Inside Story

Uneasy lies the head

Tony Abbott, once a beneficiary of the new, brutally pragmatic treatment of prime ministers by their colleagues, became its victim, writes Norman Abjorensen

Norman Abjorensen 15 September 2015 1775 words

Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing today that he will challenge prime minister Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Not so long ago, in the normal course of events, a leader who took his or her party from opposition to government might have had occasion to feel secure, if not a little smug – installed in the pantheon of the immortals as the feted hero who conquered the enemy and delivered the spoils.

But the days of resting on old glories were seemingly banished in 1991 when the Labor Party deposed Bob Hawke, the party’s most electorally successful leader, despite his having delivered four election wins. And any last vestiges of security that a victorious leader might feel were shattered once and for all with the ousting of Kevin Rudd, a victorious first-term leader, in 2010.

What became abundantly clear was that the last election now mattered for little; everything rested on prospects for the next election, and in an age increasingly dominated by fluctuations in public opinion and the constant soundings of focus groups, a leader whose ability to deliver seems to be faltering is in very real danger. Such fears, real or imagined, were instrumental in ending the prime ministerships of both Hawke and Rudd, in his first incarnation, as well as Julia Gillard’s in 2013.

Tony Abbott, despite his resounding win in 2013, was never entirely secure; many in his own team harboured grave reservations about his leadership qualities, and especially his political judgement. He has always been a divisive figure. In the early 1990s, when he worked as media adviser to then Liberal leader John Hewson, Abbott never hesitated to proffer unsolicited advice about policy and tactics to all and sundry, a practice that was often resented by senior Liberals. I recall one instance when, after receiving this kind of advice, an MP who became a senior minister in the Howard government remarked, “Thank God that man is not in parliament and nor is he ever likely to be.”

That observation entirely missed the gimlet-eyed ambition that drove every move Abbott made – including heading up Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy – and every alliance he forged – including aligning himself with John Howard as he plotted his comeback – all carefully calculated to raise his public profile and pave the way to political power. It is doubtful whether any of his prime ministerial predecessors, many of whom were ambitious themselves, was as fiercely and single-mindedly driven.

The three prime ministers who have most clearly aspired to the job over the years have all done so for very different, though not unrelated, reasons. Robert Menzies, a rising star in Victorian politics with the state 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. Gough Whitlam, for his part, had a vision of a social democratic Australia, but the Labor Party in the 1950s and much of the 1960s was regarded as unelectable, and Whitlam 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 Bob 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.

Abbott, despite his fervent ambition, pales significantly in comparison. He had no need to build or rebuild a robust party; his vision, for want of a better term, was mired in an imagined past; and if he saw himself as a conservative messiah, then, unlike Hawke, it is doubtful that anyone else shared the conviction. In each of the earlier prime ministerial examples, ambition was accompanied by talent: the eloquence, intelligence and shrewdness of Menzies the polished advocate; 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. Menzies, in his classic “Forgotten People” radio talk in 1943, 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, which informed very precisely his program in government. Hawke, acutely aware of the damage inflicted on the body politic by the events of 1975 and Australia’s shortcomings in adapting to a globalising world, signalled unambiguously what he would seek to do in office as a unifier and moderniser.

Tony Abbott, by contrast, offered little in the way of vision. Like his spiritual hero, the late Bob Santamaria, he seemed engaged in a war on modernity. 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 – and elements of this were apparent in Abbott’s musings. But whereas Santamaria’s thought was infused with genuine compassion, Abbott parts company by uttering such neo-liberal comments as “poverty is in part a function of individual behaviour.” A public figure who could say, as late as 2010, “What the housewives of Australia need to understand, as they do the ironing, is…” is undoubtedly quite blind to, or unwilling to see, the profound social changes of the past four decades.

Abbott proved to be an aggressive opposition leader and there is little doubt that he created trouble for Kevin Rudd, whose popularity was in decline, and who would be replaced the following June by Julia Gillard. Ordinarily, Abbott’s failure to secure a clear victory just a few months later should have cost him his job, if past precedents were a guide, but he defied the trend. He again failed when he was unable to coax the key independent MPs, who held the balance of power, to support a Coalition government in the hung parliament. Some polling pointed to Abbott himself as a key factor in the election result; certainly he was instrumental in the decision by two conservative independents to support Labor.

By the time of the 2013 election – with the Labor Party in turmoil – Abbott was able to snare a clear win, but without a majority in the Senate many of his budget measures stalled. By the end of 2013, just months after taking office, his government fell behind Labor in the polls and largely stayed there. Abbott’s own popularity was also low. By the end of 2014, there were visible signs of unrest in the government, but no challenger had emerged.

Having controversially restored knighthoods to the Australian honours system – in line with his monarchist beliefs – he drew widespread criticism when he awarded a knighthood to the monarch’s husband, Prince Philip, on Australia Day 2015. It lacked any resonance with the Australian people and many on his own side were aghast; he bravely characterised it as a “captain’s call.”

Serious questions were now being asked about Abbott’s judgement, but on 9 February a party-room meeting defeated a move to declare the leadership open, sixty-one votes to thirty-nine. A chastened PM emerged from what he later called a “near death experience,” implicitly conceding failure in his first seventeen months in office, and declaring “good government starts today.”

He had effectively been placed on notice. Yet the government continued to drift and Abbott became embroiled in another crisis in the winter parliamentary recess when he refused to criticise the speaker, Bronwyn Bishop (another of his captain’s picks) when she was called to account for questionable travel expense claims. For three weeks, Bishop was the subject of intense media and public scrutiny, and the damage was quickly reflected in opinion polls.

Commentators were quick to link the issue, and the damage it had inflicted on the government, with renewed speculation about Tony Abbott’s grip on power. Government MPs were dismayed that the saga dragged on for so long and worried by the public outrage it was generating. In a none too subtle swipe at Bishop, and by implication, at Abbott for failing to condemn such extravagance, communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, long regarded as a potential rival, took to social media to detail a trip he took from Melbourne to Geelong – the route of Bishop’s contentious helicopter charter – by public transport. Danger signs were increasingly being seen as reflections of Abbott’s shaky hold on power.

Unlike previous Liberal leaders, Abbott had been singularly incapable of shaping the party, and the government, in his own image. A case in point was his own pet project – a costly paid parental leave scheme – that failed to win support from his colleagues and, moreover, drew widespread criticism from his own constituency, especially business. The Abbott plan would have provided women with six months of leave at their replacement wage – up to a cap – plus superannuation. With the government in search of savings, the scheme was dropped by the time of the 2015 budget, and added to a growing list of personal initiatives by the prime minister to be abandoned, including controversial amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, a co-payment surcharge for doctors’ visits, a refusal to grant a pay increase for defence forces, and an end to car industry subsidies.

Abbott might have muddled through until the 2016 elections had not fate intervened in July 2015 in the form of the death of a sitting Liberal, Don Randall. Randall held the Perth metropolitan seat of Canning, having turned it from a marginal Liberal seat to a safe Liberal seat, with a healthy margin of 11.8 per cent at the 2013 elections. Inevitably, given Abbott’s persistently low poll ratings and his government’s repeated stumbling, the unwanted by-election would become a referendum on his leadership, and by logical extension on the government itself.

This was shaping as a dress rehearsal for the kind of federal election no one in the government wanted and, to make matters worse, Liberal polling in Victoria and South Australia painted a picture of a massacre waiting to happen.

Now, a majority of Abbott’s colleagues have come to see what many observers knew long ago: that there was little depth to the driving ambition. The swagger, intended to convey purpose and determination, was suggestive of an eternal student politician trying to look like the real thing. The surprising thing is that he survived as prime minister for so long. •

Revised: 15 September 2015