Tony Abbott was on ABC radio yesterday claiming that he will still be PM of Australia next Tuesday 10 February. It was the same message on TV. Today, on Macquarie Radio, he updated us: there would be no challenge for the leadership when cabinet met next Tuesday. “I have the full and unanimous support of the cabinet”. He was continuing the line of his Press Club speech on Monday when he proclaimed that voters have the right to ‘hire and fire’ their leaders, not party rooms.
Andrew Robb begged to differ. Robb’s accomplished chaperoning skills can only have been strengthened by his stint at the coal face with Julie Bishop in UN climate talks in Lima last December, when Bishop announced to a dumbfounded world that: Australia has a strong track record of playing a constructive role in the global response to global climate change.
His guardian instincts finely-honed by Lima, LNP duenna Robb promptly publicly put his leader back on track by flatly contradicting the PM’s call: ‘Abbott knows that his leadership depends on his performance, he said with a wink to the plotters. Robb either overlooked or contradicted the PM’s newly self-proclaimed gift for captaincy in so openly refuting his captain’s call. He also demonstrated a bit of a hiccup in Abbott’s roll-out of his new consultative government style, also proclaimed, along with so little else amidst so much more of the same on Monday.
These were big calls even for Abbott but not out of character. The PM has established a reputation for himself as a denialist and a contrarian, a type of antipodean Canute eagerly countermanding the popular tide at almost every opportunity: climate change, coal, equity in budget repair, hyping a debt and deficit disaster, the monarchy, renewable energy, gay marriage, the gift of virginity, the public wearing of speedos, George Pell and royal knighthoods to name but a few.
Abandoned by his boss Rupert Murdoch and his backers including party blowhards and gas-baggers, such as Andrew Bolt and Jeff Kennett and facing toxic levels of party dissatisfaction and disillusionment, Abbott stuck to his crease. He took his typical captain’s stance. He assured an incredulous electorate that regardless of what they had heard, or what they might believe, nothing was happening. Nothing. And nothing would come of nothing.
Productivity was being lost while we were gripped in the paralysis of a leadership crisis. Introspection and analysis, had to stop at once, he ordered, addressing his backbench. It was time, he urged, to stop ‘navel gazing;’ time to get on with the ‘business of government.’ It was as if somehow he were no longer the people’s elected representative in a troubled political party but a small business person running a nut and bolt factory in Fisherman’s Bend, in the days before his government had closed down car-making and allied auto industries putting a quarter of a million Australians out of work.
Abbott’s advice was largely wasted on his own team, a chaotic, dysfunctional and woefully inept government which has never shown any useful reflective capacity and which has destroyed itself attempting the mundane practicalities of formulating a sound budget, health or education policy. Several sycophants whose jobs depended on the PM were, nevertheless, quick to get into high-vis vests. Joe Hockey was a picture in buttercup yellow hard hat and high-vis everything doing the hard graft of government by having a photo taken in a pizza shop, the epitome of national productivity and model of enlightened workplace wages and conditions.
Abbott’s ‘business of government’ did not include honest communication with the people. It did not come within a bull’s roar of his giving a frank account of whatever was going wrong with his leadership; what he was doing about it and ignored the nation’s right to know these matters. No doubt this is a refinement of the much-vaunted ‘transparency’ he and his team pledged to bring to government at the last election. We will be transparent about restricting what we tell you.
Doubtless there was also another good shake of the sauce bottle of consultation Abbott announced in the Canberra headland speech. The fully consultative Captain Abbott had listened. He had heard his back bench crew all telling him the LNP bus was heading for a cliff edge and here he was on TV telling us he wanted no wimpy introspection about changes of leader or direction but having listened and he was back in the driver’s seat gunning the engine. Full speed ahead.
Abbott took other giant strides as a reborn consultative leader in responding to sooks who whinged about Peta Credlin being too bossy. As he promised the Press Club, he would listen to criticism and he would change. He quickly forgot this the next day in cabinet by confirming that Peta Credlin would continue as his chief of staff. He would continue to outsource his prime ministership.
Tipsy with the heady new consultative spirit, he outsourced the task of counting rats by getting Ian McFarlane to ask Julie Bishop where she stood. Bishop spat the dummy and flounced out. She was furious, she said, that her loyalty could be questioned. Why, her loyalty was severely tested in this attack on her integrity. 0f course, she declared later she would make herself available should the leader declare a Prime Ministerial vacancy.
Other cabinet members gave the new consultative regime a workout on the airwaves with Christopher Pyne telling other radio listeners that Malcolm Turnbull was not mounting a challenge. Why, Pyne had asked him and Turnbull had said he wasn’t. Proof indelible. Turnbull subsequently cleared up the matter of his challenging the PM completely by explaining that he was not canvassing but rather ‘merely having conversations.’
Joe Hockey invoked divine assistance, crying out aloud that, by ‘God his government had a mandate to ‘fix this country.’ But because he was wearing a silly yellow hard hat he looked like Bob the Builder and nobody took issue with his blasphemy. Hockey was, however, admirably kitted out for leasing out to shopping malls in a while-you-wait budget repair stall and is rumoured to have received a number of calls from the adult entertainment sector proposing post-political career possibilities.
Abbott’s ‘it’s not happening’ call is a gutsy captain’s call and if he were in an Iron Man, someone would have to swab him for banned substances. Nothing could further heighten the atmosphere of surreal LNP soap opera cum carnival of the animals that grips the capital, an extravaganza which has usurped all normal processes of elected government.
Abbott’s strenuous, wilful, denial is ritual reassurance, bravado and machismo all rolled into one sweaty tee shirt. It is also on a par with his finest climate change work, patently, palpably, dangerously untrue. And there are a number of known unknowns, as Rumsfeld put it, or shreds of the wreckage for him to cling to.
The spill set for next Tuesday may not eventuate, despite media notices that it is now official, Turnbull may lack sufficient support and Abbott may survive technically but at huge cost to his already plummeting legitimacy. Arthur Sinodinis has scored a body blow by declaring his less than total support for the PM. On Wednesday Sinodinis voiced conditional support only for Tony Abbott, adding, helpfully, digging his leader in as deeply as he could, that the furore around Mr Abbott ‘is not just media hype.’
Sinodinis, who agreed to down tools as assistant treasurer in order to assist with their inquiries the Sydney ICAC inquiry into corruption, is a highly respected senior Liberal who once gave John Howard advice. A former Director of Australian Water Holdings, a role which required 25 to 40 hours of work per year or not even one hour per week plus travelling netted him $200,000 PA, a reimbursement he has defended as not unreasonable. His testimony is that he was unaware of any illegality.
Sinodinis dealt a mortal blow to the Prime Minister’s career. Abbott’s political future is down the drain. He is rapidly becoming politically insolvent. And he knows it. Whilst we can expect further public reassurances to add the sense of unreality which this government has made their trademark, we can also expect dirt to be dug on such potential contenders as Malcolm Turnbull, Malcom Brough, a stalking-horse rather than a real contender and the highly ambitious, over-achieving Julie Bishop. But it will not prevent Abbott’s inevitable, ultimate defeat.
So much is stacked against the beleaguered PM that he is irreparably damaged and diminished even if he survives the mounting backbench discontent currently coalescing around Malcolm Turnbull. Millionaire Turnbull, the Croesus of LNP politics, who is far more popular to voters than to his own party, is phoning party conservatives to reassure those who are dry and those who hate him that if made leader he would stand for everything that he’d never stood for before. No carbon tax. No gay marriage. Let’s give direct action a go, no-one else has tried it. The fools he never suffered gladly may, however, remain beyond the reach of his charm offensive.
In the end, support for Abbott has taken an odd twist. His defenders chief call is that we must not look like Labor. This begs the question of whether their own chaotic, inept disunity under an out of his depth PM is a better option. Policies not personalities matter, the LNP talking points tell us conveniently overlooking the fact that it is its unfair, unworkable policies the electorate is focussed on.
Keeping Abbott would mean that the LNP should persevere with a lame duck PM who will inevitably further lose support over the remaining year and a half of his term. Do those who want to appear unlike Labor believe that a contrived unity is going to be more effective, more convincing than a change?
‘We must get on with the job of government’ is the other official LNP rallying cry. But this begs the question of whether, despite all its spin, the government’s record of achievement is anything but abysmal in its failed budget, in its climate change denial and its advocacy of coal, its cold shoulder to renewable energy, its proposal to deregulate higher education and thereby restrict to an elite those who may access their birthright, their attack on Medicare and their apparent contempt for the rights of the elderly, the sick and the poor.
No, the LNP leadership impasse has come about not because the government has failed to get the message out but because the electorate has heard and rejected the message of a government it doesn’t like. Abbott is Prime Minister of an inept government formed from an LNP set up to serve the wealthy and the privileged. His government exists to meet the needs and serve the vested interests of the power elite but it has failed to deliver. The biggest strike against Abbott is that he now puts all of this at risk. He can promise all he likes to change into someone else but in 500 days he has yet to remotely demonstrate that he is the right man for the job of Prime Minister or the right man to lead a successful government. Those who helped put him in power must now get someone else to do his job. Turnbull is moving against him and Bishop will be on his ticket. Should they fail to get enough votes to succeed in the spill scheduled for next Tuesday, Abbott’s opponents have already dealt him out of the game.