Unravelling Tony Abbott

Wednesday, 17 March 2010 

Monday’s Four Corners ‘The Authentic Mr Abbott’ was an odd program. It cobbled together all the current media misconceptions about the Abbott leadership and mystified what is going on. When last year’s Four Corners brought out the climate change scepticism from Abbott’s backers like Minchin and Bernardi, it exposed Turnbull’s weakening position in the party and turned out to be one of the most influential programs of 2009. When it did the same this time, it merely served to disguise what has gone on since then.

It is important when looking at Abbott’s leadership to separate two distinct developments that are being mixed up in the media. The first is Abbott benefiting from the government’s central problem that has now come out in the open. A government with no social base for a domestic program, and so reliant on an international one, is now finding less support there as well. The result is a problem of credibility and authority, that plagued Howard in the early years of his government, and Rudd now has to manage. It is this anti-politics sentiment that Abbott has had some success in tapping into.

When Abbott called the ETS a ‘Great Big New Tax’, it had some resonance not because people don’t like taxes as such. Polls have consistently shown that the electorate thought action against global warming was important enough to pay for. The problem was that after Copenhagen revealed the lack of momentum from the international community to climate change action, the ETS became about little more than just a tax.

Australia’s small impact on world carbon levels always meant that any capping of carbon here was always more a moral position than a practical one. However, while there was a sense of an international plan of action, the argument that Australia needed to have its own in order to play an influence on the global stage, may have overstated Australia’s international significance, but at least made some sense. Without any clear international momentum, such justification does not.

Rudd has lost some of the moral credibility that climate change action gave him and has opened him up to the charge of being all spin and no substance to which his lack of base always made him vulnerable. Abbott’s attack on the ETS especially resonated with sections of the electorate that never trusted government even at the best of times and has encouraged climate change scepticism to become a focus for anti-political sentiment. It is no coincidence that Abbott’s former private secretary, David Oldfield, shown accompanying him on the program, managed to spend his time while working for Abbott setting up One Nation to use anti-immigration to do a similar thing.

Yet like One Nation, Abbott’s accession to the leadership is being confused with another phenomenon – the revival of the right. You would think for a program looking at the significance of the Abbott leadership, the starting place would be the political situation now and what Abbott brings to it. But no. To find the ‘true’ Abbott apparently, we need to be hurled back thirty years to him mouthing off as a student politician and then packing himself off to a seminary. This is all meant to show how much Abbott is brimming with right-wing ideas that he is preparing to unleash on the nation. We even go to the small town of Beaufort, where Abbott last year claimed the climate change argument was ‘absolute crap’ and finally up to the smug faces of Minchin and Bernardi as they described why they wanted Abbott to take the leadership because of their opposition to the climate change agenda.

And then it stops. What happened after Abbott took the leadership is not even discussed. We all know what Minchin and Bernardi think about climate change from the Four Corners program last year, so hearing it again was pointless. The question now would have been, why have they since recanted? Why have Minchin and Bernardi both taken pains to say they think climate change and carbon emissions are a problem and why has Abbott proposed spending billions to deal with it?

Liberal powerbrokers like Minchin clearly want Abbott to popularise a right agenda and revive the relevance of what they see as the Liberal party’s core agenda, and saw climate change scepticism as one way of doing it, as revealed in this exchange about the thinking that led them to take up a sceptical position:

LIZ JACKSON: Tony Abbott says that while driving back to Melbourne, he spoke with Senator Minchin and this crystallised his views. He now accepted that voting for ETS would fracture the Coalition, while opposing it would give them the chance to campaign against Labor’s giant new tax on everything. Politically, it was the way to go.

NICK MINCHIN: I like to pride myself on keeping my finger on the pulse both of internal opinion and the mood of our own grassroots and of public opinion at large. So I was talking to him on that basis on a number of occasions.

LIZ JACKSON: The politics rather than the science?


The problem is that the political conditions aren’t allowing them to do it. Even on climate change, despite it being a focus for distrust of government, there is still overwhelming support for climate change action, and still majority support for an ETS. That is why Minchin et al had to recant as they took over the leadership. The irony is even though scepticism has grown over the last eight months, the old guard have had to become publicly less sceptical as they regain the leadership and face the electoral consequences of what they think.

Whatever Abbott’s personal views, his capacity to make it a political reality is another matter. It is why for someone who considers himself such a straight talker, he has a remarkable inability to give a straight answer, as seen by his ducking and weaving over his opinion about women who have abortions. The problem with the program was that it took the left view of subtly talking up the dangers of Abbott’s ideas rather than his inability to bring them about.

In fact, one of the reasons you suspect Abbott is where he is today is his ability to play this double game. Hewson, who saw him in action as his press secretary in the early 1990s, nicely described Abbott’s two-faced game:

What you’ve got is constant colour and movement, and he’s very good at it. His strengths are, he’s obviously very bright, but he’s very cunning, and I think that cunningness shows. And he can see an issue and he can grab an issue. And how does he handle it? He gets right in your face. He exaggerates; he grabs the headlines, even if he knows that the next day he’s gonna have to back that off.

Good example is the accusation last week of, you know, a bribe to Channel 7 with the reduction in the TV license fees. The word bribe appears, it gets the headline, it creates all the atmosphere. Next day he doesn’t actually repeat that; he just says it doesn’t look good, let’s go on. And he’s played that role out.

This may be a suitable political tactic to manage the Liberals’ current political dilemma but such political games have limited appeal. This two step can especially become a problem now that he is leader and the both sides Abbott is playing are being taken more seriously. Even despite recent improvement, Abbott’s poll ratings are mediocre for a new opposition leader and even that is more reliant on tapping into government troubles than his own virtues.

One thing though, it has at least brought out all the right-wing warriors for one last turn in the sun. It was a joy to once again hear that persecuted, nasal whine of our former Prime Minister on Tuesday night. Like a whacked mole, Howard has emerged from his hole after losing his government and his seat, blinking into the sunlight on the hope that it is now safe to come out. Howard clearly thinks 2007 was an aberration and that Abbott will be a vindication of the loss and the way he had to throw away his program to stave it off, and, let’s face it, no one does self-pitying vindication like Howard.

As Howard couldn’t but remind us, his spotting of Abbott’s talent is based on his innate understanding of the Australian people that made him such an election winner (rather than say an exhausted opposition and a handy War on Terror) – right up to the point, of course, when he wasn’t, and despite spending half his government below the level of popularity that is supposed to be worrying Rudd at the moment. It is this political acumen that allows Howard to know that Abbott is also a winner after his own heart. We’ll see.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 17 March 2010.

Filed under Political figures

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8 responses to “Unravelling Tony Abbott”

  1. Graeme on 17th March 2010 8:24 pm

    Rudd does not even have a base in his own party; let alone the party retaining a strong and vital union + social democratic base in the broader society.

    Abbott’s pierced the balloon that Rudd was liked: people neither like nor dislike him (the partisan rump who hated him as ‘Krudd’ from day one aside).

    Abbott though has a strong core of the population who have a distaste for him; including many ‘l’ liberals.

    So he is enjoying good marks for being an ‘opposition’ leader. But I doubt he’ll ever rate much higher than a third of the population wanting him as PM. Still, habitual Liberal voters will rally around the brand, and Abbott will have achieved what his predecessors couldn’t: he’ll have some sort of swing to the LNP.

    Then the broken record of the two party system will replay in the next Parliament, until Gillard, who at least has a base in her party, decides its time.

  2. James on 18th March 2010 4:11 pm

    It was telling in ‘Four Corners’ about how much Howard was involved over the years in helping Abbott climb the political ladder. Howard said he got Abbott the job as a press secretary with Hewson and got him the job as CEO for Australians For A Constitutional Monarchy cos Howard wanted him to take it. It doesn’t look like much has changed and that Abbott is still benefiting from Howard’s “currency”. No doubt that helped Abbott get over the line in the leadership stoush.

  3. Rocket on 18th March 2010 6:50 pm

    Yes James, I predict the Liberals are stuffed as long as Howard is pulling the strings. I expect his influence to wane after 2013 if the Coalition is still in opposition.

  4. Edirol on 18th March 2010 9:01 pm

    Quote of the year PS – Bravo!!

    “It was a joy to once again hear that persecuted, nasal whine of our former Prime Minister on Tuesday night. Like a whacked mole, Howard has emerged from his hole after losing his government and his seat, blinking into the sunlight on the hope that it is now safe to come out.”

  5. john Willoughby on 19th March 2010 8:25 am

    lets not forget that “jolly joe” gave us the photo
    of the year whilst kowtowing at the Howard residence
    prior to his turnbull turnaround

  6. The Piping Shrike on 19th March 2010 8:51 am

    Yes, I think Howard, as did Abbott and Minchin, wanted Hockey first. But Malcolm stuffed that up, so the old guard have taken what they can get.

  7. John Kotsopoulos on 19th March 2010 9:08 am

    “His (Abbott’s) strengths are, he’s obviously very bright, but he’s very cunning, and I think that cunningness shows”.. John Hewson.

    Yep he sure is the right man for cunning stunts.

  8. Ricc on 19th March 2010 2:54 pm

    A cunning linguist he is

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