Tony Abbott

Twirling towards freedom

Full of it

Let’s talk about shit. Our leaders talk it, our prime minister is full of it, and for one of the G20 leaders, it’s a key piece of policy.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is coming to Brisbane for the G20 after a quick victory lap of the world, during which he sold his vision of the new India. Modi’s dream is of a young, rising nation that safeguards the future of an ageing globe. Part of realising this is expanding sanitation and bringing to an end the Indian tradition of defecating outside. The soundbite is “toilets before temples”, and it’s part of a greater philosophy of a clean India. At one end of the rhetoric this means a toilet in every home. At the other, the abolition of “the enemy within”, a euphemism for the Indian Muslim minority.

It’s testament to Modi’s oratorical skills that he is better known internationally for his fiscally progressive yoga-loving political incarnation, than as the Hindu nationalist firebrand who many scholars argue was complicit in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which 790 Muslims were murdered and many more wounded and raped. 

These days the genocide perpetrated on his watch as Gujarat Chief Minister is less well remembered than his prudent fiscal stewardship of the state, a legacy he trades on as the leader of a rapidly growing India. He has turned the focus away from his own feculent past to literally cleaning up the streets.

Like water off a duck's back, the shit doesn’t stick to Modi. Perhaps our own prime minister could learn a thing or two about managing his image from his Indian counterpart.

The two men have some things in common. Both head governments in which policy is led by right-wing think tanks. Neither lets reality get in the way of a good soundbite. Both lead parties that have benefited from playing up the threat of extremist Muslims. Both shuffled their cabinets in line with their own values: while Australia lost its Ministry of Science in favour of a Minister for Anzac Day, Modi just appointed a Minister for Yoga.

Each man wears his religion on at least one of his sleeves. The other sleeve is for economic credentials, although Modi is rather more convincing in this role – the Gujarat State did enjoy rapid economic development under his rule, while Abbott made Joe Hockey his treasurer.

Modi sells his brand much better than Abbott. While they both use foreign policy to score domestic points, Modi’s domestic policy is also designed to score points internationally. When he addressed a rapturous crowd of expats in New York’s Madison Square Gardens, he spoke of India’s future as a global power. The message was intended for the voters at home, and for the Obama administration. When Modi addresses an Indian crowd, he is also talking to the world.

Contrast this with Abbott’s use of international platforms, in his first months in office, to broadcast criticisms of the previous Labor administration. In opposition, his relentless hostility to the ALP made him seem ruthless. In leadership, it makes him look petty.

Modi has played to his strengths. The Modi he has sold to the world is a reformed one. He plays up his humble origins as a tea merchant, his unimposing physicality, his practical measures to improve his country. It all belies the divisive way in which he wields power. There will be toilets before temples, but right about now the Muslim minority in much of India will be shitting themselves.

For his part, Abbott has remained studiously pig-headed, either unwilling or unable to adapt his rhetoric as the world moves on. Blindsided by this week’s agreement between China and America to reduce global emissions, he had a chance to soften his stance on climate change and make it part of the agenda at the upcoming G20 summit. Abbott appears to have failed before the summit begins, by reaffirming that jobs, not the climate, would be his focus.

This puts Tony “Coal is good for humanity” Abbott at odds with the world’s primary superpowers, as well as its rising ones. Modi has signalled his concern over climate change, and has called for the developed world to act on it. He recognises that he must talk the talk, even if he can’t yet walk it.

Abbott, who in the past has said that he takes direction from God, now finds himself out of step with his God’s main representative on earth. Pope Francis recently wrote to the Catholic Australian PM urging him to reconsider the poor and disenfranchised who will be most affected by climate change.

Meanwhile Abbott continues to be mocked for his stance by international observers, by his electorate, by other world leaders.

The boost in the polls Abbott enjoyed when he shifted public attention away from his fumbling domestic policy and bumbling cabinet to an international focus is levelling off. While voters appreciated the appearance of strong leadership in the wake of the MH17 tragedy, his promise to ‘shirt-front’ the Russian leader and his attempts to hold Putin to account are not playing particularly well. Compared to proper villains like Putin and Modi, Abbott comes across not as threatening, but just incompetent.

When Modi was in Australia in September he gave Abbott a book on yoga. Perhaps he would have done better with the perennial Western spiritual text How to Win Friends and Influence People or even, given the paucity of women in the Abbott cabinet, The Game. Or maybe just a bumper sticker.

After all, shit does happen.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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