Before he was even elected, we opined, publicly, that Tony Abbott would never make it to the next election. Or that if he did, he would never win it.
We tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to popularise the hashtag #onetermtony to encapsulate our point of view. Clearly we haven’t cracked working Twitter yet.
Our reasons were very straightforward. In our consideration, Abbott exhibited (and continues to display) the wrong skill set to be Prime Minister.
His “crash through or crash” style and belligerent University-debating-society arrogance is all wrong for leading a party, let alone a country. He was pitchforked into the job by Nick Minchin and others (by just one vote, remember) because of their visceral distaste for the much more electorally acceptable small-L liberalism of Malcom Turnbull. We said at the time, and we say it again: this was a gigantic strategic failure born of naked personal ambition, hubris and sheer political bastadry. And now it has entirely predictably come back to bite the Liberal Party in the butt, big time.
Be under no misapprehension, Dear Reader. As things stand, the Australian Labor Party is undeservedly coasting back into national power with a leader whose main role in the run up to the next election is to appear inoffensive. Policy development? None. Vision for the country? None. Hugs and smiles? Yup, plenty. The target is not just small, it’s miniscule.
Let us just revise the history of the last 18 months – Abbott won against the terminally wounded Gillard and the terminally incompetent Kevin Rudd. Through their own infighting and their catastrophic mishandling of various key policy imperatives, the ALP had made themselves virtually unelectable. Theoretically for a generation.
That they have now defeated a competent if un-inspirational Coalition Government in Victoria, look like they are at the very least competitive against a first-term LNP Government with a massive majority in Queensland, and currently seem a shoe-in for the next Federal election, is testament to the scale of the muddled, tone deaf yet vociferous incompetence of Abbott and many in his cabinet.
The chickens are coming home to roost so fast we shall all be eating them for breakfast for months to come. On Fairfax radio this morning a “through and through” Liberal voter on callback radio accused Abbott of being the “world’s worst salesman: in danger of handing the keys to the Lodge back to Labor”. Rarely can a Prime Minister have endured such a shellacking from one of his own in public.
Yet the caller, of course, had put his finger on exactly what’s wrong with Abbott. When you are Opposition Leader, you are an attack dog. You’re not selling anything, in reality, except the incompetence of the incumbent administration. When you are in power, you need to demonstrate you are LISTENING, not just spouting off. Abbott is inherently disinclined to listen.
He sees himself in the mould of his political mentor, John Howard, who paraded his “tough little Johnnie” status to considerable effect and turned himself into one of the most successful politicians in Australian history.
But Abbott lacks something Howard had in spades: the ability to not get in front of popular opinion, and to listen to the undercurrents in the electorate as well as what is actually said. For example, despite being both a social and fiscal conservative (or saying that he was), Howard (and his Treasurer Costello) actually maintained very high rates of taxation and social welfare, the latter aimed directly at the very Middle Class which Abbott is now seeking to soak to pay for un-necessary tax cuts for business and the uber-rich. Dumb.
But there are many other mis-steps that are down to Abbott personally. His office – led by the incredibly unpopular Peta Credlin – was highly effective in keeping the Coalition caucus on message (and largely, in fact, silent) while Abbott got himself elected. But the same unbridled disciplinarian approach in Government (which appeals to another side of Abbott’s nature, ever the proto-Roman-Catholic-seminarian) has antagonised Ministers and backbenchers alike. The most obvious mis-step being to enrage one of his rivals, Julie Bishop, by insisting on sending Andrew Robb as a right-wing minder to accompany her to the climate conference in Peru in case she should actually – gasp! – agree to do something to combat climate change. That’s not the sort of “direct action” on the problem that Australians expected.
Abbott’s record in Government on Medicare has been simply woeful, too.
The initial $7 co-payment idea was effectively (and accurately) seen as dreadfully
unfair to those who rely on bulk-billing medical practices to help them survive poverty and/or old age, and the illnesses associated with it. Frail little old ladies unable to pay to visit their Doctor was not a good look for a party which counts the majority of retirees amongst their supporters. Astoundingly stupid.
A more recent attempt to slap on a $20 fee on short consultations which was always doomed to fail in the Senate has simply added fuel to a still spluttering fire.
Why make such a mis-step for a second time, let alone the first time? Simple: crash through or crash, in action.
As the pro-Government Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph reported, Abbott defied Treasurer Joe Hockey and the former Health Minister Peter Dutton to impose the $20 cut to GP rebates before later backflipping on the policy he had demanded. In a highly damaging leak from the powerful expenditure review committee, senior ministers have confirmed they were told Mr Hockey and Mr Dutton opposed the move during a “heated’’ exchange with the Prime Minister. The warnings included concerns that rolling out new changes to GP consults in the lead up to the Queensland and NSW state election was “crazy’’. Doctors also immediately warned the changes would be passed on to patients, raising fears of even higher charges than the original co-payment.
But the Prime Minister instead insisted on changes including the $20 cut the Medicare rebate for short GP consults. These changes were developed by the Prime Minister’s Office and then costed by the Department of Finance and Health. Tony knows best. Although as the later reversal showed dramatically, it is clear he didn’t, fuelling both front and backbench dis-satisfaction.
Stung by a grassroots backlash to the policy by his own Liberal MPs, Mr Abbott formed the view that it must be dumped while “taking soundings’’ as he drank beers at the cricket on Thursday. These “soundings’ included a threat by senior MPs that they would go public in their opposition to the $20 rebate cut. Mr Abbott then discussed the problem with the new Health Minister Sussan Ley who was forced to disembark from a cruise ship to announce changes after they were rubber stamped by the leadership group on Thursday morning.
Abbott looked what he is: rather poor at running an effective collegiate Government.
It is also clear now that the Government is very likely going to fail to introduce “fee deregulation” (read: sell more degrees to overseas students at vastly inflated cost) for Universities, against trenchant opposition from both Universities and students.
The resulting budget chaos from this “tone deaf” policy failure is likely to run into the billions. But that’s not really the core of the problem for the Government. In households with teenage kids and young adults up and down the country, worried children asked their parents, “How will I ever be able to afford to get a degree?” Most of those parents, like members of the Government remembering with embarrassed affection their own free University education, shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and the Government inexorably dropped down yet another peg or two in their estimation.
The other major issue for the Government is that it simply cannot persuade the people of either the need to tackle a “structural deficit”, nor the means to tackle it if they could even persuade people it exists.
Basically a structural deficit simply means that the country’s economic situation will continue to become more and more indebted as the years pass, because the Government is committed to paying out more money than it is collecting in taxes. You wouldn’t think that was too hard a case to argue, if it’s real. Perhaps stopping using the term “structural deficit” and using something simpler like “living on our national credit card” might be easier for people to grasp, but hey, we’re in the advertising business, what do we know, right?
The Government’s solution to the situation has been to seek to savagely cut expenditure, mesmerised as they are by Costello’s previous performance in returning the budget to surplus. But unlike Costello’s performance, their cuts are being perceived as falling on the innocent and those least able to cope with them, which offends Aussie sensibilities, especially as people aren’t sure why they’re happening at all (see below).
Critically, their formula ignores the fact that Costello achieved his “economic miracle” based on a growing economy and consistently high overall taxation levels (whilst cutting personal tax, to ensure the Government’s popularity). The introduction of a Goods and Services tax at 10% made all the difference. Pumping up that tax is probably the long-term solution, but the move will be unpopular, and talking about increasing taxes is tough when you were elected on a rock solid promise not to do so. A little less hubris in the run up to the election would have gone a long way … but you can’t tell that to an attack dog.
But anyhow, and this is the crucial point, it is very easy to demonstrate (and Labor will increasingly do so in the run up to the next election) that Australia’s indebtedness is still very low by world standards, and like any household deciding its level of mortgage debt, we’re not really broke at all.
In fact, our mortgage, by world standards, is very small. We are – and feel – prosperous. If we want to splurge a bit, well, hell, why not?
As the need to invest in national infrastructure is agreed by all sides of politics – we still have no train line to Doncaster in Melbourne, let alone to the bloody airport – the siren call to “keep spending and hang the deficit” seems to be more appealing than any desperation-stakes call to tighten our belts.
Put even more simply, it doesn’t feel like we have an economic crisis, so why are we acting like we do? Especially when the Government can apparently find umpteen billions for a more than fifty new fighter bombers which no-one can actually understand where or how we could even use them.
In other words, the most important job – by far, the, er, most important job – of a Prime Minister is to, er, well, sell the plans of the, er, Government, and, er, Tony Abbott has been, um, staggeringly unsuccessful and, er, unconvincing in doing so.
(Yes, he also has the most appalling public speaking manner, which only makes him appear yet more woeful. And he looks down when answering questions he doesn’t like, which makes him look shifty. One wonders why no-one has the guts to tell him.)
PUP Senator Glenn Lazarus, speaking of the latest debacle over University funding, remarked that you can only polish a turd for so long before the exercise becomes pointless.
It is clear that a significant part of the Liberal Party now hold the same view of their Leader. How long they will keep polishing is, of course, the question.
They could have just listened to us in the first place, of course. And before anyone gets swept up in the Julie Bishop love-in, rest assured that the party will return to Turnbull when they dump Abbott, because he has proven competence, his inoffensiveness will play well against Shorten, and remember, half the Parliamentary party wanted to keep him anyway.
Although he is very unpopular with the hard right, those MPs already eyeing losing their seats on current poll standings understand clearly that he has much broader appeal than any other potential Prime Minister with the general electorate.
Little wonder, then, that a quiet smile plays on his face most of the time.
Besides his huge personal wealth offering him an out anytime he tires of the Canberra game, it also recommends him to many on his side of politics as a “performer”.
His restraint in not agitating against the usurper Abbott in recent months has been remarkable to observe. This also demonstrates he possesses a strong strategic nous, and admirable patience.
He will need to take the top job on again with plenty of time to re-establish himself, but he has a little while yet before he has to move.
When he does, we suspect he will allow himself to be dragged kicking and screaming into the role, rather than being seen to assassinate his leader as he himself was assassinated. Unless, of course, assassinating him would prove electorally popular as well as a necessary lancing of the Abbott boil to save the deckchairs on the sinking ship. In which case, he will act decisively and with steel, which he possesses deep in his soul. For now, though, he will likely keep his powder dry. Not needing the job is a big part of his charm.
And after all, in the meantime, there’s the sheer fun of watching his replacement swing in the breeze, and revenge, as they say, is always a dish best eaten cold.