February 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Too darn hot

By Mungo MacCallum
Tony Abbott, March 2010, ahead of the Port Macquarie Iron Man event. © Nathan Edwards / Newspix
Tony Abbott, March 2010, ahead of the Port Macquarie Iron Man event. © Nathan Edwards / Newspix
Joe Hockey for PM?

If it does nothing else, the election year of 2013 will vindicate some political careers and end quite a few others. Among them, of course, will be those of the party leaders: we will learn whether Julia Gillard can recover from an apparently terminal decline in the opinion polls and whether Tony Abbott can translate his initial blitzkrieg into a win where it counts.

But first, both have to survive in their respective positions until the election is called. And while Gillard now looks safe enough from any resurgence of Kevin Rudd, Abbott could possibly be vulnerable.

A year ago this assertion would have seemed preposterous; the man once derided as the Mad Monk appeared to be the most successful opposition leader in many years. He had already seen off one prime minister, forced another into minority government and placed his party on the cusp of power.

Most importantly, there was no credible challenger within his own ranks. True, there were those who remained uneasy about his undeviating aggression, his take-no-prisoners approach to every issue; there were well-grounded fears that this could rebound on him and the party, especially with his apocalyptic pronouncements on the carbon tax. Some yearned for the insurance a little more nuance might have provided.

To these doubters, Abbott’s army of supporters in the party room and the media replied simply: look at the scoreboard. Their man was firmly on track to lead them back to their rightful place on the Treasury benches, and that was all that mattered. From mid last year, however, things became a little less certain, and the great dilemma of Tony Abbott started to emerge. He may have put his party into a winning position, but he was also the lead in its saddlebags: if anyone could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Abbott was the man.

The polls were divergent but the overall trend was clear: Labor was closing the gap. Although the coalition remained comfortably in front, Abbott himself was deeply unloved by a growing majority of the electorate. The voters didn’t like Gillard much either, but most preferred her as prime minister. This did not mean they couldn’t be persuaded to close their eyes, hold their noses and elect Abbott, if only to get rid of the minority Labor government, but it did mean a lot of them were far from enthusiastic about the prospect.

The public had its favourite; Malcolm Turnbull, the leader Abbott had deposed by a single vote back in 2009, was overwhelmingly the popular choice as prime minister. Even Rudd, excoriated by his former cabinet colleagues only a year ago, was preferred to either of the incumbents. The problem was that the voters, as so often in the last few years, were out of step with their political masters. Turnbull, in spite of (or possibly because of) his well-aired abilities, was too liberal for the Liberals and utterly unacceptable to the Nationals.

There was at least one other possibility: Joe Hockey, John Howard’s “great big bear”, who would have got the job in 2009 had he been prepared (like Abbott) to kowtow to right-wing warlord Nick Minchin instead of insisting on a free vote on the emissions-trading scheme. Hockey has made considerable progress as shadow treasurer and said some sensible things about the need to end the culture of entitlement. Though he has never really lived down the image of the clown in Shrek ears on morning television, as of this summer he is conspicuously trimmer and he remains well liked within the party room. Should the Liberals conclude that Abbott has become more of a liability than an asset, they will act, and they will act ruthlessly. Abbott is there for only one reason: to win. If it appears he can’t, he becomes expendable. Just ask John Gorton, or Billy Snedden, or John Hewson, or Brendan Nelson – or even the sainted Robert Menzies back in 1941. That time will not arrive unless Labor becomes consistently competitive in the polls, and even then the Libs may decide it is too late to change and they may as well stick with the Catholic they know.

None of this has stopped them trying to give Abbott a makeover. There has been a growing air of desperation surrounding the claims that, whatever he may have done or said in the past, he is a born-again feminist: why, his wife and daughters love him and he even let his chief of staff, the formidable Peta Credlin, keep her IVF drugs in the office fridge. You can’t get more women-friendly than that, can you?

But the electorate stubbornly refuses to buy it; Abbott’s image remains irredeemably macho. He spent much of last year dressing up in hard hats and other tough-guy equipment and taking part in long-distance quad- and pushbike rides. He has competed in an iron man contest. And he started this year by inviting the media to photograph him in the guise of a fearless firefighter. However little it excites women (always excepting columnist Janet Albrechtsen, who once wrote a piece in thrall to his wonderfully masculine hairiness), Abbott has remained determined to be seen in fluoro and lycra.

It seems he just can’t help himself: he often talks about the need for reasoned debate and thoughtful policy discussion, for a measured and positive approach to politics, but then he sees a stoush and has to throw himself into it and start swinging. It was the pattern of his student days and it has persisted since he entered parliament. His unedifying conspiracy with Peter Coleman and Piers Akerman to destroy Pauline Hanson, his short-sighted and hyperbolic attacks on the carbon tax, his support (at least tacit) of the Ashby–Brough conspiracy against Peter Slipper, his pursuit of Gillard over real or imagined misdeeds in her past – this manic belligerence, which was admired in the early days of his leadership, now increasingly looks counterproductive.

Worse than that, it seems ineradicable: with Abbott, what you see is what you get. It always has been and always will be. In opposition it works – well, for a while. But, more thoughtful conservatives wonder, what about in government? Tony Abbott as Australia’s 28th prime minister? The challenges of the 21st century are many, and they are fraught and complicated: will they succumb to a swift left hook and right uppercut? The real concern is not just about whether he can get there, but about what will happen if he does.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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