Fighting off a mob of forty colleagues baying for his blood at Monday’s party room meeting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott snatched a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat. The meeting, to vote on a motion for a leadership spill, moved by two West Australian MPs had to be brought forward one day as the PM desperately sought to hose down a blazing conflagration of party rebellion incited by anonymous malcontents and an alienated backbench. No challenger stepped forward at the last minute, lending a surreal effect to what some termed ‘a phantom challenge’ but this made the spill even more of a referendum on the PM alone.
In effect, Monday’s party room spill motion proved to be a vote of limited and conditional confidence in the PM. Even party hacks and spinners put it about that Abbott was now on probation. He had not won, he had merely bought time to lift his game, a conditional and precarious tenure on the position he famously said he would do everything but sell his arse to obtain. He came close with a promise to build submarines in Australia which was enough to get votes against the spill from SA MPs but in a novel form of words not clear enough to be any kind of real commitment. At the end of the day it all hinged on a competitive evaluation process, whatever that mean. It clearly did not mean an open tender but it could well have served to describe the party room process.
Monday’s party meeting may have failed to dump Abbott but it did succeed in mortally wounding the troubled leader. Stealing not so much victory but the poisoned chalice of his party’s qualified approval, Abbott was relieved, shamed and frightened at the same time. It did not last into question time. Before parliament began, however, Abbott quickly seized the microphone to beg forgiveness; beg his colleagues’ mercy. Good government starts today, he pledged leaving many to wonder, as Bill Shorten has quipped about the preceding 521 days.
Abbott would lift his game, he said; he would change his act; he would consult; he would scrap everything unpopular. He would go no more a-knighting; he would clip Peta’s wings; he would stop walking funny; he would fudge the next budget to give tax breaks to business although we were still in the valley of the shadow of our ‘debt and deficit disaster.’ He would, he promised, become a Prime Minister. In question time that followed, however, once the obsequies to departed greats such as Tom Uren and Colleen McCullough were done, Abbott reverted to type, a political rat, or junkyard dog, all teeth bared and claws scrabbling to keep himself at the top of the pack.
Thirty-nine LNP party members had wanted a leadership spill, their confidence in Abbott completely shot. The one informal vote bore the word ‘pass’ and can hardly be seen as an endorsement of their fearless leader. Nor can we count all the votes of the PM’s cabinet, bound, we are told, ‘by convention’ to vote for the leader. Yet even by the official count, it was a pyrrhic victory. Abbott was done for and they knew it. Many enjoyed it. It gave Julie Bishop licence to publicly repeat Rupert Murdoch’s order with regard to the execution of Peta Credlin, her thin lips curling as she savours her revenge on almost being denied a passage to Lima and a thousand other petty checks and slights.
Abbott was dealt a lethal backhander on Monday. The only question for the party was how long he would be made to suffer before being put out of his misery by Jay Gatsby Turnbull, a man with real connections, real Sydney real estate and a demonstrable entrepreneurial capability matched only by his peerless capacity to suffer fools badly and to alienate the entire National Country Party. But for Abbott on Monday, whose self-awareness is, at best, under-developed, it was easier to slip into his old bad habit of denial. It was, a rough patch, he admitted in a line which Hockey and others repeated as if it were not all self-inflicted but it could all be turned around with words.
The PM was shaken. Like Moses in the desert he was hearing and seeing things. One vision was clear. It was them, not us, as he pointed out, after experiencing his Cecil B DeMille epiphany, an epiphany which he eagerly shared with the media later:
“I was given a very strong message yesterday. If we focus on Labor we can win the next election. If not, we will lose.”
God, it seems, had not spoken of Abbott’s reaping the whirlwind of his own poor leadership, poor policies nor of his pathological behaviour and unsound judgement. Nor did he suggest Abbott’s mob might need to focus on government for the rest of its term. It was, as always, the fight that mattered most. No matter that he might be hallucinating in pain and enunciating last election’s mantra. Déjà vu or Groundhog Day, he ploughed ahead.
Abbott gripped his lectern for dear life, shoulders forward, legs braced, comb over strapped down for action and toes turned wide like a frogman balancing on deck in a choppy sea or a bantam rooster in a scrap. He should be spared, he crowed, because he had won the last election. Single-handedly. Look backwards, he was saying. It works for me. All the rest is speculation. And negative thinking. Why, there are some who would say I have virtually single-handedly guaranteed our future defeat and our party’s utter annihilation. He paused for applause. He waited. Nothing but an embarrassed silence and Peta’s mobile ringing greeted his ears.
He was, moreover, a fighter, he crowed. He just wasn’t good at fighting the Liberal party, he pretended. He offered his neck in awkward gambit of appeasement and faux contrition making another fresh claim about his past that, if allowed, would rewrite history. The revised Abbott was LNP leader by universal acclaim, not one vote, in his new vision; it was Abbott the valiant, moreover, alone, bare-handed who had brought his party to the Promised Land. Super-Abbott the new mythic hero would now replace the historic Tony Abbott, the dangerously trigger-happy scrapper and in-fighter who had in fact only emerged victorious by default when Labor did themselves in.
Abbott was sorry but couldn’t say the word. He was sorry to have stuffed up everything. Sorry to have been asleep at the wheel and to have run the ship of state aground on the treacherous reefs of political reality. All those captain’s calls. He was sorry that some backbenchers thought he was ignoring them. He was sorry that he’d probably attempted to do too much in the first term of his captaincy. But he was a good captain. He was good at apologies. He was good at acting first and saying sorry afterwards and other modes of manly decisiveness. He was good at saying the words that he thought they wanted to hear. Why, he could knock off a barnacle with the best of them. He was sorry, above all, like any narcissist, for everything, meaning everything that hadn’t gone his way.
Abbott was ‘chastened,’ he said by his ‘near death experience,’ although he had never been chastened in his life. Good government would begin today. A muffled titter broke out. Did this mean that the previous half-term had been play-acting or bad government – or both? Although, typically, the PM later claimed that he meant that good government began every day, irreparable damage had been done to the reputation of his government’s previous half-term and to himself if he had only the wit to realise it. Better take up Kevin Andrews’ offer of counselling. Remorse, the WD40 of his re-start would dispel all oncoming disaster and keep the party motor running sweetly on to victory.
Tony Abbott was trying out some steps in his latest dance of contrition. It was a command performance and stakes could not be higher but it looked awkward, unrehearsed and unconvincing. Most of it was familiar as if the PM could only reprise his old fancy footwork. He pledged to reform; to mend his ways again as he attempted to take in the confronting evidence of a real and present danger. He had no idea. A more self-aware, astute leader would have resigned, if not in his own, in his party’s best interests.
The LNP’s contrived ‘Clayton’s’ leadership spill was squibbed by a party room terrified of any alternative. It was intended as a shot across his bows, as if Team Abbott were capable of changing course. Tony Abbott has weathered his latest crisis only to buy time. He has no plan. He has said nothing about what his changed Prime Ministerial role will look like, feel like, and be like. He has fallen back on his standard defence that he is not the messiah but merely a naughty boy and he is sorry and he will mend his ways. There is nonsense about consultation and collegiality thrown into the mix for good measure and a vague undertaking to tone down his outsourcing of his job to Peta Credlin with the mumble that we have all got to lift our performances.
It is telling that Abbott thinks all he has to do is mouth the right words. Yet the right words hold no meaning for him. How can they? They are alien to his political lexicon. He is the consummate enfant terrible of politics, a man who got to be Prime Minister as Opposition junkyard dog whom many including himself, hoped could grow into the job only, inevitably, to be disappointed. Nor is there any real evidence to support this supposition. The PM’s entire political trajectory is based on the crash through or crash principle. It is revealing that since his rebuff in the party room, he has come out with the line that he is a fighter. At the same time he would have us believe he can be a sensitive, pliant, nurturing and open-minded listener extending limitless tolerance, acceptance and respect. The transformation would be incredible if it were enacted anywhere by anyone let alone by Tony Abbott, the fractious pugilist who prefers a three word slogan rather than any real political discourse or genuine dialogue with his electorate which involves real listening and genuine mutual respect.
It is evident today in the televised part of federal parliament that is question time, that the new Abbott is channelling the old. He is incapable of being or doing anything else. Words are cheap to this man. He will buy votes with promises he never intends to keep or promises of submarine tenders he thinks can get out of. He will tell you what he thinks you want to hear. He may promise endlessly to mend his ways but he will revert to type the moment he is under any pressure.
Old habits of attack and bluff and dumbing down issues to asinine slogans, however, have cost the PM dearly in trust and credibility, together with the cynical chicanery of his ‘promises’ that are only promises if they are written down. There is much like this on the debit side of Abbott’s ledger, the latest is his resort to weasel words such as ‘competitive evaluation’ to evade the commitment of an open tender for new submarines. Above all, however, in Canberra last Monday was the tawdry spectacle of the liar found out. Spare us all the unctuous grovelling apologies and promises of reform, Mr Abbott, just get on with the job or if you can’t, stop pretending. We know how you love approval. The nation will not regard any more highly if you mistakenly attempt to tough it out in a Prime Ministerial role you are manifestly so ill-equipped to fulfil.