The Politics    Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Step away from the microphone

By Sean Kelly

Step away from the microphone
Source: 2GB
Tony Abbott isn't helping himself

Almost anyone involved in the manoeuvres to bring down Kevin Rudd and replace him with Julia Gillard will concede they overlooked one very important factor: Rudd himself.

In the years that followed (and even, in the eyes of many Labor supporters, in just the days and weeks that followed) it became clear that Rudd was hurt. That hurt was, fairly or otherwise, accompanied by some quantity of bitterness. And, of course, by ambition – briefly dimmed, but certainly not extinguished.

That oversight was to dog the Gillard government for the duration of its existence.

The Turnbull camp that two weeks ago bid a not-so-fond adieu to Tony Abbott doesn’t have the first-timer excuse, the way Gillard’s backers did. Abbott is a very different man from Kevin Rudd, but the hurt and bitterness experienced by an elected prime minister when removed by their colleagues transcends, I imagine, personality types and political ideologies. Actually, I don’t have to imagine: it has been on ostentatious display this past week or so.

Abbott has in recent days given an impromptu interview to the Daily Telegraph (admittedly this may have been foisted on him). He had a more considered chat with the Australian. And today he spoke to that eternal good ol’ boy Ray Hadley.

It is possible to argue that Abbott was just stating facts as he sees them, rather than giving breath to recriminations – Terry Barnes, who advised Abbott when he was a minister, makes precisely that case today. But one of the cardinal rules of politics is that telling only gets you so far: you have to show. You can say, as Abbott did, on the whole Morrison loyalty palaver, that “It’s probably a bit counter-productive to revisit all of this now; the last thing I want, Ray, to come out of this interview is a headline ‘Abbott slams Morrison’”. But if you insist on saying things like “I suppose all of us have got to answer to our god and our consciences” then you have to be prepared for the results.

In fact, the problem begins before you even get to what Abbott said. Merely by showing up, merely by choosing to give yet another interview that – inevitably – revisited his removal, the mechanics of what happened and the party’s reasoning for the change, Abbott ensured another day of news would be devoted not to the future but to the very recent, very messy past.

To put it another way: urging voters to move on is not the same as actually moving on.

In the same way, Abbott may be telling the public to vote Liberal at the next election, but what he is spending most of his time doing is undermining Turnbull’s argument for voting Liberal – namely, that things are different now – by repeatedly stating that nothing has changed.

All that said, I don’t blame Abbott for a second for not having moved on yet. That will take time. But I thought he might have learned from Gillard’s experience. Gillard, deposed in 2013, briefly vanished from the political sphere. As a result she was credited with dignity and generosity by her party; it was the single smartest thing she could have done to ensure her good reputation. That may not have been her motivation, but that was its effect. (It also gave Rudd a clear run to that year’s election.)

On this, Abbott should take Gillard’s lead. (Terry Barnes, whose arguments I largely disagree with, thinks so too.)

It is a complex business, this question of burnishing legacies. Both Rudd and Gillard conceded, down the track, that they had made various mistakes. That didn’t hurt their claims to be remembered well; it gave them greater credibility.

Abbott, understandably, does not yet have sufficient distance to do the same. He argued today that those with ambition were always going to come for him – the political version of “haters gonna hate” – without recognising that it was his egregious unforced errors and sustained failure to perform that gave those plotters their wide, wide opening. He argued that you could be unpopular while still leading “a very effective political operation”, clearly not having realised that this was precisely what he had not led for at least the past 18 months.

But that lack of distance is precisely why he should step away from the microphones and take a temporary vow of silence. It would be good for his party, it would be good for the new prime minister – but most of all it would be good for Tony Abbott.


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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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