Friday, 30 January 2015 

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

Conviction politicians hard to find anywhere. Australia’s Tony Abbott a rare exception. Opponent Rudd all over the place convincing nobody.

R Murdoch scribbling on a wall, 19 August 2013

Abbott again. Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin she must do her patriotic duty and resign.

Tagged R Murdoch 18 months later

You can imagine the thinking. “That Honours system I introduced is in danger of being ridiculed. What it needs is gravitas. I know!” And short of Elizabeth tapping herself on the shoulder, who better to do it than the Duke of Edinburgh, Baron of Greenwich, Earl of Merioneth etc. etc. etc.

But the mistake Abbott made was failing to get that it was not that people didn’t take the Honours system seriously enough, but they got the serious central point of it all too well, the problem of the Monarchy. Abbott is a Monarchist in a Republican country, that only isn’t so because 15 years ago the idiotic left decided to offer Australian voters an even more unpalatable alternative, a Politicians’ Republic.

The last time this blogger checked, the Liberal party was still fairly Monarchist as well, with only a creeping Republicanism as it transforms from the democratic impulse of forty years ago to the nationalist tosh of today. The party may not have proposed Philip in the first place, but the idea that it would have delivered such a snub to the Monarchy by rejecting Philip, as one Liberal MP suggested, is typical of the furious re-writing and back-tracking that is now underway.

The desperate positioning going on in the right at the moment at least explains some very curious features of this outbreak of speculation over the future of Abbott’s leadership.

The first is the sheer casualness of it. The dumping of a Prime Minister in his first term because of poor polls is virtually unprecedented in Australian political history. Rudd, of course, was dumped not because of his unpopularity (the 52:48 lead he had in his last Newspoll in 2010 is one this government hasn’t enjoyed since two months after it took office). Rudd’s dumping was an institutional power play disguised as a poll driven one, which became increasingly unconvincing as his successor clung on with full institutional backing, despite plumbing the polling depths.

On the Coalition side, Gorton’s dumping after three years in 1971 has been given as an example. But this too was less poll driven than essentially a battle over states’ rights, as the Liberals showed the limits of their ability to implement what would be later best described as the Whitlam Settlement.

The only remotely comparable example is the dumping of Abbott’s twin, Gillard, which Rudd pulled off against overwhelming institutional resistance because of polling. Although even here, it was also a lot to do with the power brokers and unions starting to lose control of the Parliamentary Party (plus the additional incentive highlighted by Rudd in the last caucus, that if the Libs won control of the Senate, there could be a Royal Commission with full powers against the unions that could …).

The point is that at the moment there is no issue that the Libs could really summon up that would justify Abbott’s removal other than lousy polls and mistakes. That’s not normal. Howard survived worst in his first term. But this leads on to another odd feature about the current leadership speculation.

Pretty well nowhere in the commentary is the problem seen as extending beyond Abbott and his office, to the Liberal party as a whole. This is odd first of all because it’s hardly just Abbott who had a problem last year. The performance of the holders of two of the government’s most important posts, the Treasurer and the Attorney General, has hardly been sparkling. And furthermore, the problems of Hockey and Brandis have been on issues that are precisely what modern conservatism is supposed to be about, economic rationalism (the Budget) and the tedious culture war to roll back the Whitlam Settlement (18C).

That the Liberals have escaped such scrutiny is especially odd if one thinks why they are led by someone who is, and has long been, so unpopular in the first place, namely to restore the Liberal party’s brand.

It’s been forgotten now but Abbott was appointed not because he was going to be a killer against Labor but actually the opposite. The Liberal front bench split in half and resigned in 2009, and were prepared to default the next election by choosing one of their least popular politicians to lead it, because they were more worried what was happening to the party’s political identity than electoral success – reaching a crisis point when Turnbull signed up to Rudd’s CRS.

The dilemma for the Liberals at the time was that in defending the party’s brand, it would also expose its electoral irrelevance, because its ideological agenda was as anachronistic as the unions’ social one. This dilemma was not only shown by the unpopularity of the party’s banner carrier, but that as soon as he took over, the public show of climate scepticism that rallied the party to him had to be dropped.

The subsequent disintegration on the Labor side allowed all of this to be ignored, and allowed conservative commentators to dream that their agenda had some electoral relevance, and the less ideological commentators to believe the electoral pendulum was still swinging (if getting a bit rusty on the Labor side).

The dreaming is over. The reckoning now, and the frantic attempts to cover up what had been evident all along by dumping all the problems of the right and the Liberals on to Abbott, and even his Chief of Staff, is feeding this irrationality. It is permitting the open thinking of the unthinkable barely a year and half after they were crowing about Labor doing the same thing. If Murdoch is taking the lead on it, it’s only because the sly old fox is showing conservative commentators (including those in the Fairfax stable) a temporary way out of this mess, and to maintain the pretence the right agenda still has relevance.

It does not. This is especially clear in Australia where the right has never stood on its own feet, but relied excessively on a dull, if rather sleazy family in the south western London suburbs – or otherwise being against Labor’s project, which has clearly run its course. Bill Shorten.

What we are really seeing now is not the stumbles of one leader, but that the pas de deux that has kept this tedious show on the road for the last four and a half years is now, thankfully, coming to an end. As it does, at least the real state of things since Howard left the scene will now become unavoidable, even to conservative commentators with a franchise to protect.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 30 January 2015.

Filed under State of the parties

Tags: ,


9 responses to “Decay”

  1. Michael on 30th January 2015 12:46 pm

    I find it interesting to see just how little faith the political commentariat has in the electorate’s ability to think or make judgements. As the two party system has begun to show signs of cracking you can see the nervousness of many commentators and the business elite starting to show. They have had such a sweet deal going with all the tight bi-partisanship “reform” that the idea that things might start to unravel has pushed some of them a bit over the edge.
    The massive contradiction at the heart of “budget repair” and intergenerational fairness is probably where the battle for neoliberalisms total domination will finally be lost. It’s not the salesman or the salesmanship or even the narrative that is the problem – it’s the fact that the electorate is starting to realise it’s getting screwed.

  2. Michael on 30th January 2015 12:53 pm

    The desperation in the attempts to put the knighthood captains call into perspective as being trivial is also telling. There is nothing trivial about a PM exposing themselves to this level of derision. The decision was a very personal one and it one that Abbott really must have believed in. He will never recover from it.

  3. Dianne on 30th January 2015 2:09 pm

    We seem to be spluttering to a shuddering halt like one of those wind-up toys.

    Today in the dairy meadows of Colac, Victoria Abbott declared himself a great leader which recalled Napoleon’s placement of a crown upon his own head. Well, that is stretching it I suppose. A milking shed in the Western District is not entirely reminiscent of imperial France.

    Still defiance was present. A little foot stamping about the supposed popularity of rivals Bishop and Turnbull who, according to the PM, owe everything to his fine leadership.

    I wonder what they think.

    Now Shrike was that declaration by Abbott made from confidence that no-one can/will challenge him or was it an expression of weakness, a recognition that his days as leader are numbered?

    Either way the nation’s wagon-wheels seem to be whirring in sticky mud.

    The Libs seem to have imploded and the Opposition is still a shadow. Is it still out there?

  4. F on 30th January 2015 2:58 pm

    What is particularly hilarious is all the talk of “lessons being learned” about the ALP’s drama filled term in office, and then in almost the same breath the active contemplation of “if we can just get rid of Tony/Peta, all will be well”. Because changing leaders for the ALP proved so very effective.

    This government is broken, and with it the right. You only have to read some of the advice being offered. It borders on the delusional. Just more of the same, but more so, and with less consideration given to what voters want. Politicians are not helped by a craven media class, that fails to see the difference between what is good for it, and what is good for the rest of us. There is all this talk about Tony’s Press Club address, that its “make or break”. Really? I don’t think it matters either way, does it? It appears it will function more as a pep talk to the gathered conservative( and their secret supporters) commentariat. I don’t know why he is bothering. The media is still on his side, they want him to succeed. They are not the problem. Its those pesky things called voters that are the issue.

  5. Dianne on 30th January 2015 3:06 pm

    Further to Tony Abbott’s lauding of his own leadership skills ….

    Was it only last week that he was claiming that he had never been a skite and never intended to become one?

  6. Riccardo on 2nd February 2015 11:46 am

    I think there are too many self-serving comparisons being made between Rudd/Gillard and the current government, made with the objective of not changing leadership mid-term.

    The reality is the circumstances are very different in that Rudd definitely was knifed only for internal purposes only, the idea that Rudd was on the nose was an internal conversation only within the political class. His ‘unpopularity’ was only a relative fading of his historic high popularity.

    Whereas Abbott’s unpopularity is written large for all to see, and if anything the failure of his party to act would be the same ‘tin ear’ that applied in reverse to Rudd (ie getting rid of him when the population saw no reason to).

    Whereas some Libs are saying Abbott should just continue ‘crashing through…it will be alright in 2016’ this is the opposite course from Rudd, who might in early 2010 have succeeded if he had crashed through by calling a DD.

    Not only would Rudd have disposed of Turnbull or early Abbott, his power over his party would have increased, some factional operatives would have given up and gone home.

    It is funny the number of Libs who think they can avoid the iceberg by steaming full speed at it.

  7. Riccardo on 2nd February 2015 11:53 am

    Any party in pure terms is made up of

    a) people likely to vote for the party leader, though friendship, personality or at least desire to see the particular set of policies that leader espouses and

    b) people who don’t like the party leader, but dislike the alternative parties more

    And if you can’t maximise a) because you are a no good leader, at least frustrate the b) group by offering no clear rival to yourself. I suspect a bit of this is going on right now, constant talk of Bishop OR Turnbull (or Morrison) plays into Abbott’s longevity.

  8. PH on 2nd February 2015 7:52 pm

    In 1989 there was bipartisan agreement on the need for reform, coasting on an international wave. It’s taken this long, but now when the mums and dads in the street hear “reform”, they know all too well that they are being told again to bend over, while vested interests get away scott free. That game is up.

  9. Zombie social democracy in shock landslide win - Left Flank on 23rd February 2015 7:59 pm

    […] Surely “knights and dames” and then giving a clapped out, racist old Royal a knighthood are exactly what Liberal governments are about — once they no longer have a viable “neoliberal” agenda, and once their foreign policy sabre […]

Comments are closed.