Inside Story

Abbott’s epitaphs

Making sense of the premature passing of another elected prime minister will influence the fate of his successors, writes Tom Griffiths

Tom Griffiths 15 February 2015 1894 words

Fatal injury? Prime minister Tony Abbott after question time on Tuesday. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Early this month we saw the acting out of a great Australian ritual: the spearing of the governor. In 1790, governor Arthur Phillip was lured to a gathering of Aboriginal people at Manly Cove and subjected to a ritual punishment for his people’s misjudgement in usurping land and rights. Before public witness, the governor was speared in the shoulder, an injury meant to warn rather than to kill. Phillip’s misunderstanding of what was going on almost endangered his life. This month Tony Abbott blundered into a similar ritual punishment and his own actions probably ensured that his injury will prove fatal.

Now that Mr Abbott has decisively entered this terminal phase of his prime ministership, it’s time to consider his likely epitaphs. What political lessons will be drawn from his time as prime minister? What parables of Australian governance will be distilled from his swift fall?

Here are three possible epitaphs, and I begin with a three-word slogan.

He couldn’t govern

Tony Abbott was frequently credited with being a great opposition leader because of his relentless, aggressive and effective negativity. A great opposition leader, they say, but a disappointing prime minister. But his failure as prime minister must make us reassess his time as opposition leader. It is now apparent that relentless negativity does not prepare one for government. Since day one in the prime minister’s office, Abbott has floundered. He is still campaigning, still opposing. His major achievements, by his own account, have been to stop things.

Governing is a very different art and it can only be practised and refined by being creative, visionary and responsible in opposition. For those who have despaired at the increasingly simplistic and destructive partisanship of parliamentary debate in recent years, the failure of the Abbott prime ministership may be good news. It should become the example of what happens if oppositions focus only on blaming and undoing. When they win the prize of government, they don’t know what to do with it.

In January this year, before the knighting of Prince Philip but amid growing unease about leadership, one Liberal MP who is a strong supporter of Mr Abbott (but who retained anonymity) told Fairfax Media that the government needed to “come up with a few reasons why we deserve to be re-elected.” “Our biggest problem,” continued this supporter of the PM, is “Why are we here and what are we going to do now we are here?” It was an innocent and astonishing admission sixteen months into a three-year term and reveals the vacuum created by a narrow interpretation of “opposition.”

Abbott was unable to make the transition to responsible, positive leadership, to policy development, to consultation, to governing for all Australians. He has sometimes responded to people who criticise him with the words, “Ah yes, but I doubt you voted for me anyway.” This is a prime-ministerial voice we have not heard before, one that cannot transcend partisanship.

A sad and telling example of Abbott’s inability to govern has been his failure even to advance a cause close to his heart – and one that has the support of both major parties and a clear majority of Australians. It is recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution. Australia craves Abbott’s leadership on this issue. He spoke strongly about it in opposition and has said that he wanted to be “the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs.” He has a historic opportunity not just because he is prime minister now but also because he is a conservative prime minister now. It is an example of a reform that awaits the national leadership of the conservatives and where the PM has unusual independent power and high symbolic purpose delivered into his hands. Indigenous leadership mostly gave him their trust and support. As Noel Pearson declared in the revised version of his 2005 Mabo Oration, “It will take a prime minister in the mould of Tony Abbott to lead the Australian nation to settle the ‘unfinished business.’”

Yet Abbott has been in a curious paralysis. Even when seeking to “reboot” his leadership with new vision in 2015, he forgot the Indigenous cause again, just as he easily forgets that Sydney was more than just “bush” when the British arrived. His Indigenous adviser, Warren Mundine, was “disappointed” that the PM failed to mention Indigenous recognition in his National Press Club address on 2 February. The “governor” has so far let Indigenous people down – indeed all Australians. Does leadership elude him precisely because the issue is bipartisan, creative and requires the grace of good governance?

He punished the poor

Abbott’s fate tells us that Australians, even in an increasingly inequitable society, still believe in the “fair go.” The 2014 budget sounded the death knell for the prime minister and his treasurer because it was manifestly unfair. Australians can accept economic stringencies if they are shared with some equity and justice, but to especially punish the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged and the marginal for a budgetary imbalance is seen to be wrong.

A popular nomination for an Abbott epitaph is He broke promises. And those three words will indeed be inscribed with others on his political gravestone. But this charge is too universal and does not get to the essence of his betrayal. John Howard showed that you can be seen to break promises and still get away with it. Abbott did it brazenly, and then compounded the problem by denying it. But more than that, his rationale was unfair.

Because of perceived unfairness, many budget measures have been unable to pass even a conservative Senate. So it is the government’s thwarted intentions and enduring rhetoric that eroded Abbott’s standing. The age of entitlement is over, education is an indulgence, welfare recipients are “leaners,” refugees are “illegal,” poor people don’t drive cars, Indigenous Australians haven’t sufficiently helped to Close the Gap: this cascade of whingeing from those in power sickened even many advocates of small government.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey don’t get fairness. Most Australians are dismayed by that. Knighting the prince was a trivial but revealing example of a peculiar mindset. When John Howard became prime minister, he moved Robert Menzies’s desk into his office, and Menzies’s political career provided Howard with many of his successful strategies. Menzies was a sensible local conservative model. But when Tony Abbott became prime minister, he moved a portrait of the Queen into his office. As executive director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy in the 1990s, Abbott stopped the republic, and he is still fighting royal battles against his sovereign’s powerless subjects.

It’s the environment, stupid!

The famous sign that hung in Bill Clinton’s electoral office in 1992 declared: “The economy, stupid!” For Tony Abbott, it has been the electoral power of the environment that he has misunderstood, and he needs reminding of it even in his epitaph. No other federal government has attacked science and the environment with such undisguised and complacent vigour.

He has made light of Australia’s planetary obligations, as if our island girt by sea can somehow leave Earth. He seems to believe that we can be “open for business” while also retreating from the world community – by spurning cooperative regional solutions to refugees, reducing foreign aid, threatening world heritage, insulting the Human Rights Commission, drastically reducing investment in Antarctic science and opting out of international climate change governance. When 2GB shock-jock Alan Jones emerges as a powerful environmental campaigner against conservative state governments, you have to question Abbott’s political judgement as well as his principles.

“Stupid” is an unkind and discourteous word to use in public debate, and Clinton’s abusive sign was directed at himself. But, sadly, “stupid” does seem a relevant word in this debate. It describes a stubborn, even knowing, closing of the mind to evident truth. It does not assert a lack of intelligence but a misuse of it. Abbott, as opposition leader, was happy to legitimate climate change scepticism, announcing in 2011 that he remained “hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.” As Philip Chubb describes in his book Power Failure, Abbott in 2010 adopted the thoroughly discredited position that the world was cooling, a position again recently advanced by his top business adviser, Maurice Newman. These are stupid views in 2015.

Prime minister Abbott has attacked every arm of government associated with climate science. He initiated enquiries into wind farms and the Bureau of Meteorology. He criticised the Australian National University for divesting itself of fossil fuel funds. He thinks coal remains “good for humanity.”

It is worth remembering how Abbott came to the Liberal leadership. The first day of the 2009 summer – 1 December – dawned unseasonably cold in Australia’s national capital. The minimum temperature that morning was more than 6˚C below normal. That’s an ice-age kind of difference. As members of the Liberal Party made their way to a crucial leadership meeting on that day, they would have had to put on winter jackets and clear condensation from their car windows. On that crisp “summer” morning, to some members of parliament global warming may indeed have seemed like “absolute crap,” as leadership hopeful Tony Abbott described it. The leadership crisis had been prompted by a policy disagreement about climate, and it may have been weather that delivered Abbott’s one-vote victory.

Bubbling beneath the politics of the Liberal leadership spill last week were old and new concerns about environment and climate. Don’t underestimate them. Arguably, Howard, Rudd and Gillard were all swept out of office by climate politics, and Abbott’s fate will be similar. He came in as leader of the Liberal Party at the end of the last El Niño drought cycle and probably won’t quite last to the beginning of the next. If he were to linger, weather would blow him out, just as it allowed him in.

As Tony Abbott’s prime ministership draws to its agonising end, these three nominations for his epitaph will join many other assessments of his reign. What damage might Abbott do in his death throes? Warmongering and inciting panic over terrorism are the refuges of the desperate politician, and Abbott is already playing these cards. Talk is powerful. The way we make sense of the premature passing of another elected prime minister will help determine the fate of the next, and the next. And it will also shape the character of our parliamentary and public debate.

David Marr’s portrait of Abbott before he became PM, Political Animal – which Abbott gracefully accepted as fair – made it clear that he was a professional wrecker, good at penetrating an institution and destroying it from the inside. That lifelong practice explains why he was unable to negotiate leadership of the hung parliament of 2010, and why his prime ministership is doomed. •