Destroying Abbott

Wednesday, 3 February 2010 

Now we know what Turnbull was talking about. By trailing the government on the ETS over the last two years, the Coalition had made sure that the argument over the ETS was essentially between the government and the Greens. The result was to make the government appear indecisive and unprincipled over an issue that, lacking any real domestic program, it desperately needed to give it a sense of purpose.

Now that the Coalition has decided to make an issue of the government’s plans, the debate has been transformed. Instead of arguing how decisive or indecisive the government is, it has now turned into a contest between either taxing the polluters, or taxing voters to pay the polluters. If Rudd can’t make hay of that, he should sack his advisors.

The journalists at Abbott’s press conference and the interviewers on the ABC were certainly have a field day. They couldn’t decide which was more fun, getting Abbott and Joyce to explain how they were going to find the money to pay the polluters, or asking them whether they believed there was a climate change problem in the first place. Mal and Lucy and the dogs no doubt got out the popcorn to watch the fun last night. While Joyce flubbing around was to be expected, Abbott’s calamitous interview must have produced gales of merriment in Point Piper.

Given the press has gone bezerk over a poll that shows that the Liberals would merely repeat the drubbing of the last election, something that seems to pass as a ‘honeymoon’ for an opposition leader these days (but in the old days, if your name was Simon Crean, would have got you dumped), now seems a good time as any to look at how the government has still not quite got a grip on Abbott’s weakness that were fully on display yesterday.

Good political tactics are about exposing reality. Let’s just review what that means for Abbott. Abbott’s leadership is the result of the old guard’s tactic, of using an electorally acceptable leader to push an electorally unacceptable agenda, going wrong. The failure of Hockey’s candidature forced Abbott into the open and has meant the old guard has had to face what they didn’t need to while they hid behind Nelson and Turnbull: namely, they do not have an electorally viable answer to what the Liberals stand for in a time when business doesn’t need an anti-union party. Abbott and the old guard have been dreaming up an agenda in their heads, but their taking back the leadership now means they must come out with it.

One of the joys of the last few weeks has been to watch this supposed right-wing agenda disintegrate as it is brought to the surface. Not just the climate change scepticism that no longer can speak its name, or a revised Workchoices that Abbott said from day one, can no longer speak its name, even a revival of a nice tough border protection stance ends up being turned into a paean to multiculturalism. The result is that while Abbott has wanted to pose as ‘straight-talking’ he has ended up being all over the place, depending who he was talking to, something brought out ruthlessly by O’Brien last night.

This is why there was a problem with Gillard leaping on Abbott’s virginity comments last week. While the latest poll indicated that he might have lost ground with women on that specific issue, the general impression is to bolster the idea of Abbott as “I don’t agree with what he’s saying, but at least he speaks his mind” etc. etc. etc. This desperation to appear a conviction politician when you have no program to back it, of course, is pure Howard, who started his last election campaign telling everyone “love me or loathe me, you know what I stand for”. In a way, Gillard’s tactic helped Abbott do the same.

Rudd has picked up Abbott’s indecisiveness, although perhaps his office can think of something better than “undies” references. But more importantly, it will be interesting whether he takes it to the next step where Abbott is really exposed. Because, without any real basis to distinguish the Coalition, but needing to nonetheless, leads to Abbott opposing for opposition’s sake and this is the real danger for Abbott. This is what is nowadays called “playing politics” and it is political death.

There are signs that Rudd is setting him up to play this card. Michelle Grattan has rightly noticed how suddenly the political debate over the last few weeks has gone very long term. She incorrectly thinks it is in the nature of the issues themselves, but actually is the way the government has carefully turned around current issues that the government has been grappling with. Rudd’s Australia Day speeches focussed on such themes as population, climate change and aging population, which in fact are simply a reposing of immigration and infrastructure, the ETS and cutting back government spending to get the budget down.

Making the debate long term has two purposes. The first is to depoliticise these contentions issues by making any unpopular government action a result of long term trends over which it has no control. However, it is also to set up Abbott by more clearly counter-posing the future to an opposition leader that in carrying out his project to find what the Liberals stand for, is either forced to look to the past or at least be a block to going forward. It is in essence the tactic Rudd used against Howard in 2007. We saw an updated, sharper version in his speech last November and there was hint of it in his press conference responding to Abbott’s climate change plan yesterday. Let’s see if it unfolds further this year.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 3 February 2010.

Filed under Tactics

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15 responses to “Destroying Abbott”

  1. Nick on 3rd February 2010 9:49 am

    Abbott gone before its even began.

    Could they bring back Malcom?

  2. Amos Keeto on 3rd February 2010 10:21 am

    Nope, maybe after an election drubbing but even then I doubt it.The old guard hate him with a passion and if they get hammered then that’s all that will be left.

  3. Nick on 3rd February 2010 11:25 am

    Yeah probably right, Hockey to be the next sacrifial lamb to the laughter I guess then …

  4. James on 3rd February 2010 11:49 am

    I think Labor will let Abbott do himself in slowly and will wait til the second half of the year for the election.

  5. Greensborough Growler on 3rd February 2010 3:33 pm

    Labor may want to do him slowly. But, Abbott may accidentally do himself in a lot sooner.

  6. BH` on 3rd February 2010 9:17 pm

    Today both Abbott and Joyce confirmed they are both numbskulls. Both gave lousy performances so, instead of the media’s version that Abbott is getting under Rudd’s skin, it looks like Rudd just the opposite.

    Looks like we may be able to sit back and watch the Libs implode again.

  7. Daisey May on 3rd February 2010 10:17 pm

    Thanks PS for the crystal clear insights. I watched Abbott on the 7.30 Report and couldn’t believe how inept he was and how easily O’Brien pulled him apart. Barnaby Joyce’s appearance later that night was incomprehensible gibberish. Half of me wanted both interviews to end simply because it seemed cruel to let them continue to disgrace their positions as spokesmen for the Federal Opposition. They are an absurd joke and an intolerable embarrassment for anyone with a grain of intellect. Joyce is our Sarah Palin and Abbott is like the dead parrot sketch without the laughs. The MSM will not be able to make this pig fly no matter how hard they try. Reading the Murdoch press today I’m beginning to detect a mood against Joyce in particular. Something along the lines of “oh shit, what the hell have we done”. Also, would I be right in thinking that If Murdoch decides he wants to massage public opinion he uses the long haul approach? The way the opinion polls moved over climate change in less than a year is a good example. He just chips away until he gets the results he wants. Incidentally, I think Rudd needs to lift his game and cut Abbott down to size pronto.

  8. Rx on 3rd February 2010 10:22 pm

    There needs to be a lot more media pressure applied to this Abbott. He’s had an easy ride since Day One. For weeks there he had the media practically to himself while KR and the government were on holidays. Now it’s time to get serious.

  9. SA on 4th February 2010 7:57 am

    My money’s on Abbott (though I would not necessarily vote for him).
    The last time the Libs put up a super conservative they were in for four terms. I think that commentators underestimate the hidden and quiet conservative voter, and its estimated that there are as many in the Labor camp as in the Liberals. Don’t believe me? Look at all those western Sydney seats that Labor lost when Howard was leader.
    the disconnection with Malcolm was caused by his personality, this wealth gained by patronage, and his inability to see the above.

  10. Doug on 4th February 2010 8:21 am

    Who was the super conservative?

    John Howard?

    You must be kidding – spending wise there was nothing conservative about his policies.

  11. Mr Denmore on 4th February 2010 11:10 am

    We all agree that Abbot and Joyce made monkeys of themselves on ABC current affairs talk shows. The problem is the swinging voters who decide elections don’t watch or listen to ABC current affairs talk shows.

    These people read the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph; they listen to talkback radio and bone-headed FM rock stations. They don’t focus on politics in anything but the most superficial way.

    My take is they are buying the right-wing media’s manufactured narrative (faithfully regurgitated from Liberal spin doctors’ talking points) that Abbott is the straight-shooting action man conservative patriot against Rudd’s windbag, all talk-no action, progressive liberal internationalist.

    The media still strongly promotes the Howard era line that the Libs (like the Republicans in the US) are the populist voice of the “forgotten people” – standing up for small business and patriotic Anglo Aussies against elite globalists and people who use lots of big words.

    Rudd’s problem is people are starting to tire of his “I’m Kevin and I’m here to help” schtick. The penny is dropping that he really IS just a wordy policy wonk who stumbled into the prime ministership.

  12. Ricc on 4th February 2010 1:40 pm

    While the obvious attempt to link Aust Libs and US Repubs core vote exist, I just don’t think we have the vast heartland the US does.

    Right where our Nullabor Plain and Simpson Deserts are, the US in the same landmass and vast millions of people dependent on agriculture, military jobs and contracting, guns, God and grits.

    Imagine 10,000 Toowoombas all lined up in a row from one side of the country to the other.

    Our Libs are in fact competing for an outer suburban vote (and they don’t always get it, hence they aren’t always in office) that might have a slight Bible-belty tinge to it, but nothing more.

    I would hazard Australia has a genuine 5-10% vote of genuine passionate moral conservatives, where the US could rate 25%.

    And optional voting gives the passionate ones a disproportionate voice in the US, where our outer suburban fringe drowns our political system in apathy.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 4th February 2010 6:25 pm

    I agree with some of what you’re saying Mr Denmore, although a poor performance on The 7.30 Report not only indicates a problem that will come out elsewhere but will no doubt demoralise a party already in a fragile mood. I agree that Rudd is in danger of looking like a policy wonk, which is why I have always seen the government’s climate change tactics making sense when dealing with the Liberals, but not so when dealing with the broader issue of credibility.

    But Rudd’s real populist attribute is his ability to tap into anti-politics and I think Abbott, an internal hatchet man, is vulnerable on this. The right can also tap into this but there are risks. In the US, we have a relatively confident Right, but even there it can get out of control, as we saw with Palin. The experience of the weaker Australian Right has been much more fraught.

  14. Cavitation on 7th February 2010 8:33 am

    Ever since they went into opposition, the Liberal Party has been searching for issues to distinguish itself from Labor. Their old stalwart, economic credibility quickly went out the window, when they chose the wrong response to the world’s great financial crisis that crashed nearly every other country but left Australia barely dented. Even now they cannot acknowledge that Labor’s actions were excellent, and still harp on about government expenditures that they say were unnecessary or too high, when opinion and the facts indicate that insufficient stimulus has left the US in a hole, for example. They should have responded that “we would have done the same, but better”, but even now, burdened by their faith that they were superior economic managers, they cannot let this drop. I expect that in Labor’s re-election campaign this mistake on the Liberal’s part will figure strongly, further undermining a critical area where the Liberal Party has residual support.

    Climate change policy is all about internal politics. Remember that whether Australia becomes the world’s leading country on combating climate change or is the most recalcitrant, our contribution in either case to the amount of green-house gases in the atmosphere will be too small to measure. Currently Australia provides about the same amount of green-house gases as just one of the largest cities in China; in a generation it will be the equivalent of a medium sized Chinese city. This is not to say that Australia should not act appropriately; but we have to acknowledge that whatever we do will ultimately be inconsequential in the foreseeable future, unless our population and industrial capability grows to rival the great powers. For the Labor Party this is a wedge issue, and it seems to working a treat, in damaging the Liberal and National Parties credibility.

    In other areas, the Liberal Party is failing to distinguish itself from Labor. Its’ traditional purpose has been to oppose Labor, but this strategy does not work too well when Labor performs competently. I see that Abbott has recently finally abandoned the Liberal Party’s traditional support of states’ rights leaving that to Labor’s lukewarm embrace. Shrike is spot on that the Liberal Party is lost without a viable and visible basic political philosophy. Labor, under Rudd, has adopted a philosophy of competent and fair government, and the Liberal’s instinct to oppose Labor has led it astray, forcing it to adopt wild and woolly populist ideas as the only remaining claim not staked out by Labor.

  15. john Willoughby on 7th February 2010 1:35 pm

    if you hurry you can still get one dollar twenty
    for an ALP win from the bookies…

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