Self absorbed, and deluded

Monday, 14 December 2009 

When Winston Churchill drove to Buckingham Palace in the dark days of 1940 to accept the king’s commission, he felt that his whole life had been but a preparation for this moment, or so he recounts in his memoirs. This is not wartime Britain. And I am certainly not Churchill. Still, I feel well equipped to take on the leadership of the party in what are testing times for the conservative side of politics.

Tony Abbott ‘Why I had to make a stand on the ETS tax’ 12 December 2009

First we had Copenhagen compared to the Munich Agreement with Hitler, and now this. What on earth does Tony Abbott think is going on?

OK, so the global warming agenda might not be the new fascism, and climate change scientists might not be Hitler’s SS. It is even possible that a Great Big New Tax might not be the equivalent of the genocide of six million Jews, but it just might be that resistance to the climate change agenda could remake the right just like resistance to Hitler did in WW II.

Yes, that’s right. The Liberal leadership is that self-absorbed.

One of the endearing features of commentary since Abbott took the leadership, is to see it try and find electoral justifications for what Abbott is now up to. In fact, what the Liberals are doing has little to do with the electorate – it is all about them. With this in mind, let’s just review three of the common myths doing the rounds about this ‘new’ revived opposition.

Myth No. 1: ‘Taking the fight up to the government’

The Abbot leadership has nothing to do with putting political pressure on the government. If it were, the Liberals wouldn’t have chosen their most unpopular leader, polling the lowest of any mid-term new leader and who can barely claim a bounce on the previous leader just after his front bench walked out on him. They also wouldn’t have followed up choosing their most unpopular possible leader with warming up a raft of unpopular polices; opposing the ETS, reviving an irrelevant industrial relations agenda and rolling back the stimulus.

This is all about making the Liberals feel good, not the government feel bad. What we have seen come to the surface is the agenda of the old guard that had been lurking under the water since Howard’s defeat; i.e. trying to fill in the vacuum of what the Liberals stand for nowadays with a mythical grasp of what the Howard government stood for in its day, seeing a conviction politician of principle instead of the clever fraud Howard was. So we have policy guided by what Howard would have wanted to do, while forgetting all the big spending, ETS proposing, WorkChoices back-flips that he actually did in his final year – and the reason why he did them.

Myth No. 2: Abbott the populist

One handy way to tell if a politician is populist is to see of they’re popular, and Abbott is clearly not. In fact, it is quite possible to argue that Abbott is almost the opposite of a populist politician. Populism, i.e. bypassing normal political avenues to mobilise an audience, is rarely done in Australia as it is done in the US, say, and of which we saw a bit of in the last Presidential election. The political class here is just not confident enough here to both inspire anybody, and know what to do with it if they did.

In fact far from being someone who bypasses the normal political establishment, Abbott is very much part of it. He is well known as a behind the scenes fixer and party hack who is prone to have a tin ear when it comes to public debate, as we saw in the last election when dealing with people like Bernie Banton. Abbott may be good at saying what those in Liberal party circles think, but not often anyone else. Despite saying words like “bullshit”, Abbott evocation of Whitlam and drawing ‘battlelines’ make more sense to those in the beltway than outside of it. While much is made of Abbott’s religious beliefs, if anything his ‘beliefs’ betray more an unfashionable political fervour than a theological one.

What we do in Australia can be more described as anti-politics, rather than populism. This is more about distancing from and criticising the political process than mobilising an alternative to it. Not as inspiring perhaps, but some sharp points can be made, and it is becoming an increasingly useful and necessary tool in the successful politician’s arsenal.

Of course, the best practitioner of blending anti-political sentiment into a mainstream political narrative is our current high-polling Prime Minster who, as we saw in the Apology speech of 2008, can excoriate the political class like no-one who has up to now occupied the position.

Indeed against someone like Rudd, Abbott has the potential to be highly exposed. Opposing for the sake of it, is a highly unpopular activity in Australia at the moment, especially when there is little content to it. Turnbull was tagged ‘Doctor No’, to his detriment, and now Abbott wants to make a virtue of it. While Rudd may be currently distracted in trying to find a rationale for his government in Copenhagen, it would seem fairly easy for him to deal with someone who appeared to oppose the ETS for little other reason than to cheer his own side up. Depending on what comes out of Copenhagen, you would think it no effort for Rudd to claim that Abbott is threatening the planet’s future by playing ‘political games’.

To pretend to be a populist, it is necessary to find a responsive audience. When not scouring for the Howard battlers in Toorak, the ‘new’ opposition has looked to anti-political sentiment elsewhere.

For someone like Rudd, detached from Labor and the traditional political channels, playing with anti-politics is tricky enough. For an in-house establishment politician like Abbott, it can get very tricky indeed. This is why we have Abbott’s Jekyll and Hyde performance, where he can mouth all sceptic on talkback radio in the morning and come over as the safe pair of Coalition hands on the ABC at night. Barnaby Joyce, being more intellectually sensitive, seems to be aware of the same dilemma in mid-sentence, where you can watch him halfway through talking, suddenly realising the consequence of what he might be saying. Certainly his short front bench career highlights the problem, getting ticked off within a few days for doing precisely what he was taken on to do, mouth off.

Myth No. 3: A shift to the right

Abbott’s ascendancy does not represent a resolution of the dilemma in the Liberal party for the last two years, but its culmination. There have been some comparisons to what is happening in the Liberals to the Howard-Peacock wrangles in the 1980s. There are some pale reflections in that the party then was adapting to a key dilemma, how to respond to Labor doing happily with the unions in Australia what right-wing governments in the UK and the US were doing less happily at the same time, screwing them.

However, the dilemma now is far more acute. This is about a party either standing for nothing, or becoming electorally unviable. Back then both sides of the argument at least had some viability and could have a turn in being represented in opposition, if not in government. Not so now. In the few days when Turnbull ‘broke free’ and his side was in control, all hell broke loose.

Abbott may be trying to implement some right wing program that Howard himself never could, but the electoral unviability of it keeps pulling him back. So we have an embarrassed sceptic, a tough line on immigration with no policies to back it up, a tough line on the debt without the spending cuts, and an anti-union agenda that can’t even say the word ‘WorkChoices’. Milne is right, if Labor were to portray Abbott as right-wing, it would probably not work. But this blogger suspects that when government ministers like Gillard call the Liberals ‘extremist’ at the moment, what they really mean is ‘whacky’.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 14 December 2009.

Filed under Political figures, Tactics

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10 responses to “Self absorbed, and deluded”

  1. nobby on 14th December 2009 10:32 am

    i’m getting a charge out of tory’s being electrically unviable ps.

  2. Rocket on 14th December 2009 2:32 pm

    Yes, when the pollsters return in mid-January I think Abbott and his media acolytes are in for a rude shock. They will realise that their real problem is the electorate – isn’t there a famous quote where a politician said after losing an election (I think in jest) that what his party needed was not new policies but a “new people”.

  3. vote1maxine on 14th December 2009 7:01 pm

    Excellent analysis. The media frenzy accompanying the Abbott ascendancy clearly exposes the MSM as propagandists not news reporters. The news cycle has become the spin cycle. But voters these days are more savvy. The degree that the above myths are busted will be reflected in the opinion polls of the election year. I think the Coalition’s standing in the polls at best will not improve and more likely deteriorate. So the question remains, will Abbott last to the next election as L of O?

  4. Thomas Paine on 15th December 2009 12:06 am

    Turnbull will be watching Copenhagen with great interest and an opportunity to attack Abbott again.

    Assuming that the Liberals will do no better under Abbott and probably worse…

    Turnbull’s eye is on the February sittings and the chance to take over and pass the Govts ETS, if not then, then May.

    People think it will be Hockey, but I think for Turnbull it is him or none. And I think Hockey after the last effort would rather be Turnbull’s sidekick.

    If Turnbull challenges and fails the Liberals stocks would sink even further, in public disappointment.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 15th December 2009 9:28 am

    I don’t know how the polling will turn out, to my mind the government also has some issues at the moment, which I do want to look at (but the Libs are far more diverting!). But anyway, I don’t think the Libs’ expectations are that high.

    What I think may be of more interest is what Abbott might do to precisely the thing he was supposed to protect, the ‘brand’. I do believe some reports that senior Liberals are worried what damage Joyce might do to their credibility on economic management etc. Being seen as out to lunch seems more of a danger than just being unpopular.

  6. Rich Bowden on 15th December 2009 5:45 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. If we are to make historical comparisons (and it is fun) how about we compare The Mad Monk to Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea and his Year Zero.

    I’m thinking the Coalition’s cunning plan to reduce carbon emissions may involve all city folk being shunted out to work on farms a la Year Zero.

    This will of course be warmly supported by Barnaby (who I fully expect will change his name to Ieng Sary) as farmers will have an almost unlimited supply of cheap labour albeit soft city folk.

  7. Scott on 16th December 2009 9:04 am

    Shanahan in The Australian has gone ga ga today over Abbott making a “Churchillian address”. It’s ludicrous because Shanahan admits that there’s no policy behind it, just an oppositional approach. I’m not sure who is more “wacky”, Abbott or certain columnists from The Australian.

  8. dedalus on 16th December 2009 11:27 am

    Barnaby Joyce intellectually sensitive. Yeah, good one. One of the abiding images of recent times is that of Barnaby surrounded by the circle of farmers. Noone is talking but Barnaby. They seem totally cowed. Is that just an impression created by an insidious camera angle and judicious editing? Bring on Barnaby vs Tanner on Lateline. Blood will flow.

  9. Graeme on 17th December 2009 6:54 pm

    Rocket: do you mean the great line of Brecht’s, paraphrased as ‘the people lost confidence in the government, so the people had to be dissolved’?

    It’s from a poem, and the original looks like:

  10. Ian on 21st December 2009 1:11 am

    I think perhaps some Napolionic comparison may have been better for Tony. A few quotes like these seem at least as appropriate for him and the coalition at the moment

    “There are only two forces that unite men – fear and interest.”

    “A man will fight harder for his interests than for his rights.”

    “A man’s palate can, in time, become accustomed to anything.”

    “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”

    “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”

    “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

    “If you wish to be success in the world, promise everything, deliver nothing.”

    “Imagination rules the world.”

    “Impossible is a word only to be found in the dictionary of fools.”

    “In war as in love, to bring matters to a close, you get close together.”

    “Men are lead by trifles.”

    “Throw off your worries when you throw off your clothes.”

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