Tony Abbott: personable, amiable, decent and generous behind the scenes, a nice bloke to have a beer with, a family man. Everybody says so. Tony Abbott: not much of a Prime Minister. Everybody says so.
Unfortunately, nobody is really surprised. Few voters, if any, were convinced that Abbott was PM material – even as they voted the Coalition into government. If ever a Prime Minister was elected against the better judgment of voters , Abbott is it. In the post-Menzies era, it can be argued with some conviction that Abbott is the only PM to have led his party to electoral victory without first establishing his bona fides as a potential Prime Minister.
Gorton, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd – whatever judgments may have been passed after the event, each was elected against a backdrop of anticipation, an understanding that each man represented an era in the making. By whatever measure they were understood to be leaders. They were up to and worthy of the office. (In different political circumstances, minority Prime Minister Julia Gillard might have made that list too.)
During the 2013 federal election, Abbott was praised for his discipline, for keeping his party of ragtag lightweights and ticking time bombs under control, for staying on message, for keeping gaffes to a minimum, for making himself a small target.
But such endorsements were all about winning an election; they had nothing to do with what he was capable of once he won that election.
There were no plaudits for Abbott’s policy vision, his credentials as a nation builder, his gifts as a unifier, or his skills as a leader who would bring out the best in his team, and indeed in all of us.
It took only one opinion poll after the election to reveal the unprecedented voters’ remorse at having made Tony Abbott Prime Minister; it took only one budget for his Ministers to be briefing journalists about the dog’s breakfast of a budget, the broken promises and the political ineptitude of a Prime Minister and his leadership group so out of sync with the mood of the electorate, and so infuriatingly oblivious to why voters are angry.
Memories of “mean and tricky” times
This government bears every hallmark – and then some – of the “mean and tricky” phase of the Howard government, as infamously described by then party president Shane Stone in an internal memo in early 2001. But the Abbott government won’t be saved by the Tampa affair or September 11 as Howard’s shaky government was. And whatever might be said of Howard and his opportunistic politics during this time, it’s also true that Howard came into his own as a leader after this period.
As for Abbott, perhaps he was hoping that his tough stance on asylum seekers – complete with a very visible role for the Australian Army, including the appointment of a three-star general to head Operation Sovereign Borders – would have the Howard effect on his prime ministership.
Like his hero Howard, Abbott has besmirched the nation with his vilification and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, but whatever political lift he was hoping to achieve from his stance, it hasn’t worked. The shambles and shame of the Manus Island detention centre; the violence, suffering and confusion that has bedevilled the centre from day one; and its impact on Australia’s relations with the region, reveal a government out of control and out of its depth.
But the true measure of this government – and the man who leads it – was laid bare with the handing down of Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget this week. With the leaky lead up to the budget, including the ideological theatrics of the Commission of Audit report, and the budget itself, the government was revealed in all its duplicity.
Broken promises, barefaced lies, bad policy, breathtaking arrogance and bereft of any coherent long-term plan for the nation, the Abbott government bears not the slightest resemblance to the government that was promised to Australians.
This from The Australian’s Paul Kelly, dated 18 September 2013, now reads like a priceless piece of satire:
“Tony Abbott has signalled a new style of Coalition government based on collaborative ties with business, a clearer set of priorities, less frenetic, more predictable and geared to stability, not fashion.
“For Abbott, the Rudd-Gillard years are his anti-model. He aspires to deliver what he calls ‘adult government’. … He is not interested in running an exciting, dramatic, high-expectations government, lurching into dysfunction and promising to improve every second aspect of your life.
“Abbott sees this style as immature and ineffective. In the end, he wants government to do less and people to do more. He believes the public is tired of Labor’s egoism, boasting and endless self-obsessions. Announcing his ministry, Abbott said the people wanted a government that was ‘upfront, speaks plainly and does the essentials well’. Decoded, this means cutting the spin, delivering his promises and getting the economy ticking in the teeth of rising unemployment.”
Calling Malcolm Turnbull?
The Abbott government is very much dysfunctional. It looks, feels and sounds like a tired and disoriented government struggling through its third term of office. But this government is still several months from its first year in office, and as things stand, shows every sign of being a one-term government.
Not that you would guess this from the arrogance on ready display in the government’s leadership circle. The photo of Hockey and his ever-present offsider, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, smoking cigars in the cold Canberra autumn air, on the eve of bringing down the toughest, meanest federal budget in living memory, said it all. And if that didn’t speak volumes enough, Christopher Pyne dropping the c-bomb in federal Parliament certainly did the trick.
The pity of Tony Abbott being the Prime Minister is that he would have made an excellent Minister for Sport – he has the Lycra for the job – or perhaps Minister for Administrative Services, or Special Minister of State Without Portfolio. Nothing too taxing, unlike his government.
No doubt the thought of more suitable portfolios has occurred to many of his colleagues, and one in particular.
There is only one person who can keep the Coalition in power after 2016 – threats by Abbott to incoming crossbench senators that he will call an early election if they do not respect his mandate are laughable – and that is Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull is in the right place, now he is just waiting for the right time.
Sooner or later, Coalition MPs will have to confront that inevitable decision. If Abbott doesn’t get his act together, that will be sooner rather than later.