Month: February 2015

Abbott, the very model of the dispensable post modern prime minister.

1 1 abbott two hands

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.

Abbott talks himself out of a job at Canberra Press Club today.

1 abbott press conf

OVER the summer, I’ve been talking to hundreds of Australians from all walks of life in the street, on the beach, in cafes, even at the pub; and I’ve been talking with my colleagues.

The PM began his over-hyped ‘do or die’ Canberra press club address today by making a folksy claim to have his finger on the national and political pulse: ‘over the summer I’ve been talking …,’ but his efforts were undercut by the key verb, ‘talking’. If Abbott wanted to reassure his audience, he would make at least some concession to listening. If he wanted to convince us he would feed back some of what he had learnt. Sometimes, the job is just too big for the man and as his talk proceeded, it became increasingly clear that Abbott’s self-set task of reassurance and redirection was too big for him, too big for one who prefers simple rhetoric, lazy cliché and bald assertion to any more persuasively advanced discourse. He talked at his audience for at least half an hour but by the end convinced few, as Chris Uhlman put it bluntly, that it would not be better if he just resigned.

Talking to people is not communication, unless you are prepared to listen and share. That means being equipped to listen. No matter how many times the PM may tell us that we have ‘won the lottery of life’ as he puts it in his schmaltzy empty phrase, because we are ‘free, fair and prosperous,’ Australians will need more convincing if they are to believe that his government’s increased surveillance and anti-terror and immigration law changes do not mean that he has increased the power of the state over the individual.  Above all, the poor, the needy, the unemployed, the underemployed including those long suffering Australians in remote and regional indigenous communities would be wondering what type of lottery they had won.

Abbott then sketched a global perspective as testing, tumultuous, troubled and one in which anything could happen: ‘expect the unexpected’ was his takeaway message. Here was a chance to commend Australians on their resilience or their capacity to support one another but instead he chose to shape his comments to make a case for a strong, protective government with the smarts to strengthen our economy. He repeated the tired old saw that only a Coalition government could deliver the government’s future. Would we have any future if the previous government, a Labor government had not been able to stimulate the economy to bring us through the GFC relatively unscathed? Will we have any future, moreover, if we continue to deny climate change, a key part of the future revealingly missing from his quick synopsis? As always his perspective was selective and defective in convincing detail.

There followed a lot of boilerplate rhetoric about a strong economy. Apparently a strong economy was something his LNP government was building as only his government could. Those thousands of workers who are now out of a job as a result of his axing of public service jobs would beg to differ. Those who watch the figures would be hard pressed to find a shred of evidence to support his case that he and his government was ‘growing the economy’. Almost every indicator from unemployment to business and consumer confidence points in the other direction.

Much as Abbott chose to claim his government was continuing to create more jobs, he ignored unemployment trends completely. Buckets of new jobs are no consolation if we have barrow-loads of jobs expiring or ceasing to be, such as those of advocacy service workers whose careers were terminated in a stroke of the government’s pen.  Or those who lost their jobs when the renewable energy sector copped a hiding from a government with an ideological commitment to coal.

All pundits agreed that to succeed his speech needed a new direction if not a bold new policy initiative. So where was it? Ten minutes into his speech there was but the vaguest outline. A new ‘families policy’ and a new ‘small business and jobs policy’ along with building roads seem to be the most detail we will get from the PM that he has anything at all planned to boost economic growth. If he had plans, he gave no detail. Yet, because he gave no detail, no one would be persuaded that these exist or that they would work.

Now came something else all too familiar, some Labor government bashing.  Under Labor, the PM intoned, government was spending too much; borrowing too much; and paying out too much dead money in interest alone. He had the rubbery figures to prove it. Abbott once again represented debt in nominal terms, a tactic he and his colleagues had done to death in the election campaign. Few are bluffed. Any reasonable, responsible view of debt as linked to GDP and government revenue shows we’re in pretty good shape, despite the Coalition’s scare tactics, tactics along with its broken promises which have so damaged its credibility that it has undermined its own legitimacy, a process which has further depressed business and consumer confidence.

Abbott, the ideological right wing economic dry then sloganeered about deficits, again in nominal terms and not in relation to increasing productivity. Overlooking his government’s practice in the Howard-Costello years he made the false claim:

‘We’ve never been a country that’s ripped off future generations to pay for today …’ this was rich coming form a member of a government which had entirely squandered the windfall of the resources boom on boosting its chances at the ballot box by offering tax reductions. Abbott (and his advisers) must assume that his audience has no memory.

The economy is stronger, the budget is improving and the jobs market has strengthened claimed the PM in Pollyanna fashion. His assertion is flatly contradicted by the evidence. Unemployment is up, growth is flat while confidence is down. Part of this is caused by the Abbott government, especially its scaremongering about fictive debt crises and its punitive cuts to struggling low-income families.

There followed reassurances about getting tough on terror with a swipe at Labor for reducing police and security agencies funding with no specifics. This was a dangerous ploy given that the bungled Sydney siege, a preventable action insofar as it was caused by a man who somehow fell off the radar despite his police record and a tragic event in which there are still unanswered questions about police tactics which caused the death of one innocent hostage remains fresh in everyone’s memory.

Abbott’s sycophantic streak was embellished under pressure when he ventured to embrace small business. His praise of the local merchant as a type of community benefactor and altruist was ideologically correct for the party faithful but gratingly at odds with reality in mixed company:

I admire people who take risks, have a go and employ others … If you’re a small business owner, it’s likely that you’ve mortgaged your home in order to invest, employ and serve the community.

Quite literally, you have put your economic life on the line for others…

What Abbott offered up to the Press Club today was just more of the same old rhetoric, the same old unconvincing claptrap. The need to please his backers eclipsed his capacity to even heed, let along answer his critics. Abbott had nothing substantial new to offer, apart from the well-leaked ‘news’ that his paid parental leave was ‘off the table’. Nowhere did the PM attempt to hold himself to account or confront in public his failure to meet expectations. Nor did he give any sign that he had the capacity to deliver on the trust, the hopes that others had placed in him. He stood today, facing the end of his career, a tin pot general of open market ideology whose ambition and capacity to attack conferred a premature and undeserved image of competence and depth that now was well and truly shattered.

Abbott’s Captain’s call a Titanic disaster at Press Club today.

Abbott pensive but incapable of real reflection.
Abbott pensive but incapable of real reflection.

… it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.                                                                                                                              Edmund Burke 1774

Tony Abbott has declared himself ‘a very good captain’ of his Government’s team, after weathering a blistering tsunami of criticism, derision and withering contempt following his recent bizarre decision to confer an Australian Knighthood upon his Royal Highness, the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. All hell broke loose, according to most observers, partly because of Abbott’s bad decision itself but mostly because it was the last belaying pin of the breech ropes on a very loose cannon finally, irretrievably coming adrift. For Abbott himself, it was merely ‘a bit of a rough patch’ and a ‘stuff up’; and all he needed to do was to apologise and entrust choice of awards recipients to a committee. It did not seem to enter Abbott’s head that ‘a very good captain’ is defined by his very good decisions.

Unexpected as it was unwelcome by either recipient or electorate, Abbott’s ‘dub-up stuff-up’ was, however, perfectly timed to become a hot topic in Australia Day barbeque settings around the nation as Australians of all persuasions digested this latest captain’s folly while turning well-nitrated snags, chops, steaks, kebabs, prawns and other such burnt offerings as tong-wielding men will fiddle around a griddle while quickly getting pissed and opinionated. Yet while backyard blowhards blew their bags few could be heard backing Abbott’s captain’s pick and none at all upheld the PM’s decision as evidence for his being ‘a very good captain.’

Abbott’s latest desperate boast has pundits scratching their heads and wondering how any sane person could confuse the Abbott brand of leadership with ‘very good captaincy’. No-one, in his or her right mind could. Unless, perhaps, you see Abbott as an anti-captain, an alienated, inarticulate, bewildered, existential hero in the changing Australian political narrative; a story which since The Dismissal of Whitlam has ‘moved forward’ from epic to ironic. In this perspective, Abbott is a product of the times, a cynical caricature of the qualities of commitment, judgement and enlightened conscience as set down by Edmund Burke, a leader in words and deeds, whom, ironically, Abbott felt he could quote with a straight face in his Press Club appearance today.

Or could he just be mad, bad and easily confused? Or both?   Whatever the cause, it is hardly the first time Abbott, the pathological gaffer, has seemingly been so overwhelmed by opportunity that he has come up with something so wrong and so stupid that he has taken everyone by surprise.

Abbott’s political career has been characterised by many sensational lapses of judgement, including his decision in 2010 to publicly inform the nation of his natural tendency towards mendacity during ABC TV’s 7:30 report. The then Opposition Leader astonished the nation when he said his only utterances that should be regarded as ”gospel truth” were carefully prepared and scripted remarks such as those made during speeches or policy pronouncements. Otherwise, statements he made during the ‘heat of discussion’ such as radio interviews or under questioning at press conferences, were not necessarily reliable.

Given this context, the immediate reaction of most who heard of Abbott’s lunatic decision to knight the Duke, a less than chivalric type by nature and a curmudgeon by design were about to laugh it off. Abbott had misspoken; he was misreported; he was making a joke. It was another gaffe or another outburst of Abbott madness. When it became clear it was ‘gospel truth’, this was quickly followed by an angry incredulity in which Australians wondered aloud at their Prime Minister’s alarming stupidity and lack of judgement. Many saw his action as suicidal, a ritual hari-kari with the dull edge of the ceremonial sword of the accolade.

So strong, indeed, appeared the kamikaze element in his indecorous over-decoration of Philip in what he claims was his own decision, a captain’s call that reporters immediately began to canvass other contenders for the position of Prime Minister. Some such as the colourful ‘side-show’ Mal Brough (so called because everywhere he went as NT minister there was a circus) were said to be preening their own feathers before a run from the backbench. Or there was a frisson of interest reported between Turnbull and Bishop, provided each put the other first.

Others, including anti-knight-errant Rupert Murdoch sought to scapegoat the PM’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, on whom, it was felt, a great deal could be blamed, given that she was Abbott’s eminence grise and given that she was a woman. Blame the sheila, was Murdoch’s advice to anyone not paid to listen confirming that whilst Rupert may have renounced his Australian citizenship to become an American, he was still a true blue unreconstructed Aussie male chauvinist when it mattered.

Abbott would have none of this. He claimed his move was prompted by a desire to acknowledge all the very many good things that Philip had done for all Australians, and that it was all his own idea, a decision taken without consultation or any real advice, although he did profess to have confided in another knighthood recipient, the retired Air Chief Marshall Sir Angus Houston and model of Olympian detachment and to the Governor General. In essence, however, it was all his own, a captain’s call or a captain’s pick. And as furious dissension reached white heat, in another flurry of preposterous waffling, he reminded us all of his high opinion of his own leadership. He was one hell of a captain. Or at least, ‘a very good captain’.

 “This is a very strong team,” he said. “And one of the reasons why so many members of the team are able to perform so well is because they’ve got a very good captain.

So there we have it: Abbott’s most recent Captain’s call has been to remind the nation of his captaincy. Whilst Abbott’s latest act of naked self-promotion may seem immodest, presumptuous and inappropriate, it also reveals the extent of his desperation to cling to some vestige of power. OK, he is saying, the knighthood for the Duke was a stuff up but I really am a top captain. Just look at my team. Let’s not waste time navel gazing; reflection and introspection are only for wimps; real men apologise for ‘the stuff up’ and move on.

Unfortunately, Mr Abbott, the nation is looking at no-one else but you thanks to your stuff-ups. You have guaranteed its full and undivided attention. The nation is wondering what mistake could be next. You have control of a fair bit of firepower and a track record of preferring to shoot from the hip and apologise after. And even an average captain would never have made the Prince Philip knighthood call. And looking at the team only makes it worse.

Attempting to take credit from a team which no-one in their wildest dreams would call a dream team Mr Abbott gets you even further into trouble. Your nightmare team has done so little to take credit for that your call can only be ironic. Your own captaincy remains even less illustrious as was revealed when you bestrode the stage of the National Press Club today like some bad parody of a modern political colossus.

All eyes were on you to make the speech of your life. In the end it was a rehash, a warmed over repeat of the same mindless platitudes, the vapid, empty slogans that got you into trouble in the first place. You showed the nation once and for all the job was too big for the man. It wasn’t a resignation speech in your mind, perhaps, but it served the same purpose. If ever a captain’s call were called for this was the time and place. In the end it wasn’t a captain’s call or even a decent speech but merely a reprise of the same turgid, clapped-out rhetoric of the campaign stump. Only in this case, time has moved on, Mr Abbott; the tide has run out and left you stranded, high and dry, however much you wave your arms or flap your gums.