Tony Abbott is ‘a very good captain’ of a talented team. That was the message the PM gave ambulance chasing reporters who came sniffing around to see how badly he was bleeding after he was savagely attacked for his captain’s call in knighting Prince Philip. Abbott was also badly wounded by those who were blaming his poorly performing LNP federal government for Campbell Newman’s historic loss of Ashgrove in the Queensland LNP rout. But the final blow was self-inflicted.
Abbott’s coup de grace was self-administered at Monday’s Canberra Press Club gathering when the PM publicly hanged himself with a load of old rope. Promised a much-vaunted headland speech that would fix the drift, stop the rot and set a new direction, the assembled hacks were disappointed. Abbott proved himself incapable of anything more than another lucky dip into his old grab bag of slogans, windy rhetoric and pusillanimous piffle. Having already alienated even his backer Rupert Murdoch, Abbott killed off any remaining pockets of support in the electorate, the media and in his own party, a party still smarting from the Queensland debacle.
Newman’s quickie State Election, a gambit the Premier had foist upon an underwhelmed electorate, was a desperate, albeit unsuccessful, move to head off an anticipated drubbing. Desperate as he may also have felt, however, Captain Abbott, nature’s contrarian, contested all suggestion that anything was wrong. He issued an incredible denial.
Rumblings of discontent? Rebellion? No, no, no. On the contrary, what others misconstrued as over-boiling frustration and widespread dissatisfaction even within party ranks, was a tribute to his great leadership, claimed Abbott whose reliance on spin is peerless in Australian political history. In dire straits by anyone’s reckoning, ‘Sultan of Spin’, Captain Anthony Abbott once again was telling everyone they were wrong. The man could spin his own death notice. And this was what Abbott set about doing. In the process, moreover, he also revealed for all time the abyss of spin within him. His unsurpassed, unparalleled, mainspring of spin.
Abbott scotched all rumours of mutiny. He dismissed outright any suggestion of his being challenged by Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop, Mal Brough nor by any other disaffected party hack with nothing to lose and everything to gain. On the contrary, as a very good captain, however, he took full credit for having some very strong members in his team. Everyone in Team Abbott, he said, was locked in behind their PM, his style of government and its reform agenda, because there was absolutely no message for his team, no parallel whatsoever, in Newman’s losses in Queensland.
Abbott’s words contained no hint that his understanding of captaincy included such qualities as the capacity for sound judgement, effective decision-making, teamwork, communication or the capacity to inspire others to follow. Discernment and self-awareness were also lacking. The non sequitur was breath-taking. It was akin to the sophistry that enabled him to break all promises to the electorate yet claim on Monday at the Canberra Press Club he had essentially ‘kept faith with the Australian people.’
Of course, he acknowledged, he’d copped a bit of flak. Of course, some concessions were in order, but, shrewdly, only those which might flatter him by suggesting stoicism or even martyrdom. And of course, he allowed, he’d be the first to admit he’d come through a rough patch but his team were nothing but united, rock solid behind him. They were unanimously behind him and his reform agenda.
And he’d taken it all on board, the democratic right of others to tell him he had done wrong. Now his soul was purified, his mission strengthened. Abbott proclaimed himself reborn before the assembly of those few sullen cabinet heavies as were made to show up and before the nation’s scribes whose resolute, palpable disbelief engulfed him in a toxic miasma of weary, well-deserved scepticism and polite hostility. Prudently Abbott skipped such spiritual steps as he might stumble upon, steps such as confession, contrition or penitence. For he was truly sorry for nothing and could never apologise to anyone.
Yes, he’d made a few changes: he’d listened and he’d learned, he said. What he’d learned, he left unsaid but we could all expect things to be different from now on. He’d be consulting his heart out from ‘here on in.’ Why, the Abbott government would be the most consultative government the nation had ever seen. And an Abbott government committee would give out Australia Day gongs in future. Also paid parental leave was off the Abbott government table. Small businesses would be getting some tax breaks from an admiring Abbott government but these should not be seen as un-costed bribes to a toey constituency. The pocket-money was our gratitude for the selfless, dedicated altruism of the pizza shop proprietor, the milk bar owner, the panel beater, and all other small business folk throughout the land who toil long hours on behalf of others, not for a moment seeking to profit themselves but to provide services and to build community.
Abbott’s transcendence went beyond politics and embraced logic. Now that he was purified, now the hair-shirted penitent had seen and mended the error of his ways, he would re-claim the moral high ground of his mission. For, as he made it clear to the Press Club, he was never one to seek popularity. Instead, an inner voice told him popularity counted for nothing. Competence was what the people of Australia wanted from their Prime Minister. And yes, he might cop a bit in popular standing, but he was resolved to do the hard slog required to lead the nation to sustainability.
The bitter medicine of economic reform was the mind-altering agency whereby Abbott could transcend the normal rules of logic and accountability. Just because he’d made a series of rash, poorly judged decisions since coming to office that had burned most of his followers didn’t mean that he lacked in any capacity for leadership.
Just because he had spent 500 days of his Prime Ministership convincing three quarters of the electorate that he was not up to the job didn’t mean that he couldn’t start again. He would reboot. He would listen. In his 58th year he would be transformed as a person and as a politician. He would consult others. Credlin would be banished henceforth from the cabinet room. Why she hadn’t even been given a ticket to his command performance today.
In the real world, as Abbott knew, but would never admit, that the disastrous showing of the Newman LNP government at the polls in Queensland was effectively a vote on austerity economics and reform. Reform is a weasel word that has come to represent unpopular cutbacks or changes which enable neoliberal governments to do less and less for the people but charge us more.
It was also a vote on himself. The Queensland election result reflected anger with the former Premier’s style of government, his perceived untrustworthiness, promise-breaking, lack of consultation and unfairness in government – qualities all intrinsic to the Abbott government’s style. Time, then he came out and made clear his strengths as a very good captain.
A very good captain? Abbott’s latest desperate claim about his captaincy has pundits scratching their heads. Even party faithful wonder how any sane person could see his 500 days of poor leadership as ‘very good captaincy’. No-one, surely, in his or her right mind could take the claim seriously. Unless, of course, we are prepared to look at Captain Abbott in a fresh, new light.
In a post-modern world, Abbott is a type of anti-hero, an anti-captain, an alienated, inarticulate, existential statesman born of a rapidly changing Australian political narrative, a narrative which in modern times has shifted inexorably from epic to ironic.
The setting for this story is an Australia which has allowed itself to be transformed from a post-colonial nation of making and doing to one in which service industries now dwarf all the rest and enterprise amounts to little more than shifting the populace’s money into fewer, bigger pockets. Talking it up is all that is left for the neo-liberal captain to call.
Seen in this light, Abbott’s view of himself as a very good captain must be read ironically. His words here, as in his Press Club road to Damascus speech, underscore his role as an expendable mouthpiece for capital, a neo-liberal pocket ideologue, an utterly disposable post-modern Prime Minister. Abbott, the captain of spin, is a politician spun from spin. He is a new man for a new age; a new bit player on the political stage in an age of reckless, endless embellishment.
Abbott may act as clown but he is prepared to wear his ineptitude and incompetence on his sleeve as an emblem of inevitable unpopularity. As his motely performance before the Canberra Press Club shows he can rationalise criticism as part of the privation only he is equipped to endure to follow a higher calling. Yet he is no fool.
Make no mistake: Abbott is, in his own dissembling way, a shrewd if not astute and ruthless pragmatist; a shameless opportunist. Call him mendacious, manipulative, meretricious, if you like, but above all he is ‘a conviction politician’ in Murdoch’s own, ironic words, an ideologue of the far right who believes he has the perfect plan and all that remains is to ‘fine-tune’ or better ‘get the message out.’ Anything else is sacrilege.
Abbott is Murdoch’s own antipodean pocket ideologue, in the end, a potentially useful but completely expendable sycophant. He is an eagerly obliging vassal of his liege-lord the press baron, the miner, the multinational corporation and the tycoon and all others whose interests are served in a radical transformation of the fabric of society from nurturing ties of community to the cash nexus, a meaner, spiritually impoverished, society which blames the unproductive as unworthy and discriminates against the poor while favouring the rich whilst above all worshipping the infallible, insatiable, jealous market god of the neo-conservative right.
Now his backer has cast him adrift. Sharks circle him in a cruel sea sensing the very same inner frailties and naivetés, that missing inner compass which originally commended Abbott to his backers. Out of his depth in a role that requires creative problem-solving; that requires him to pledge himself afresh, a deliverable self and not just make empty promises of more of the same and in a job that still demands some leadership substance beyond the self-spun, Tony Abbott will be as jetsam on the tide of international capital as the next wave of hopefuls flood the political market place that is Canberra. Made for reality TV by the makers of reality TV, the next episode will feature a quest for the next ‘conviction politician’ whose expedient expendability will set her above and below the rest.