23 April 2011

Abbott's stale mate

In 2004 Michael Duffy wrote a joint biography of Mark Latham and Tony Abbott, and called it something like Hot for Boofheads. Latham has gone and Abbott will soon follow, for reasons already explained in this blog. Yet, Katharine Murphy still holds a candle for Abbott as Prime Minister - not because he has a clue or would be good for the country - but because, like an adolescent, Murphy thinks it would be colourful and interesting.
JOHN Howard once mused about the times suiting him. Lately they have suited Tony Abbott.

He hasn't made much of them, Katharine. Abbott's poll ratings are worse than Gillard's. There would be a Liberal government tomorrow if Abbott weren't leading it.
Since Gillard's formation of a government, we've seen Abbott on his natural turf: relentless, negative, rhetorically razor sharp.

The whole idea of political victory would see Abbott as Prime Minister - which, from the above, would be a bit like a car-chasing dog finding itself in the drivers' seat. How does a competent speaker whose sentences are punctuated with "ums" and "ahs", who almost always goes too far in going opponents in debate and who often resorts to untruths become "rhetorically razor sharp"? Luckily for Murphy she offers no examples.
His opening strategy wasn't sophisticated: finish what you started, blast her out, rattle the foundations of a weak government ...

His opening strategy wasn't effective: Gillard is still PM, the "blasts" have made no impact, the independents all hate him ... there's nothing left but to try on some flailing boxing clich├ęs.
... keep on punching, left, right, upper cut, right hook, until she falls down.

Australia Says No to violence against women, remember?
Use whatever means necessary to amplify the combat - the Parliament, the television, the pulsating ultra-competitive demagoguery that these days passes for talkback radio. A cumulative sense of chaos is what's required.

For conservatives, a cumulative sense of chaos is to be avoided at all costs. Trashing Parliament, pulling all manner of disgraceful stunts, none of these things are conservative - and none have proven at all effective in propelling Abbott into government. However thrilled the press gallery might be by his stunts, everyone else in the country is holding back until Abbott wears himself out.
Abbott has been intent on both cultivating and surfing a psychology of disaffection in the community. If you keep viciously disputing the terms of the political discourse, then nothing is allowed to settle

Rubbish! More than seventy pieces of legislation have sailed through Parliament, despite - or because of - Abbott's opposition. All Opposition Leaders foster dissatisfaction - but the contemporary reality is that however upset people are with Gillard, they don't want Abbott and don't believe he has the answers. The last sentence quoted above sounds fine in theory but it hasn't panned out that way. What have you been doing in that eight months since the election, Katharine, apart from taking Tony Abbott at face value and ignoring reality? She's been reading polls.
The results are there for all to see ... The two-party preferred number is now 56-44 the Coalition's way.

See, polling is built on bullshit and goes downhill from there. Firstly, there won't be an election this weekend anyway, so keep your shirt on. Secondly, all governments worth their salt go backwards at this point in the electoral cycle. Howard did this, Keating did it, Hawke did it and all of them came back to win. Murphy has been around long enough to know this, and to point it out to her readers: to fail to do so is to play readers for mugs.
Labor has recorded its lowest primary vote since May 1996, hemorrhaging everywhere, its fate in the hands of the mercurial Andrew Wilkie ... The dumping of Kristina Keneally and her motley crew of vagabonds in New South Wales has delivered no meaningful fillip for Labor federally.

Politics is actually easier when you focus on the issues. Wilkie is insisting on the ability for gamblers to limit the amount they lose on pokies. The government that did more for pokies than any other was the NSW Labor government of 1996-2011. Just as the wages of sin are death, so too the political outcome for giving over to the pokies moguls is annihilation at the ballot box. The remnants of NSW Labor are urging Gillard and Swan to hold out against Wilkie, but when it comes down to it are they going to choose Sussex Street over the Lodge? I don't think so. You can bet Gillard and Swan are giving Wilkie all kinds of winks and nods while gently prying NSW Labor away from decision-making positions.

A real political journalist would be covering that story. Katharine Murphy is reduced to spinning us all the pro-Abbott lines that may have sounded good when he first became leader, but which have clearly fallen flat over the last year or so.
If the country had to go to the polls tomorrow, Julia Gillard and her government would be smashed.

No, over the course of the election campaign Abbott would bumble and stumble and Gillard would stay the course, producing the kind of result we have now:

  • Queensland would probably swing back to Labor;

  • Victoria would cough up Dunkley and probably one or two other Lib marginals;

  • NSW is anyone's guess (but you'd have to give the benefit of the doubt to the Liberals)

  • Have Pyne and Southcott done enough to justify their re-election? Can SA Labor be prevented from imploding? Call it a draw, along with WA, Tassie and the territories.

Election campaigns rarely return the result at the end that was predicted at the start. They almost never return the results predicted two whole years beforehand. When you've been reporting on politics as closely as Katharine Murphy is supposed to have, you should know this.
The one piece of good news for Labor is that the party's fortunes are aligned closely with the personal transformation Gillard needs to make if she's to move past the negative perceptions that plague her and her government. Both the government and the leader have to fight.

Well, no shit.

More to the point, the government needs some runs on the board. The passage of the carbon price - and the demonstration that it won't be as scary as Abbott makes out - will lift Gillard and the government while deflating Abbott. It will not only make him predictable in his opposition but will also make him look like a crank and a worrywart rather than an alternative Prime Minister. This country wasn't built by cranks and worrywarts.
Being populist and pitiless is obviously effective, as it was for a very similar brand of federal opposition leader, Labor's Simon Crean.

Howard is said to have feared Crean the most.

It obviously isn't effective, Katharine, using your own measure of polls.

The "secret fear" is a standard dollop of bullshit whenever the NSW Libs seek to prop up a dud candidate. I can still remember NSW Liberals intoning gravely that Bob Carr was scared of facing Kerry Chikarovski at the 1999 election.
For all the strength of the Coalition's primary vote, Abbott's personal approval ratings are trending in the wrong direction. Are people thinking he's become predictable? Is the aggro too much?

It was always "trending in the wrong direction". Rather than being buried way down in this story, this is the story itself: Abbott is the dead weight holding the Liberals back from government. People think he's become predictable, Katharine, because people like you run the same story about him all the time. None of the reservations about Abbott have been allayed. Fangirl fluff like this don't even address those reservations in any serious way.
Is the aggro too much?

We know Abbott can punch his opponent's lights out.

You'd think she'd pause to consider the juxtaposition of these two sentences, wouldn't you?
What swinging voters don't know is whether or not he is broad enough to be the prime minister of Australia, whether he can pitch confidently to the centre as well as dog-whistle deftly to the disaffected right.

Swinging voters are the centre, Katharine. The fact that the Liberals haven't formally junked AGW means they are trying to court the centrist vote, and they are failing. However confident Abbott might appear in appealing to the centre, he isn't fooling convincing anyone.
Abbott almost got there last year, partly by deploying his gift for negativity, and partly by rising above it - by being interesting, by being not quite what we thought he was.

Some of the story of Tony Abbott, prime ministerial aspirant, was pure spin. Some of it was deft window dressing. But having watched it at close quarters, I can say it was also genuine. There was a distinct and palpable personal renovation in play. You don't see that often in politics, but in his case you could.

The voters got a glimpse of this intriguing Abbott, as well as the obedient party robot who droned his focus-group driven script of stopping taxes, boats and debt.

Thanks for the character reference, but what I saw was a guy nailed down so tightly his face was fixed in a rictus and he couldn't be free to be his natural, boofheaded self.
Abbott is now beginning to shade his rampant negativity with positive policy. In the last little while, we've had infrastructure and mental health.

Murphy rattles off policy like it's beside the point. We've had what on infrastructure exactly? A second Sydney airport? Freight rail and high-speed passenger solutions from Geelong to Noosa? Why isn't telecommunications part of the infrastructure of our country? We've had what on mental health - what do those working in the field think of the policy, and do they trust Tony Abbott to enact it?
He also has a lot of talent behind him - a lot of ideas.

He sure does - and he's almost always on the wrong side of them. Whether it's Hockey on business law reform or refugees, or Greg Hunt on a carbon price, you can find Abbott sitting around the fire in Camp Stupid singing songs and dropping his marshmallows into the embers: another reason why people don't want him as PM.

Howard had Abbott on his team but he always had him in check, as did Costello - there's just not enough adult supervision for Abbott to become Prime Minister, so he won't. Battlelines showed how poor his ideas were, and the lack of any real link between that and Coalition policy today (such as it is) highlights it even further.
Certainly, some of Abbott's foot soldiers feel the Coalition needs to mix it up, to be bold as well as bumping the instant gratification of naysaying.

What? Shouldn't the headline be LIBERAL DISSENT SHOCK!?!?!?!
The brutality of modern politics suggests Abbott has to continue his personal journey towards being a prime ministerial alternative, or be run over by history.

Didn't you say he was already there? Didn't you start by saying that Abbott well and truly had it all over Gillard? Now you're saying he has work to do (and after admitting that it's Gillard, not Abbott, who has the capacity to change the game).
The budget period ahead is a significant opportunity for the Opposition Leader. He has a chance in his budget-in-reply speech to grab us by the collar and be interesting again.

Yes. If he does not win, he runs the risk of losing. Michelle Grattan or Paul Kelly couldn't have put it better, or in a more banal way. You started off being utterly certain about what top talent Abbott is, despite all the evidence, and now you're equivocal. That's a start, I suppose.
For the sake of the quality of the political discussion, let's hope he strikes a blow for boldness and optimism.

I thought he was just going to thrash around until something happened? Now you think this sow's ear of a political bruiser is going to turn into a silk purse potential PM?

Abbott's been in politics for 17 years. He's not entitled to be taken at face value. Journalists keep writing articles that hold out the hope that Tony Abbott is going to become fundamentally different to what he is, which he needs to do in order to become PM. He can't, he won't, and I just wish that the press gallery would stop belting out lazy, stupid non-stories like this. This is Abbott's stalemate, and Murphy unwittingly shows that by demonstrating that his mates are stale.


  1. thank you for a wonderful read, and put so well

    i doubt many people even journalist know over 70 bills have been passed this year.


  2. Fairfax pays - actually pays? - this lightweight for "incisive" "political comment"?

    Thank you Andrew for an excellent analysis (oops) demolition job.

  3. Hillbilly Skeleton24/4/11 7:42 am

    Howard was scared of Crean. Lol.

  4. Hillbilly Skeleton24/4/11 7:57 am

    IF Tony Abbott is still Leader of the Opposition by the next election, the ALP only need to run one ad. It can be run in total silence and last for, oh, a good minute. It will show Mr Abbott in the courtyard of Parliament House having a nice little silent chat with Mark Riley.

  5. Abbott's track record so far suggests his popularity rises when he says nothing, except of course when being interviewed by Mark Riley.
    Thanks for a good read.

  6. Hillbilly Skeleton24/4/11 10:07 am

    Um, Andrew, Keating never came back to win an election. Only in so far as he helped Hawke to come back and win again could you say that he did.

  7. Thank you for your incisive comments. Particularly refreshing to see someone cut through the bullshit with humour and intelligence. More strength to your pen!

  8. Pulling together both her recent columns that you've had a look at:

    "What swinging voters don't know is whether or not [Abbott]... can pitch confidently to the centre as well as dog-whistle deftly to the disaffected right."

    An inability to separate the interests of average people from the inside of political insiders' rectal passages is a pretty clear sign that you're not up to engaging in meta conversations about the state of journalism and public debate.

  9. Great line about Abbott being a car-chasing dog - and so true.

    Also, very good point about most PMs having the mid-term poll blues. In fact, the only recent PM who didn't really have them was Rudd (52-48 in Newspoll when he got axed). But the way the morons of the press gallery carried on, you would have thought even Theresa wouldn't vote for him.

    Car-chasing dog...Still laughing.

  10. HS, Keating was about 20 points behind the Liberals in 1992 (I was a Young Liberal branch president at the time, so trust me on this) and went on to win the election the following year.

  11. Matthew, the whole idea that journalism and politics insisting on being judged on their own standards means you end up with logical loops, which become vortecies for people like Murphy. Would be funny if good journalism and sound politics weren't so important.