The Politics    Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Strange times

By Sean Kelly

What today felt like

We were concerned. A disturbing trend had developed, and we didn’t know what to do about it. I was working for Julia Gillard at the time. Periodically focus groups would be conducted, and one of the issues on which we were keen to glean information was what voters thought of Tony Abbott, the then Opposition leader.

The first result won’t surprise many people: they didn’t like him one bit. Didn’t have much respect for him either. Didn’t think he’d make a good prime minister. For a team trying to get Labor re-elected, that was a rare cause for hope.

It was then that things got weird. “So how are you going to vote?” the focus groupers would be asked. “Oh, Liberal,” they’d say. “They’re just keeping Abbott ’til the election, then they’ll swap him for someone else, right?”

That is one of the several reasons that the shift to Turnbull yesterday didn’t shock Australians in the same way that the shift from Julia Gillard to Kevin Rudd did. (The other dominant reason being that, by now, we’ve seen this all before.) For many people, Abbott was never viewed as a long-term alternative. At the same time, Turnbull has for many years been seen as the man who would one day be prime minister. The screenplay had been written long before; it was only a matter of time until it hit our screens.  

And yet I was surprised at my own reaction yesterday. However expected, there is something fundamentally disorienting about a change of prime minister. This, I find, is the case whether it comes about via federal election or party-room election. That is not to equate the two, not entirely – you can have your civics debates elsewhere – but it is true that, whatever the method, a transition in the nation’s leadership delivers an odd tilt to the universe.

Inevitably, if you change the prime minister you change the country (Paul Keating said something very like this), and perhaps that is what it comes down to, in the early days of a new regime: you know your homeland is about to shift, but it’s too early to know exactly what that shift will be. And so, if you woke up this morning feeling slightly uncertain, take comfort in the fact you are neither alone nor unjustified.

It is a point both obvious and worth making that the man who woke up feeling even worse than you was Tony Abbott. It is a cliché to say that politicians are humans too, and of course this is the deal they strike. Abbott himself said today that “when you join the game, you accept the rules”. Still, this is a man who served as the nation’s alternative prime minister for four long years; who came within a fingernail of actually being prime minister in 2010, before watching it slip away; who kept his position as Liberal leader long enough to finally grasp the crown; and a man who has now lost it forever. You could see the hurt in his face yesterday; just as we saw it in Julia Gillard’s face in 2013; just as we saw it in Kevin Rudd’s face in 2010. If you can find it in your heart to occasionally feel bad for Frank Underwood in House of Cards, then surely you can feel sympathy for Abbott.

Abbott came out to say a few words today. His speech was short and dignified. He has, sensibly and honourably, pledged that there will be no undermining. There is not yet any sense of what his future holds, though it seemed as though he would stay in parliament for the coming weeks at least. He attracted criticism from some quarters for not coming out immediately; the ballot was lost last night and he did not speak until lunchtime today. That criticism is churlish. Abbott waited hours, not days. The delay will not matter at all in the broader sweep of things. I like to see it as a final subtle resistance to the too-speedy media cycle he has complained about before.

None of that, though, should stop an honest accounting of Abbott’s time as prime minister. One of the remarkable things about today’s billowing floods of commentary is their unity on one subject: Abbott’s failure to govern effectively (with the exception of Andrew Bolt). Journalism, of course, is only the first draft of history, and often not a very good draft. Still, it takes a power of imagination to see Abbott gaining in status with the passing of years.

The criticisms were wide in scope, and all correct. Abbott failed to make the transition from opposition to government. He never succeeded in breaking free from his self-constructed prison of slogans. He never took the Australian people into his confidence, never trusted them to understand complex arguments or his own complex self. He tried to do too much too early before backing away to do nothing at all. He did not manage Cabinet well, nor his ministry. His media strategy was one-eyed. He at times fell back on divisive rhetoric that should have been beneath him and any prime minister. He took refuge in an ideological burrow from which it was almost impossible to see out to the sprawling nation he was supposed to be governing, let alone the wider world and its rushing currents of change. He will not be remembered well.

It is clear now that Abbott, rather than beginning his own era, was instead just one more quickly-felled leader in the period that began the moment John Howard left politics. The prime minister has changed, and so has the country. Just how much we are about to find out.


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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