‘Good government begins this week,’ promised the Prime Minister revealing intact his gift of the gaffe despite his ‘near death experience.’ Abbott’s face wore a rictus more rueful than repentant. The spill had diminished his authority. ‘He would last only as long as his next big mistake,’ as one of his ministers put it. Abbott had bet shrewdly on his party’s reluctance to make any leadership change. The other options were just too hard. Prudently, however, he also bought more votes with a promise to build submarines in South Australia. The promise of a tender later evaporated into a competitive evaluation, a form of words that puzzled everyone.
It was always all about power with Abbott. He’d never been popular, even pretending to make a virtue out of this but his new record low of a net minus 38 was straining his relationship with his colleagues who now, overwhelmingly, see him as a liability even if they fail to agree on what to do about it.
‘The wood is on me to change,’ said the PM, favouring a sporting metaphor as he promised to change at the National Press Club last week. To have the wood on someone is to know their weaknesses, and use them to your own advantage. Typically, he gave no detail of his changes, beyond promising to be more ‘collegiate’ and ‘consultative.’ It could have been a parody. Abbott has never shown any practical understanding of either word in his political life.
Nor did they sit well with party culture of a conga line of suck-holes to recall Latham’s vivid phrase. Any LNP politician favouring a consultative style may have to change more than himself. What Abbott means is that he will abandon or water down some unpopular policies including higher education, the Medicare co-payment plan and further changes to media. Abbott the politician is incapable of change.
Abbott Mark II has proved no more than Abbott Mark I recycled. His reinvented political self was a con. His ‘near death experience’ simply forced his retreat into a primitive aggression and denial. ‘Good government’ is simply and wholly about his own survival.
Flanked by sundry subdued party members over whom his authority and standing was irreparably depleted, Abbott strode from the party room, determined to ‘put the spill behind’ him. He was ‘getting on with the business of government.’ Besides, he couldn’t stand to look at the traitors. Two thirds of his backbench wanted rid of him. Others voted ‘No’ to stay his execution only because they believed it might seem fairer to the electorate. None rushed to congratulate him.
Howard, the Liberals’ Lazarus, the fabled party comeback king and increasingly nostalgic hero of ‘good government,’ pleaded for his protégé to be given another go. Howard was not, however, the best authority here. He took the same poor advice himself in 2007 when ceding leadership to Costello may well have prevented his party’s loss in that election. Turnbull may be widely disliked but Abbott has few friends left and has exhausted his political capital both within and without the party. It was evident this Monday after the party debouched out of the party room.
Only the pink-cheeked Bruce Billson appeared struck on his leader. He tripped alongside Abbott trying to catch up. Rapidly stepping backwards and sideways, the Minister for Small Business bobbed and weaved as if trying to fall in with his leader’s manly steps in some exotic high speed tango. His features flushed, Billson twisted his neck and lunged alarmingly at Abbott’s face as if he were seeking some type of ‘Kiss me, Hardy,’ opportunity. ‘Good government,’ it seemed, could be built on such encounters.
His deputy, phantom challenger, Julie Bishop flashed a dark look across at her leader. Harsh words had been exchanged the day before and Abbott had verballed her about her lack of support. She hated him for ever and it showed. Her kiss of death could wait. In the meantime, she was turning over a media briefing she would make on the need for Abbott to review Peta Credlin’s tenure.
The PM’s jaw was set; his face drawn like a man digesting news of a terminal illness. If Billson were seeking to console the PM, he clearly had a lot more work to do. The spill had gone too close for Abbott’s comfort, despite his crafty trimming of dissidents’ sails in bringing the spill meeting a whole day forward and his shrewd locking in of cabinet votes in a type of coercion he claimed was tradition. Abbott was done for. His reptilian brain kicked in immediately ordering him to attack. The key to good government lay in the attack dog doing more of what he did best.
Abbott’s earlier triumphal phalanx of support was gone like the wax from Icarus’ wings in the heat of the spill moment. Before the ballot, a rowdy push had swept him along in a swell of approbation, bearing him on into the cabinet room like a gang of kids in a playground. Now he was all on his own, striding purposefully, briskly, weaving to shake off Billson’s idiot yapping. Abbott looked as if he wanted to push his Minister out of his path. Or punch him. The new consultative collegiality was already wearing thin. Abbott was coming out fighting. His new good government would be taking no prisoners.
Some distance behind, Malcolm Turnbull sauntered, chin down and focused inward, alone with his thoughts. He affected a studied nonchalance and ironic detachment, his gait measured as befits reflection, one hand dangling wire-framed reading glasses speculatively from the hinge as if he held the scales of justice denied; or a model of an empty gallows.
All his life Turnbull had, like Jay Gatsby, craved acceptance and affirmation. Reason and experience instructed him not to take rejection personally. His heart, however, knew no other way. All he need do now, however, he thought, was wait. The spill result would prove Abbott’s death sentence. He was in like Flynn. It would take three months, tops, surely for his next big stuff up.
Joe Hockey also appeared thoughtful. He was praying that he’d last the week as Treasurer. For good measure, he also mumbled the LNP catechism: Fix the mess that Labor left us in. The government has a plan to cut spending. Australia’s economy is in great shape fundamentally. Recovery involved applying his party’s neoliberal faith-based platform. Harsh measures were required. But now, two competing versions of the liturgy were emerging. Hockey would cut spending. His leader was promising tax breaks. He hadn’t been consulted. Then Abbott had cut him loose in public, refusing to back him twice in a press conference recently. He felt like Abbott’s fall guy.
Overseas, events were making a mockery of the Australian neoliberals’ pretence to understand markets. Commodity prices had plunged. Storm clouds were brewing for the US and the world in a falling oil price. China’s economy was slowing. Russian faced economic collapse over lost oil revenue and its annexation of Ukraine could wreck things. Yet it was clearly ‘good government’ to ignore all this.
Abbott shouted and mocked Labor in parliament, channelling his inner junkyard dog. Out came the coarse rhetoric, the lies and the gaffes. He stonewalled, he thought-bubbled; he turned Question Time into a time-wasting farce of Dorothy Dixers, denial and rubbishing Labor. He bagged Gillian Triggs for being partisan over locking up children of asylum-seekers even suggesting she give Scott Morrison an award for humanity. He said his government had increased jobs by a factor of three, a cruel lie. He presided over some MPs walking out when Bill Shorten dared challenge his cutting the very funds which may have helped Aboriginal communities to close the gap. He sacked Ruddock, his Chief Whip for not supporting him sufficiently during the spill. Abbott Mark II looked like a testosteronic adolescent parody of Abbott Mark 1.
‘Good government starts every day,’ Abbott ventured in the House, attempting belatedly to retract his earlier gaffe; reset the record. The recovery was clumsy and unconvincing, as with the rest of his makeover. The PM’s promised new, ‘good government’ was nothing more than government by reset button. Its leader would continue to mouth off; shoot from the lip; act first and apologise later, and although neither tendency would help him consult, build collegiality nor recover any popular standing, it would always be someone else’s fault. He would fight tooth and nail for his own survival. Everyone else was expendable. Right now, Joe Hockey was in the gun. Yet, in the end, both were all washed up.