Australian Politics

Tony Abbott

Cringing
Tony Abbott at the G20 leaders' retreat

Tom Switzer, former editor of Spectator Australia magazine, yesterday urged his readers on the Guardian’s website to look deeper at Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s performance over the G20 weekend. What might have seemed to many observers “defensive, embarrassing, insular, cringeworthy” was for Switzer evidence of Abbott’s “down-to-earth quality”, of his charming and unpolished bluntness.

The focus of the “cringe critique” to which Switzer takes exception was an eight-minute talk Abbott delivered, without notes, to open a discussion at a G20 “leaders’ retreat”. Bill Shorten described it afterwards as “weird and graceless”, though he didn’t elaborate. Does Switzer have a point? It was a significant speech, delivered when the world was watching, so it is worth examining in depth.

“We are meeting in the Legislative Council chamber of the Queensland state Parliament,” Abbott began, “and back in the 1920s, the Queensland government abolished the Legislative Council because it was too much of a restriction on the power of the then premier, who was in the Legislative Assembly. So, this room symbolises the limitations on our power.”

The logic doesn’t follow. More plausibly, the room symbolises what Abbott would like to do to the current Senate, which is creating enormous difficulties for his policy program. Abbott’s frustration spilled over into his address to the G20 leaders:

“If I could kick off very briefly by saying that when I was elected – my government was elected – 14 months ago, I made four promises to the Australian people. First, that I would repeal the carbon tax, and that’s gone. Second, that I would stop the illegal boats that were coming to our country, and they have, thank God, stopped. Third, that we would start building roads in particular which had been long neglected in this country. Fourth, I said I would get the budget under control.”

This paragraph is the main focus of the “cringe critique”. It was a strange thing to say to a group of international leaders – especially when many of them agree with carbon pricing and see Australia as shirking its responsibilities under the Refugees Convention. Surely few could be expected to care about specific electoral promises Abbott had made from opposition.

But Abbott, as always, even in the midst of the political leaders of 20 of the most economically powerful states, was talking solely to his domestic audience. The speech was filmed, distributed publicly, and transcribed on his website. All this suggests that the speech was meant for wide public consumption.

The alternative explanation – that Abbott genuinely expected that the other 19 leaders present would respond positively to his presentation of himself as a kind of conviction politician, determined to deliver what he’d promised – doesn’t really bear thinking about. If true, it suggests powerful delusion on Abbott’s part.

“Now, I have to say this has proven massively difficult – massively difficult,” Abbott continued, referring to his efforts to get the budget under control, “because it doesn’t matter what spending program you look at, it doesn’t matter how wasteful that spending program might appear, there are always some people in the community who vote, who love that program very much.”

Ostensibly, Abbott wanted a 100-minute discussion about the problems of getting “important economic reforms” through the Senate. If he wanted tips, it’s unlikely he would have got anything useful from Vladimir Putin, an autocrat, or from Xi Jinping, the president of a one-party state.

No. What Abbott wanted was for his domestic audience to see him discussing deeply unpopular domestic policies at the world’s premier economic forum. He spoke of two issues in particular – his government’s planned deregulation of the university sector, which would mean “less central government spending and effectively more fees that students will have to pay”, and the $7 GP co-payment. For Abbott, the policies are good and right. What’s wrong is the way they’re being perceived. As with any problem of perception, what’s needed is a good rhetorical play.

The rhetorical trick of the speech was all about framing. Since the May budget, Abbott has always justified these and other policies in economic and fiscal terms. What better opportunity to drive home that message than at the G20, when presumably only serious economic issues of world importance would be discussed? And by mentioning those policies without seeking to justify them on first principles, Abbott hoped to create the illusion that their economic credentials, at least for “the most powerful and influential people in the world” (as he described them), were self-evident and uncontroversial. “In most countries this is not unusual,” Abbott said about the need to inject a price signal” into primary health care, making eye contact with others in the room as if gathering global support for a so-called “reform” that would obliterate the central tenets – bulk-billing and universality – of Medicare, in Abbott’s mind a thoroughly Labor policy.

“I don’t have any magic answers to the problems we face,” Abbott went on. “But the more gatherings like this can affirm the importance of good policy.” Having all but exhausted his domestic options short of a double dissolution, which on current poll numbers he would lose, the global play is a last-ditch effort to win domestic support for policies that the public rejects not because they’re “harsh but necessary”, but because they’re harsh and unnecessary.

For a man whose worldview is not all that dissimilar to the DLP’s half a century ago, Abbott made a very grave error when he allowed his economic policies to be outsourced to the right-wing think tanks (like the Institute of Public Affairs, with which Switzer is associated). It’s meant that on both social and economic issues, Abbott is for middle Australia a kind of extremist, albeit one who seems pleasant and blokey enough in person.

Tom Switzer is just one among an army of right-wing commentators whose function is to protect Abbott and his government from too much negative interpretation, to insulate him from it by building around him a fortress of bullshit. Most of them are at News Corp, an entity whose writers go to extraordinary lengths to present Abbott as “statesmanlike” in his international dealings. 

There’s an irony to their efforts. A statesman – according to dictionaries a “disinterested promoter of the public good”, a political leader who “exhibits great wisdom and ability” – is precisely the opposite of what Abbott is: yet another insular, domestically focused political leader who sees foreign policy and international engagement as a way to earn cheap domestic points. He’s the type of leader Peter Hartcher laments in his book The Adolescent Country. If we weren’t so deeply in the thrall of the free market, one might be forgiven for seeing something of the old Soviet spin in Team Abbott’s methods.

But in the end, Abbott’s attempt to co-opt the G20 for domestic ends didn’t work. His delivery, all Midnight Oil hands and missed beats, was truly cringeworthy. And it came amid too many gaffes. His incorrigible Anglophilia (his words) had displaced his domestic radar during David Cameron’s visit on the Friday, and he fell again into the trap of lauding the achievements of the British in Australia without acknowledging the destruction and devastation it wrought on those who were already here in 1788 – and generations of their descendants. His bizarre threat to shirt-front Putin – a mixture of playing for domestic points and genuine brain-snap – overshadowed the whole G20 preparation period in the tabloid media, and made him look full of piss and wind when he couldn’t follow it through. His stubborn insistence that his Direct Action policy – conceived as a purely political counterpoint to the Gillard government’s carbon price – is more effective than the market-based schemes elsewhere, and that environmental issues should be kept separate from economic ones, looks stupider and stupider as the world grinds forwards, if far too slowly, on climate change. By the end of the weekend he’d managed to confuse China with Tasmania.

No, Tom Switzer and the “Kelly gang” at News Corp: statesmen don’t behave like this.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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