October 2015

Comment

An era over

By Nick Feik
Exit Abbott, enter Turnbull

Last month marked the second anniversary of Tony Abbott’s election. Celebrations were muted, funereal even.

Coalition MPs had little opportunity, and small reason, to spruik their government’s record. With the latest Newspoll result hanging heavy in the air, they spent much of the day fending off questions about their prime minister’s initial refusal to raise Australia’s overall refugee intake, or else arguing for a more generous response. In parliament, Opposition leader Bill Shorten invited Abbott to offer 10,000 extra places to Syrians fleeing the carnage of their homeland. Abbott responded, “We always want to do the right thing by people in trouble, and we are not going to let people in trouble down now. We never have and we never will. It is the Australian way, to look after people when they are in trouble.”

It was meaningless, if not facetious. But no one was surprised – no one even commented. In its repetition and hyperbole, it bore the hallmarks of Abbott rhetoric, but the message itself was at odds with everything said and done throughout his leadership when it came to asylum seekers. The real surprise came two days later, when he reversed his position and announced Australia would accept 12,000 more Syrians. At last, he had heard the public’s call and responded. In that brief moment he demonstrated what had been missing from his leadership all along.

Abbott probably knew he would never be broadly popular, and might have agreed with Paul Keating when the former Labor leader said, “Leadership is not about being popular. It’s about being right and about being strong.”

But what was right and strong to Tony Abbott? It depended on the day. He seems to have believed that performing an Anglophone, nominally Christian, masculine, traditional version of “strong leadership” would engender enough respect to allow him to do what he personally wanted.

Reality intervened, over and over. Public opinion, economic headwinds, world events. The Dog Days of which Ross Garnaut warned, “when celestial economic policy looks ordinary, and ordinary policy looks diabolical”, were upon us.

Reform paralysis was so widely discussed that it became a cliché, but the problems affecting the Abbott government were not simply domestic matters. Chinese demand for resources continues its downward trend, the Middle East is in paroxysms, Europe is struggling with the refugee fallout as well as economic turmoil, and all countries are grappling with the multiple challenges of climate change and slowing economic growth.

It was Abbott’s misfortune – and Australia’s – that he became prime minister at a time that so accentuated his limitations as a politician. In Opposition, Abbott promised that “there will not be deals done with independents and minor parties under any political movement that I lead”. He was telling the truth. What he intended as a message of strength, however, was a forewarning of inflexibility and denial.

His top-down, surprise approach – “it’s better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission” – combined with Joe Hockey’s poor performance as treasurer had a predictable effect. Everything the government touched stalled.

The signal moment was the public’s rejection of the first budget, of course, but it was only one of many things that withered on the vine, from the GP co-payment to higher-education reform.

The public disagreed with so many of Abbott’s firmly held views that, rather than trying to win people over with persuasion or logic, bribes or visions of the future, he was often reduced to distraction and dissembling. He became adept at rearguard actions: on climate change, as the world started to settle on firm emissions targets, he dismantled the mechanisms by which Australia could achieve them; on same-sex marriage, his tactic was to delay. He regularly deployed a strategy learned in the anti-republic campaign: you don’t need to win the argument, you just need to blow it up. (In recent months, Abbott was still trying to obfuscate the fact that the Queen of England is our head of state: “Well, we have the governor-general,” he told the Nine Network, “who is effectively our head of state.”)

The editorialists at News Corp criticised Abbott for not making his case effectively. This is akin to arguing that Prince Philip, Bronwyn Bishop, Dyson Heydon or George Pell would be embraced by the public if only we understood them better. Abbott didn’t have a communication problem. The public rejected his plans and his ideas.

Other Coalition economic plans were mugged by reality. Growth didn’t magically happen because the Coalition was back in government. Tax cuts (mining, carbon, small business, bank deposits) didn’t produce higher revenue. The jobs market didn’t respond to free-market sloganeering.

The government sealed several free-trade agreements, but the expectations on these became enormous: they looked increasingly like the only string in its economic bow. Business confidence flatlined, as did capital investment. Together, industry groups, unions, the media and community organisations recently called on the major parties to accept the need for compromise and a collective reform effort.

Led by Abbott? He never showed any inclination for compromise, or negotiation. When you’re a fighter, everything becomes a battle, and so it is that he fought boat people, unionists, environmentalists, civil-rights defenders, the national broadcaster, the law.

Abbott, as both the most idealistic and the most aggressive of John Howard’s protégés, learned to frame his battles as ones of national security wherever possible. Under Howard, national-security talk was used to reassure Australians that there was a strong hand at the wheel; under Abbott it looked specious and faintly sinister, and ever more pronounced.

Meanwhile, the Coalition continued to fight for the same tax cuts and deregulation, dodged competition law and superannuation-concession reform, and offered little in the way of industry policy, other than cuts to innovation and research. This is not a recipe for transition.

But perhaps the most damning indictment of Abbott’s prime ministership was seen in his relationship to his own party. The “captain’s pick”, Abbott’s most notable leadership tactic, was never about acting like a captain – on the contrary, it was a way of sneaking things through, to avoid the effort of convincing his colleagues, knowing they would never agree. In the end, his cabinet barely functioned, riven by disapproving leaks.

So the party rejected him, and elected Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull aims to draw the Coalition back towards the political centre, and restore its traditional liberal roots. A sense of competence and unity, if he manages it, would be welcome, as would a coherent and modern economic program. But how far is the party’s substantial conservative element willing to be led?

Turnbull has already pledged to stick with the existing climate-change policy, yet he is unlikely to keep waging war on environmentalism as Abbott did. Similarly, the deliberate nobbling of renewable energy and the campaigning for thermal coal is – on scientific, economic and political grounds – absurd, but the party’s right wing won’t meekly surrender its former positions. Turnbull has also promised to respect the party’s current stance on same-sex marriage, but there’s little doubt that this and other conservative social policies encouraged by Abbott will be shed over time.

Abbott’s prime ministership will likely come to be associated with the end of some longstanding and once entrenched ideas: the father-knows-best concept of leadership; that an overwhelmingly male cabinet reflects merit. More broadly, it’s obvious that same-sex marriage is no longer a marginal issue. The Middle East’s problems can’t be solved by Western military means alone. China’s power ambitions can’t be denied. The mining boom won’t hold up our economy forever. And laissez-faire economics won’t solve Australia’s budget problems. The former prime minister was on the wrong end of all of them.

Abbott tried to turn back the clock and instead demonstrated that an era was coming to an end.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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