Twirling towards freedom

Team sports
Has Tony Abbott lost his cheer squad?

Credit: Michael Coghlan

How better to make sense of the state of the nation than through a sporting analogy?

Sport is, ideally, the arena that showcases the nation at its best. Even those who remember John Howard as a blight on our history, the hubristic captain who led the country on its current path of cultural conflict and racial vilification, can’t deny that the photo of Howard jumping for joy at a Socceroos’ goal in the 2006 World Cup is a little bit heart-warming.

That night, a long time ago in an Australia far, far away, crowds poured out of pubs across the country to celebrate in the streets. Overnight, a nation that didn’t much care for soccer was united in praise for Tim Cahill, et al. We were a team: Team Australia. 

Fast forward to the end of 2014, when our weird and graceless prime minister embarrassed himself, and by extension all of us, by soiling himself the first time he was invited to sit at the grown-ups’ table. The ridicule is still raining down, as comedians and pundits alike have sunk the boot in. But Abbott’s flubs, faux pas and misjudgements are legion and have been well covered elsewhere, so let’s not dwell on them. It is worth nothing, though, that it isn’t just Fairfax that is dedicating so much coverage to the prime minister’s failings.

The Murdoch press, which had handed Abbott the federal election, has now arced up. Even Alan Jones, who can be relied on to provide even the most embattled Liberal leader with a political reach-around, has torn into Abbott over the free trade agreement with China. The Australian, that most reliable of friends, has also deserted Tone. This past weekend’s editorial detailed Abbott’s failings – from his mishandling of the ABC cuts, to “limply … losing the battle to define core issues,” and the “dot-point banalities pumped out by the PMO” – before suggesting that a prime minister possessing the wit and charm of Paul Keating might have shaped the past fortnight’s international trade deals into a grand narrative. The editorial reaches the damning conclusion that Abbott’s “insipid default setting is losing the people”.

The front bench, too, is slowly edging away from Abbott. Julie Bishop is going for a Queen of Hearts charm offensive with the foreign ministry, and delighting Fairfax by going jogging in China, using emojis on Twitter, and hinting at a new boyfriend. In November alone, the Sydney Morning Herald published 20 stories on Bishop, almost all of them positive. Bishop is presenting a softer, more accessible face – one without lasers for eyes – than she has in recent years. Meanwhile, Christopher Pyne, showing himself to be adept at skulduggery and leading a double-life (who’d have thunk it?), while remaining deaf to irony, ran a petition to save South Australia’s ABC production facilities from cuts instituted by his own party.

It’s hard to know, then, who to feel sorriest for: the newly unemployed ABC staff or poor Uncle Rupert, who, if the tin-foil-hatted among the left are to be believed, ordered the destruction of the ABC because he saw the national broadcaster as a threat to his market share. By concentrating the bloodletting on rural and sports services, Mark Scott has kept the ABC robust in precisely the areas that seem to cause Murdoch the most angst.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining News Corp’s pivot away from fawning over Abbott. It’s not that he didn’t do his master’s bidding, it’s that he fucked it up. It must be especially galling to be let down by the blundering Richard Nixon–like conservative PM, when there’s a perfectly serviceable Iron Lady languishing in the foreign ministry. Abbott has done his best to buy the approval of the old man, wreaking havoc on the economy, environment and soul of Australia to do so, but all for naught.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the incumbents, whose strategy for governance, both domestic and abroad, seems to amount to “do something profoundly unpopular, and then robustly deny what is demonstrably true”. Perhaps the government should refer to Eric “Nobody has lost their job” Abetz for pointers on plausible deniability.

But back to sport: it’s a truism that anyone who abandons their team because they’re having a bad season is a bad fan. Abbott has had a very bad season indeed – his primary vote has plummeted and Bill Shorten, a leader who can neither make a decision nor modulate his voice, is now the preferred prime minister by a considerable lead.

Abbott is soon to learn what Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard learnt too late – that when your team starts barracking for the other side, just because they are not you, things are not going well. 

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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