The view from Billinudgel

A sour, bitter episode
Tony Abbott’s career will cast a long and oppressive shadow

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Sour, bitter character assassination – that was Tony Abbott’s description of the circumstances of his ignominious defeat. But it could just as well have been a summary of his time as leader of his party – the story of the rise and fall of Tony Abbott.

Our former prime minister has seldom been a gracious man, and he certainly wasn’t last week; he fell into a prolonged sulk, broken only by two media appearances to complain and whinge. He did not congratulate his successor or acknowledge his own failures; instead he blamed it all on anonymous leaks and white-anting, and admonished the media who did their job – to report what was going on.

And he did not spend much time on his own achievements, which was just as well because there were precious few of them.

He stopped the boats, through antagonising our nearest neighbor and instituting a system of deliberate and systematic cruelty to deter asylum seekers. He ended the carbon tax, which was about to evolve into an emissions trading scheme: in its place he offered an expensive program of dubious effectiveness, which in the end can never be more than a stop-gap solution. He got rid of a badly designed mining tax, reinforced subsidies, praised coal as good for humanity, and dismissed renewables because he found wind turbines an eyesore.

He threw himself into wars, both abroad and at home; he fostered fear and loathing in the populace and trashed civil liberties in the name of safety for a community which has, if anything, become less secure as a result.  He attempted a draconian and divisive agenda to fix the economy, which deteriorated dramatically in his term of office.

But, insist his spruikers, he was the most effective Opposition leader in history: he destroyed two Labor prime ministers. True, and he also destroyed his own Liberal leader (since reinstated) in the process. But the collateral damage has been immense: in the last six years the institution of parliament, some would say the very fabric of Australian democracy, has suffered huge, if not irreparable, damage.

Abbott’s unrelenting crusade against Labor and all its works and associations has meant that the public, tired and disillusioned by the endless abuse, slogans and negativity, has simply switched off; politics has, for a large section of voters, become irrelevant. The despotic prime minister seldom felt the need to debate and persuade; instead doubters have been shouted down, sidelined when they cannot be silenced altogether.

The Opposition has been trampled through Abbott’s captain’s pick of a Speaker who made no pretence of fairness or impartiality. Bronwyn Bishop, like every minister, every backbencher, indeed everyone within earshot, was required to be unquestioningly loyal, not to the nation, not to the parliament, not even to the Liberal Party, but to the leader.

In the end the idol had fallen: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. The devastation can be, must be, repaired: Malcolm Turnbull’s most urgent task is to restore faith, not just in the government but in the entire political system. But Abbott’s legacy will cast a long and oppressive shadow. Sour and bitter indeed – that could be Anthony John Abbott’s political epitaph. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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