Democratic leaders don’t will wars, terrorist atrocities or natural disasters to strike. But they know that when they do, particularly when they pose a real or symbolic threat on the home front, political climates can change dramatically, and very often to their advantage. Domestic politics go into abeyance; political scandals, disputes and rivalries disappear from sight; and a sense of community unity springs from seemingly nowhere.
For some leaders, tragedy or threat can be the making of their time in office, the anvil on which their leadership is forged. It can be the seminal moment they rise to; the defining event that tests their mettle; the time in which they shine; the opportunity they seize with cold calculation.
It can give strong leaders the impetus from which there is no turning back, weak leaders their rescue from ignominy.
The global communist threat and Vietnam War helped cement the Menzies era, the Falklands War recast Margaret Thatcher as the Iron Lady, September 11 and the “war on terror” gave George W. Bush an unlikely second term, and Tampa and 9/11 marked the rebirth of John Howard’s prime ministership.
For Tony Abbott, his seminal moment has come in the form of the horrific, surreal tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shot down over Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists.
That disaster in a faraway land, unspeakable as it was, was initially the kind of incident that might have merited a single statement of sympathy from the Prime Minister of Australia. But when it emerged that Australians died in this wanton act of mass murder – at latest count 37 – the tragedy in the distant wheat fields of Ukraine became our tragedy too.
In that instant, as Abbott spoke for all Australians in condemning the crime and its perpetrators, the chaotic, unseemly, inelegant, furiously fought politics of the past few weeks shrank from view, as if it had never been. As the first memorials and community vigils were held for those who perished, Australia was a hotbed of politics no more.
The travails of a deeply unpopular first-term government, Joe Hockey’s ruinous first budget, the circus surrounding the repeal of the carbon tax, the dysfunctional new Senate, the unruly and almost unworkable lower house under Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, the unpredictability of Clive Palmer, the mystery of the missing asylum seeker boat, foreign policy missteps, the Japanese military of WWII being lauded by our PM, a slew of under-performing ministers – all gone. In an instant. All that was missing was the puff of smoke and the magician’s curvaceous assistant.
MH17: the making of Tony Abbott?
Now it remains to be seen whether the downing of MH17 is the making – and possibly the remaking – of Tony Abbott. Or will it just be a suspension of the political soap opera which has sapped the forbearance of most Australians for almost a year.
It is right and proper at this time of tragedy that Abbott is not simply the leader of a political party. He is the Prime Minister who must speak for the nation, at home and on the world stage, at this time of sorrow. When he embraces the families of the victims and offers words of comfort, he does so for all of us.
But Abbott’s political problems have not gone away; they have just been put on hold.
What we see from Abbott, over the months ahead as the aftermath of the MH17 disaster unfolds, and beyond, will shape the rest of his term.
It will be interesting to see whether the tragedy in Ukraine gives him a different perspective as Prime Minister, as a leader.
As he berates the rebels and Russian President Vladimir Putin for their lack of humanity – for the murderous action itself and for the obstruction of the investigation – will it make him reflect on the charges of those who accuse him and his government of inhumane treatment of asylum seekers – especially the children? Or will it stiffen his resolve to maintain a hard line?
Will the emotionally charged experience of dealing with the MH17 horror and its aftermath cause Abbott to re-evaluate those domestic policies that hurt the poorest and most disadvantaged in our community?
Will it change his head-kicker approach to politics, will it prompt him to conduct himself more openly and honestly with the people, will it be taken as a personal opportunity to take stock?
Abbott has never been known for his self-awareness, but if he does possess any, he will recognise this moment of tragedy as an opportunity to rebuild his beleaguered prime ministership and the fortunes of his government – and one hopes the trust of the people who could not possibly hold government and politicians in lower esteem.
At some point, domestic politics will reassert itself and Abbott will once more be seen in the context of those politics.
Whether people come to see him in a new and more positive light – and indeed whether he sees himself in a new light – in the wake of the MH17 disaster may well determine whether “one-term-Tony” lives to fight another term after 2016.