Don’t write off Tony Abbott yet
Underestimate the prime minister at your peril

Six months after the prime minister’s curious promise that “good government starts today”, an opinion piece slating Tony Abbott’s leadership writes itself. For left-of-centre types, the schadenfreude they enjoy watching Abbott’s wayward administration after the trials of the previous Labor government is motivation enough. An anti-Abbott gag is sure-fire click-bait or a reliable prompt for belly-aching laughs at a literary festival.

And for good reason. Choppergate, an unwelcome gift from Abbott’s self-professed political love-mother, Bronwyn Bishop, sent a resurgent Coalition into electoral freefall. Again. In its two years in office, Abbott’s government has backpedalled and back-flipped its way into political no-man’s land. This is a government in constant search for its raison d’etre, led by a man who, as I have written here previously, has morphed into our “prime minister of the opposition”. Abbott’s judgment is called into question on a daily basis, not least by friendly colleagues. Even The Australian got into the act on Tuesday, excoriating his “ham-fisted” government.

Whether or not Abbott is beholden to the hard-right elements of his party-room, whether or not he fundamentally lacks the ability to locate the centrist sweet-spot in the manner of his political love-father, John Howard, from the Coalition’s dilemma over same-sex marriage to climate action or industrial relations policy, his government finds itself without a narrative, lacking the energy or strategy required to improve its electoral stocks. Were an election called now and Abbott defeated, his legacy wouldn’t extend much beyond the farcical knighting of Prince Philip and the removal of two “great big new taxes”. In the latter case, the tide of history seems destined to wash ashore some form of carbon pricing mechanism.  

Abbott-bashing, fun as it is, is a dangerous pastime. It is doubtful in the extreme that his government will collapse over the marriage equality issue, or that he faces an inexorable challenge to his leadership. Indeed, underestimate Abbott at your peril. This is a brutal political pugilist who brought down two Labor prime ministers – Kevin Rudd seemingly at the peak of his powers – and dispatched both the dustbin of history, in the process fuelling a rivalry that might put the Keating–Hawke feud in the shade.

Abbott achieved all this despite endless predictions of his unsuitability for high office. The Australian people, according to received wisdom, would never elect a man who trained at the feet of Bob Santamaria and paraded what critics saw as a muscular Catholicism out of touch with the sensibilities of modern Australia. A so-called misogynist, he oozed unhealthily high levels of testosterone, they charged, matched only by an uncanny ability to produce political gaffes; a frustrated sledge against asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton was the most frequently cited of such self-inflicted blows. When he toppled Malcom Turnbull to claim the Liberal leadership in late 2009, it was by the slimmest of margins. Yet within four years he held the keys to the Lodge. Labor registered its lowest federal primary vote in a century.

We’ve been here before, of course. “Little Johnny” Howard was habitually written off in the 1980s and ’90s. He himself once judged any re-ascension to the Liberal leadership as equivalent to Lazarus with a triple bypass. In December 1988, the Bulletin magazine pictured Howard on its cover with the question: “Mr 18%. Why on earth does this man bother?” He lacked the popular touch of Bob Hawke or the statesmanship of Paul Keating, some alleged. We all know how that story ended. In 2007, the humiliation of Howard’s loss of his own seat, Bennelong, was tempered by his status as Australia’s second longest-serving prime minister.

Abbott’s critics are advised to consider political history in another regard. First-term governments, even mediocre ones, are notoriously difficult to dislodge. Australians are inherently conservative about taking such action. This is especially the case with governments of a conservative persuasion. The shortest lifespan of a Coalition government since the reconsolidation of the two-party dominant system in 1917 is Malcolm’s Fraser’s seven and a bit–year administration (1975–1983). It may have seemed like a political eternity for Labor’s true believers, but pales in comparison other conservatives – Howard (11 and a half years); Robert Menzies and successors (23 years); Joe Lyons and company (10 years); and the post-World War One juggernaut of Billy Hughes and Stanley Melbourne Bruce (12 years). Only one genuine Liberal “oncer” exists in our history, Joseph Cook’s 1913–14 administration. Even then it was a loss occasioned by the unique circumstances of the 1914 khaki election. 

Bill Shorten’s Labor party will need to rewrite the political rulebook to claim victory at the next election. The contest will be tight, no matter what current polls say. The Liberals enjoy a reasonably comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. Labor rarely wins electoral landslides – even Gough Whitlam’s famous 1972 triumph was underwhelming.

Finally, do not underestimate the tenacity with which the Coalition will cling to office. Abbott may be the prime minister of the opposition, but in this he represents a continuum that distinguishes his side of politics. In many respects, the real historical purpose of the non-Laborites has been to keep Labor out of office, away from the levers of power, where in the imagination of its enemy it indulges trade unions and fritters away hard-earned taxpayer money on socialist flights of fancy. (Both of these accusations are largely myths.) It was the reason the Nationalist forces swallowed the leadership of Labor renegade Billy Hughes between 1917 and 1923, and the same logic that guided the conservatives who formed the backbone of the United Australia Party government of Joe Lyons from 1931 to 1939. Despite Menzies’ rejection of the tag “conservative” and his early talk of holding a “liberal and progressive faith”, he was dedicated to keeping Labor out. So while the “reform” achievements of Abbott’s government may disappoint the likes of the Institute of Public Affairs and Andrew Bolt, such a state of affairs does not fundamentally contradict the trajectory of non-Labor politics. Nor is it a recipe for certain electoral defeat.

In this void of disillusionment, sections of the public and the commentariat are prone to search for a new messiah. Turnbull is often touted as the urbane, sophisticated and relatively “progressive” leader who might restore faith in our politics. Frenzied excitement occasions his every appearance on Q&A or the latest opinion poll that has him as preferred Liberal leader. He may yet be drafted in at the last minute, but I regard that scenario as unlikely. 

If anything, a messianic impulse runs more strongly in Labor circles. At least until the late 1960s, scarred by the experience of Hughes, the ALP generally avoided succumbing to political messianism, and cast a suspicious eye over strong-willed leaders. As I wrote a few years ago:

From that time on, however, Labor’s salvation has appeared ever more conditional on a transformative leader in the mould of a Whitlam or Hawke. The complex is like a political sugar high. The initial euphoria cultivates wholly unrealistic expectations and, when reality hits, supporters are inevitably disappointed. In 2003, faced with the Howard ascendancy, Labor turned to Mark Latham for its salvation, with disastrous consequences. The lessons of the Latham experiment were forgotten with the appearance of a self-styled messiah known as Kevin ’07. Rudd brought Labor in from the electoral wilderness at the 2007 election and appeared unassailable until early 2010. His downfall also owed to a belief that Gillard might be Labor’s latest messiah.

Many of the harsh judgements of Shorten’s leadership – and inane coverage afforded to polls suggesting that Plibersek or Albanese are more popular among voters – can be traced to this ongoing messiah complex. 

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the ALP after Rudd and Gillard. A more united and disciplined party – a key Shorten achievement – has produced some unnecessary caution. The party’s avoidance of debt and deficit politics is the most obvious example. Still, politicos would be wise to avoid underestimating Shorten. “This man looked too young, too thin, too much of an intellectual to take on the bosses,” Frank Gullaci, a worker at a notoriously dangerous anti-union scrap metal factory and foundry in Melbourne’s north, recalled of the Australian Workers Union organiser’s arrival in 1994. “But he kept coming, day after day. And he was brave and strong.” Within seven years, Shorten was known as “King Billy” to his members as the union’s national secretary. Now he has seemingly survived the worst of the Trade Union Royal Commission’s politically-motivated onslaught, this morning's extraordinary revelations of Justice Dyson Heydon’s on-off appearance at a Liberal Party fundraiser being merely the last straw. The so-called revelation of his handling of the AWU’s enterprise bargaining negotiations on the EastLink project may yet prove politically advantageous, revealing a pragmatic, moderate union leader who secured for his members well-paid, safe jobs, in turn helping to deliver a project ahead of schedule. It’s the kind of consensual, if unsexy, approach to politics that electors are yearning for. It may yet be enough to knock off that other perennially written-off figure.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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