

    There is now more data about the Turnbull-Hockey-Abbott ratings as preferred leader of the Coalition.

    A special telephone Morgan Poll out today, conducted on the evenings of October 7 and 8 among an Australia-wide cross section of 549 electors showed amongst other things that: “For the first time more Liberal Party voters support Joe Hockey (35%, up 9%) ahead of Malcolm Turnbull (21%, down 14%) as preferred Coalition Leader. Turnbull also trails Tony Abbott (22%, up 6%), but is well ahead of Julie Bishop (5%, down 3.5%). No other Liberal rates above 3% support.”

  3. Max Gross on 9th October 2009 4:24 pm

    The LibNats have effectively written themselves out of the global warming “debate”. Labor, while “doing something” is merely tinkering. Neither of the major parties takes the issue seriously.

  4. Cal on 9th October 2009 9:05 pm

    What’s with this ‘faint praise’? I think it’s more a case of ‘feint praise’.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 9th October 2009 10:37 pm

    Abbott’s faint praise certainly could be a feint!

  6. Cal on 9th October 2009 11:03 pm

    Indeed! I think it is a feint as was Joe’s.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 10th October 2009 12:14 am

    I wonder if Joe’s was less a feint than a boo-boo.

  8. Michael on 10th October 2009 4:33 pm

    Tony Abbott slipped a stiletto into Turnbull on that 7:30 Report interview. What government on Earth would accept the idea of hard fought for and capriciously rejected, but finally successfully passed legislation, being presented to the public as only getting up because it was “co-authored” by the leader of their political opponents? What government on Earth would accept being told in advance that if they did decide to accept their opponents’ amendments to do so would be to provide “a great win for the Opposition”? Abbott knew exactly what he was doing – just as Hockey did in going public about being approached by colleagues to move for the leadership – both men were shoving their leader into an even more exposed position than he was before they opened their oh so supportive mouths.

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