There are a number of reasons Tony Abbott will no longer be Prime Minister after tomorrow, and some of them are linked.
Offending your deputy. Offending half your backbench. Offending great lumps of the Australian public.
But the main reason is really quite simple. He is very obviously, as far as any elector can tell, just not a very nice man.
Being considered a nice person is a much under-rated trait in politicians, as it is in the most walks of life in the body of the population.
Most of the really powerful and successful people we have met – and we have met more than our fair share over the years – have had a few things in common. They are usually personally charming, they exhibit humility, they have “the common touch” whatever their station in life, and they genuinely care about other people’s lives. Or at the very least, they seem to.
There are other characteristics, too. They tend to be ferociously hard workers, and they maintain a sense of perspective. Sometimes things will go wrong, sometimes they will go right, but there is never a reason to be nasty, or essentially unethical. Push the envelope, don’t rip it to shreds.
They have some advantages, of course. In the realms of the uber-powerful or the uber-wealthy, the rules that the rest of us find ourselves tied up in knots in don’t normally apply.
They don’t get caught drink driving, because they have drivers. They don’t end up in jail for tax fraud because they pay top dollar to stop that happening. And anyway, their affairs are so convoluted that the tax office doesn’t really want to look too closely, stretched for resources to prosecute cases as they always are.
They don’t seem as stressed as we do because they don’t queue for airline seats and the seats they buy are more comfortable. They don’t spend a day trying to negotiate a ticketing system to see a top show or sporting event, because their personal assistant gets them a seat in the Director’s Box, where they are always welcome because of their referred authority. Their holidays, such as they are, are smoother, more private, less noisy, less hassle, and more satisfactory. And if for some reason they aren’t, they throw money or influence at the problem.
But despite all this privilige, most truly successful people have an astounding ability to drop down to our level and chat amiably about our latest problem with an internet provider, how our local supermarket has stopped stocking our favourite fruit juice, or the problems we are having with our teenage progeny. It may be that they remember when they, too, were mere hoi polloi, or it may be that they recognise that while success is nice to have, it rests on the common consent of those around them.
There is a reason all those Godfathers in American hoodlum movies are seen kissing babies and helping little old ladies as they parade down the street in Little Italy. It’s good for business. And keen observers of human nature as all successful people are, they work at it until it comes naturally.
This is not to say they are all paragons. Clearly they are not.
Some drink too much, either in binges or habitually.
The most significant politician in 20th century history, Winston Churchill consumed at least a bottle of brandy a day. People in Melbourne still talk in hushed tones of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s capacity for the grog, even though he had the discipline to give it up when high office beckoned.
Some are sexually wayward. A bunch of Australian Prime Ministers have been enthusiastic adulterers, (the laws of libel dictate discretion here), and all the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, and Bill Clinton also come to mind without much effort. Francoise Hollande, for that matter.
Yes, powerful businesspeople run foul of the law with some regularity, especially in civil court. But rather than rant and rave at their misfortune, they merely view it as a sort of occupational hazard. A bit like the rest of us view parking tickets.
So they aren’t really like us, no matter where they started out. But in general, in our experience, it is the capacity to simply get on with people that marks the truly successful from the also rans.
Some time ago, we wrote a blog that talked about the demise of Kevin Rudd, which we titled “Kevin Rudd has his Lee Iaccoca moment”. In it, we explained that Rudd’s disonnection from the leadership of the Australian Labor Party rested entirely on his near-maniacal control freakery, which caused the distrust of those around him, (and it went back a decade), and an acid tongue which hurt people’s feelings. In simple terms, he failed the likeability test.
Yes, Rudd had the capacity to be chirpy and chipper and even make us laugh with his obvious erudition and quick wit, especially in public. Sadly, though, no one near him, or very few indeed, actually liked him. More than one political groupie muttered in our hearing that they thought he was unhinged. He was better liked in the public, mainly the first time round because he wasn’t John Howard, but he wasn’t really mourned when he left the leadership either the first or the second time, when, of course, he was only returned to the top job because he wasn’t Julia Gillard.
There were very few people rushing to lift his head away from the block when the axe started to fall in the initial leadership putsch that so reminds us of what’s happening in Canberra tomorrow. And he simply couldn’t believe it. Him! Kev! The smiling Milky Bar kid, the good Christian, the clever little bugger who overcame adversity, and the man who beat John Howard. Who could chat to the Chinese Premier in Mandarin, no less.
He didn’t get it then, tears in his eyes at the enormity of the disaster, and probably still doesn’t now.
Political leaders need to understand something central to their careers. Not being someone – Beazely, Gillard, Rudd, Howard, Turnbull, anyone – isn’t a good enough reason to keep the top job. It might get you there, but then we want more. We want their capacity to be “not them” to turn into someone we can grow to support in their own right.
Was or is Rudd unhinged as the whisperers asserted? We suspect not. Personalities come in all shapes and sizes and types, and labelling someone barmy is just code for “not like most people”. It doesn’t really matter. But some character aspects were certainly publicly observable. Capricious when it came to policy announcements? Unshakeable certitude? Breathless cynicism? Two faced? Rudd was accused of all that by colleagues and more. Similarly, not for nothing is Abbot often referred to as “The Mad Monk”, and not just because he was a Roman Catholic seminarian at one point. People can be very harsh to those they personally dislike. Both to his face (reputedly) and to the media, Tony Abbott has had to endure a repeated theme from his colleagues in the last week.
“You’ve done this to yourself.” The phrase was no doubt delivered with some relish.
Exactly like Rudd, he has a terrible aptitude for making it up as he goes along, and his basic error has been his own over-weening self belief, expressed in an arrogant disregard for the real world outside his personal office bubble, and the Canberra bubble generally. We are not talking about mere self-confidence or a healthy regard for his own abilities. All leaders, in all spheres, need that. Abbott’s major problem has been the apparent impossibility of his genuinely (as opposed to begrudgingly) believing he could be wrong about … well, about anything, much, really. From the outside looking in, it feels like “collegiate” is a word that he only discovered last Monday.
And his righteous self-belief has been expressed with such vehemence that he has carved out a hard-edged role for himself that is so acutely defined that now he simply can’t escape it. He has created an image of himself that has become reality, inside him, and externally.
When Abbott was tearing down Julia Gillard, and just out-waiting the hapless Rudd when he returned as PM, people in general – the mug punters, you and me – even if they agreed with the need to get the Labor Governmet out before it made any more mis-steps, turned their head away from the spectacle in hand-over-the-mouth disgust at his tactics.
The people of Australia wanted the Labor Government gone so badly that their swallowed the reflux bile rising in their breasts and their concerns. But Abbott crucially mistook this mass real politik for “taking the country with him”. (Which is why his current desperate appeal is based around “the country elected me to lead our party and the Government”, which is a nonsense, of course. The country elected the Libs and the Nats because Labor needed to be flung out. They got Abbott as part of the package.)
With each prating, carping, negative act of savagery while Opposition Leader Abbott not only damaged Gillard but also his own long-term public persona. He should have seen a warning, for example, in the general head-nodding agreement – not just in Australia, but worldwide – when Gillard tore into him in the Parliament for what she characterised as his innate misogyny and sexism. People then, and now, felt sorry for Gillard, sensing that her competence might be in question, and certainly her political judgement and presentation, but also perceiving that there was a clear goal to damn her simply as a woman holding the top job.
The continual focus on her looks and dress sense in the rabid right media pack that Abbott did nothing to hose down, for example. Abbott standing and sneering in front of lunatics carrying “Ditch the Bitch” signs – such a specifically unpleasant anti-female expression – knowing full well that the TV cameras would film him grinning from ear to ear in front of them.
And then, the feeling grew, by implication, event by event, that Abbott just doesn’t like women generally, or at the very least holds views better suited to the 1950s.
Where were the women in his Cabinet? With one exception, nowhere.
His later insistence, as Prime Minister, that successful Foreign Minister Julie Bishop needed a Ministerial chaperone to the climate change conference in Peru was just one recent example of a continuing round of mis-steps in this area, and his refusal to accept her offer of help with his under-whelming National Press Club performance was just the latest, along with his clumsy and offensive co-opting of her support for his staying in the top job, only to be shot down a few hours later by a cool and clearly angered Bishop.
And during all this growing female angst, what was Abbott’s response to his enlarging personal “gender gap”? To announce a completely ill-thought through paid parental leave scheme as a “top of the head” sop to working women, that was derided as shooting from the hip and likely to be unaffordable the day it was announced, to gasps of despair from his own supporters.
Women from all walks of life noted that they didn’t need more money so they could stay home and bake cookies for a while, they needed childcare places so they could continue to pursue their career. Until last week, it appeared no-one could hear them.
And at a stroke, with “PPL”, Abbott skewered his own budget position with what looked like yet more Howardesque middle class welfare, and forced the Coalition into the position of “soaking the poor” to balance the books. It took Abbott 16 months to realise his mistake, and then his grudging retraction of the patently unworkable policy was mealy-mouthed. Tone deaf, as always.
Yet as he watches his colleagues say one thing to his face and then do another as they cast their private ballots, we would be very surprised if Abbott has any real understanding of what is happening to him. Well, we have a primer for him.
The very same people that don’t want unfettered flows of refugees into Australia also don’t want those refugees left floating about in the bowels of a navy vessel for weeks, or consigned to misery in tropical concentration camps, reduced to psychological illness, self harm, or worse. The first is an appeal to commonsense and good governance. The second is mean-minded and cruel. That our Government doesn’t seem to care about the latter upsets many more people than just those on the left.
Similarly, there may be no pressing mood for Australia to become a Republic. Australians are deeply small-c conservative most of the time, and if something’s working OK, such as our constitutional arrangements, we’re pretty much happy to leave it alone.
But we do like Australia for the Australians – we detest knee-bending to the Poms in general, and royalty in particular, with the exception, perhaps, just a little, in the case of the Queen herself, who is widely admired. The “in itself unimportant” decision to knight Prince Phillip – the decision to bring back knighthoods at all, in fact – made us feel like the whole country was a laughing stock.
That Abbott couldn’t have predicted this goes precisely to his inability to feel himself part of the herd, even momentarily or occasionally. His later embarrassed admission that his action had been a “distraction” during the disastrous Queensland election showed no sign that he really understood that he made us all feel faintly ridiculous, and as we hadn’t done anything wrong, well, that he could swallow all that, thank you very much.
It is often said that a politician can survive anything but ridicule. The ridicule that swamped Abbott in the days after the announcement revealed with stark, lightning-bright clarity one unmistakeable fact. And it is this.
We really don’t like him. This wasn’t a “Silly boy, oh well, all’s well that ends well” moment. This was a “You complete fuckwit” moment. His inability to truly take that on board in a convincing manner only made the whole sorry saga worse.
But his real problem – the one that will see him dumped – has been the gung ho manner in which he has chosen to address a “fiscal crisis” that the public simply doesn’t perceive. Backing his even more socially inept Treasurer at every turn, he foisted on the public a panicky, poorly presented and savagely deflationary budget (the only thing missing was the word austerity) that no one understands or wants, and then utterly failed to sell it.
Meandering between a self-satisfied “I know more than you do” smirk and a frowning, headmasterish “you need this” assertiveness, he managed in just a few short weeks – ably assisted by his tin-eared Treasurer – to offend just about every “ordinary voter” in sight.
As Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian yesterday, “The Abbott-Hockey fiscal consolidation is undermined by a popular revolt, Senate vandalism and election results that prove the public is unpersuaded of the case for reform.”
In this sentence, Kelly of course uses the word popular to mean “widespread” or generalised. But in fact, the core problem for Abbott is deeper than that. Not only is the broad mass of the public unconvinced of his policies, and therefore acting up, we are also communally delighting in watching Abbott being dragged bloodily from the throne. The revolution is popular. It is also popular.
In suburban households up and down the country, Madam Lafarge is click-clacking with her knitting circle in joyous expectation that Abbott’s head will soon tumble into the basket in front of them.
We. Just. Don’t. Like. Him. One too many (or perhaps a few thousand too many) ums and errs. One too many refusals to take responsibility. One too many unpleasant little jabs or full-blown haymakers. One too many unblinking cold stares.
Dear Reader, we have been on this planet 57 years, and since the age of 16 we have been actively involved in politics, current affairs or commentary to some degree or other, including even – once – facing the general public for endorsement ourselves.
Our fascination with ballot-box politics has seen us read, experience and learn voraciously everything that has passed our way from the minority governments of Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and the miners, Margaret Thatcher and the miners, Jim Callaghan’s winter of discontent, the breaking of union power in the UK, Thatcher and Reagan staring down Gorbacev, the Blair “Noo Labour”revolution, the failure of American policy in the mid-East from Reagan and Carter onwards, the near-perpetual antagonism of Howard and Peacock, the glittering landscape of micro-economic reform under Hawke, Keating and Kelty, the near-collapse of democratic Government in Italy, and now in Greece, the demise of fascism in Spain and Portugal and their current struggles to retain good governance, the economic miracle of Germany and its internally-mutually-supportive PR-based politics and worker-inclusive industry, the stumbling from economic powerhouse to economic stagnant pond in Japan, the growth and gradual opening of China (where we have done business, and a country we admire), the Asian tiger phenomenon, the descent of Central America into chaos and murderous civil conflict and it’s slow recovery, and, of course, the adventurism of Iraq and Afghanistan. All of it. We hoover it all up.
Which is why we feel it helpful to say that in all that time, and with all that political junkie obsessivenes, we have never – never – experienced such generalised dislike of a democratically-elected politician as we now experience in our daily life whenever Tony Abbott’s name is discussed. Irregardless of whether we are talking to ironed on Labor voters, Liberals, Nats or Greens, the man simply cannot buy a good word from anyone. He is no longer even seen as a necessary evil. The people have spoken, daily, for months and months, if not, in reality, for years.
We just don’t like him. We just don’t like him, a lot.
With his leadership lying in the hands of a group of people who would rather like to keep their jobs after the next election, that is why he is about to lose the Prime Ministership. Not because (as will be said afterwards) he attempted the hard yards of economic reform. But because he royally fucked it up.
As Grace Collar remarked yesterday (also in the Oz) “Trust and confidence have been lost. One decision has already been made. This government – in its present form – and the Australian people have parted ways. This decision is final. It cannot be undone, no matter what. No appeal can occur.”
People don’t like Tony Abbott. His own people don’t even like him. They may even hate him.
Malcom Turnbull, it will be noted by observant readers, is likeable.
And in politics, that, as they have been known to say, is that.
PS Even if Abbott somehow survives tomorrow – we dont think he will, but he might – he is doomed. The votes against him will reveal a very significant section of his party no longer believe in him. That is an impossible position for a Prime Minister to take to the people in 18 months or less. He has to win big – huge – to survive, and he’s not going to. Simple as that. You heard it here first.