Inside Story

Tony Abbott, prime minister?

Can the opposition leader maintain momentum, asks Norman Abjorensen

Norman Abjorensen 8 February 2012 1795 words

Opposition leader Tony Abbott chairing the first shadow cabinet meeting of the year in Canberra last week. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

THE story is told in Canberra that back in 1995, soon after he entered parliament at a by-election, Tony Abbott had lunch with some old friends who were keen to celebrate his arrival on the national stage. Gently brushing aside all the handshaking and backslapping, Abbott was at pains to play down his achievement: a backbencher, especially one so newly arrived, is the lowliest of the low; it really counted for very little.

After the 1996 election brought the Coalition to power, Abbott, who had hoped to become a minister, was instead named a parliamentary secretary. The same group lunched together, only to hear the guest of honour explain just how insignificant a parliamentary secretary really was. It was not long, however, before Abbott made it into the ministry – but, as he explained to his circle, the real power was elsewhere, in cabinet. As the inexorable rise continued, he made it into cabinet in 2001 and his friends congratulated him yet again. Still Abbott remained unimpressed. “There’s only one bloke in cabinet who has real power, and that’s not me,” he is reported to have said. The “yet,” though unspoken, was understood.

As Susan Mitchell recounts in her book Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man, this was always a person infused with great expectations, his mother telling a priest early on that her infant son would one day be pope or prime minister. Mitchell explains why he ditched the Jesuits, who had educated him, when he entered the seminary: it was impossible for a Jesuit to become pope.

The curious thing about the twenty-seven people who have held the office of prime minister in Australia is that so few of them openly and consciously aspired (or conspired) to the office. For the great majority, the office came through accident and circumstance. Perhaps only Robert Menzies (1939–41, 1949–66), Gough Whitlam (1972–75) and Bob Hawke (1983–91) entered public life with the Lodge clearly in their sights. Indeed, all three entertained no doubts about their qualification and suitability. Perhaps to that list might be added, though more cautiously, Billy Hughes (1915–23) and John Howard (1996–2007), though in each case it was a more circuitous road to the top, heavily pitted with chance and circumstance.

Leaving aside the accidental leaders and seat warmers, a certain reluctance attached to the first two incumbents, Edmund Barton (1901–03) and Alfred Deakin (1903–04, 1905–08, 1909–10), whereas the fourth, George Reid (1904–05), who had no such reticence, was never more than a stopgap. Chris Watson (1904) and Andrew Fisher (1908–09, 1910–13, 1914–15), Labor’s first prime ministers, saw themselves primarily as servants of their party, as did their three Labor successors, Jim Scullin (1929–32), the very reluctant John Curtin (1941–45) and the self-effacing Ben Chifley (1945–49).

On the conservative side of politics, Stanley Bruce (1923–29) appeared all but indifferent to both power and ambition (even affecting not to know, when he was nominated as a candidate, whether it was for a state or a federal seat) while Joseph Lyons (1932–39) was purely a product of circumstance and treachery. Fast-forward to the end of the Menzies era in 1966 and Harold Holt (1966–67) was a contented lieutenant happy to wait his turn, while his two successors, John Gorton (1968–71) and Bill McMahon (1971–72) were both politicians who were never seen as leaders and were each catapulted into the Lodge by curious chance.

The enigmatic Malcolm Fraser (1975–83) had long sat unnoticed on the backbench before being promoted, his ruthlessness and ambition not becoming apparent until he toppled Bill Snedden in 1975. Paul Keating (1991–96) was not a natural leader but staked his claim while serving as treasurer. Kevin Rudd (2007–10) never looked more than an earnest tryhard, but appeared to shine in opposition after a series of lacklustre Labor leaders, while Julia Gillard won office, like Keating, through a coup.

Among the long list of hopefuls who never made it to the Lodge, perhaps only Bert Evatt, Labor’s leader in the wilderness of the late 1950s after the split in the Labor Party, strode into the political arena declaring his ambitions and his willingness to do whatever it took to realise them.

Which brings us once again to the ambitions of Tony Abbott. The three prime ministers who most clearly aspired to the job all did so for very different, though not unrelated, reasons. Menzies, a rising star in Victorian politics with the premier’s job within reach, chose instead to go to Canberra, convinced (and not without justification) that he was on his way to the top. Of course, after his first less than successful stint in the job, he had to create an entirely new party for his second coming. Whitlam, for his part, had a vision for a social democratic Australia, but the Labor Party in the 1950s and for much of the 1960s was regarded as unelectable, and so he set himself the onerous task of restructuring the party – in some ways a feat even more difficult than that of Menzies. In the case of Hawke, the former Rhodes Scholar (like Abbott) was already a national figure as ACTU president when he entered parliament as a self-proclaimed Labor messiah.

Despite his fervent ambition, Abbott pales significantly in comparison. He has no need to build or rebuild a robust party; his vision, for want of a better term, is mired in an imagined past; and if he sees himself as a messiah, then, unlike Hawke, it is doubtful if anyone else shares the delusion. In each of the prime ministerial examples, ambition was accompanied by talent: the eloquence, intelligence and shrewdness of Menzies the barrister; the towering intellect and vision of the barrister Whitlam; and the broad popular appeal of the conciliator and communicator, Hawke. Each in his own way shone out from the pack.

There was never any doubt what any of them stood for. In his classic “Forgotten People” radio talk in 1942 Menzies enunciated a philosophy and a set of principles that guided his thinking. Whitlam, for his part, developed a wide-ranging critique of government and its constitutional underpinning that very precisely informed his program in government. Hawke, acutely aware of the damage inflicted on the body politic by the constitutional crisis of 1975, and of Australia’s shortcomings in adapting to a globalising world, signalled unambiguously what he would seek to do in office as a unifier and moderniser.

ABBOTT, by contrast, has offered little in the way of vision. Like his spiritual hero, the late Bob Santamaria, he seems engaged in a war on modernity or, at least, those aspects that conflict with conservative Catholic social teaching derived from Pope Pius IX, who railed against democracy, denounced liberalism and condemned the Enlightenment as heresy. Santamaria, uneasy about capitalism, looked to a sort of folksy yeomanry, self-sufficient and pious, as an antidote to all the ills of modern life. But whereas Santamaria’s thought was infused by genuine compassion, Abbott can comment that “poverty is in part a function of individual behaviour.” That a public figure, as late as 2010, can say, “What the housewives of Australia need to understand, as they do the ironing, is…” suggests a public figure quite blind to, or unwilling to see, the profound social changes of the past four decades.

With his party still well ahead in the opinion polls, and despite his limited appeal to the electorate starting to slip, there is a strong possibility that he will become prime minister. But what sort of a PM would Tony Abbott be?

Unlike John Howard, the man he most admires, Abbott is not known for his policy work. He was at best a wayward minister, and his wild policy gyrations in opposition – on coal-fired power stations, coal seam gas exploration, asylum seekers and industrial relations, for instance – suggest chaos rather than stability. Paradoxically, his foreshadowed cuts to the public service might well serve to disable the only institution that could clothe his erraticism in a veneer of cohesive respectability. The scattergun tactics of opposition, which can, and do, rattle a government, simply do not translate into office. We have yet to see whether Abbott has another statesmanlike side or whether he is what he appears to be, a one-trick pony.

It might well be that Abbott has peaked too early and that any protracted slide in his poll ratings will see a nervous party move to dump him. And of course a now patient (but still ambitious) Malcolm Turnbull has decided to remain in parliament as a clear alternative, and a far less polarising figure.

Abbott won the leadership by a single vote, of course, after an extraordinary ballot at the end of 2009 that saw Turnbull’s leadership declared vacant, the nominal challenger Joe Hockey eliminated in a three-way ballot, and in the final ballot several Liberals who voted to unseat Turnbull returning to his camp when faced with the alternative of Abbott.

One of the fascinating political issues of 2012 will be Abbott’s relationships with the electorate and his own party. While Tony Abbott took the party close in 2010, he still did not win and, as Susan Mitchell points out in her critical examination of this political streetfighter, he was the very reason for that failure. He is not popular with women. If this continues to show up in polling, Abbott’s leadership might need more than overweening ambition to sustain itself.

He has always been a divisive figure, even within his own party. Twenty years ago, when he worked as media adviser to then Liberal leader John Hewson, Abbott never hesitated to proffer unsolicited tips about policy and tactics to all and sundry, which was often resented by senior Liberals. I recall one instance when, after receiving gratuitous advice, an MP who became a very senior minister in the Howard government remarked, “Thank God that man is not in parliament and nor is he ever likely to be.”

Similarly, soon after Abbott became leader, a frontbencher talked about his misgivings, first about style but then about substance, acidly observing that he had no idea at all what Abbott believed in, apart from John Howard, the Catholic Church and the monarchy. “I’m not even sure he believes in capitalism, and now he’s leading a party whose very lifeblood is adherence to the free market system.” (Interestingly, Menzies was criticised early in his leadership for not being sufficiently attuned to the demands of business, with one critic, the acerbic Archie Cameron, calling him a secret socialist.)

The gulf between ambition and its realisation may yet be a bridge too far for Tony Abbott. •