Each of Abbott and Gillard face policy positions that go against public perceptions of who they are and what they're about. There are dangers for them in pursuing those positions. They illustrate the limits of political tactics, where it's assumed that putting out a press release with a position statement on it is to be taken seriously on that position.
For Gillard, this happens with gay marriage. Whether it's her student activism in favour of "homosexual rights" (doesn't the turgid prose reveal it as authentic?), or the persona of her adult life as a leftist lawyer, it is absolutely in keeping with the image of her that she would support gay marriage. Her protestations to the contrary look like a feint than a deeply-held conviction. There are three positions against gay marriage, and none of them fit Gillard:
- Those who are in heterosexual marriages and who do not believe and/or cannot admit that gay/lesbian relationships are as valid as their relationships are;
- Those who, for religious reasons, are celibate and have fixed ideas that marriage is for heterosexuals only (in support of 1. above); and
- However unwittingly in support of 1 & 2 above, those gay/lesbian people like the eloquent and learned Sue-Ann Post, who believe that rejecting marriage is an essential part of being gay/lesbian.
- Gay marriage gets up, in which case Gillard can't claim credit for it. Supporters of gay marriage won't give her credit, opponents will resent her, and those who are ambivalent will rightly perceive the lack of leadership ahead of the rights and wrongs of the situation; or
- Gay marriage does not get up, in which case we're back to the situation where Abbott looks strong and Gillard looks diffident and shifty. Gillard won't be believed when attempting to dismiss this as a big issue for her.
Abbott's equivalent is a position he does not hold yet, but toward which he is being nudged (towed?) by those who back him: pulling out of Afghanistan. Abbott is no more interested in foreign policy than Gillard was, but he will always default to dance with those who brung him.
The US alliance was a given in Australian Cold War politics, regardless of who was in power in Washington or Canberra. Now it's a political plaything: With Keating and Clinton the US alliance was strong, but less so with Clinton and Howard. Things warmed up again with Howard and Bush II: the latter had the temerity to warn Australians against not re-electing Howard, who similarly disgraced himself by warning Americans against electing Obama. Both Rudd and Gillard enjoy good relations with Obama but it is clear that the bilateral relationship is no longer bipartisan.
People like Greg Sheridan and Tom Switzer are absolutely unconvincing with their hand-wringing pose that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won. Having failed to define victory in the first place they declare their political opponents incapable of achieving it. Such a position enables them to both jeer at them for further deaths and disasters arising from staying while also snarling at them for abandoning the Afghans and being reactive to terror threats should they withdraw. It's a despicable position for the right to take (compounded by their refusal to accept that those fleeing that war are legitimate refugees), and while utterly in line with Abbott's core of principle, it goes against the whole action-man persona.
When Abbott went to Afghanistan he insisted on being photographed in a bomb-disposal suit, denying its use to those who work in them. Before that he insisted on firing weapons and going on missions, despite his complete lack of training and discipline, which would mean the troops would spend all their time defending him rather than achieving the goals set for them. However stupid these were from a perspective of military operations in a dangerous environment, these actions were consistent with Abbott's action-oriented he-man image.
When you tell most people that Billy McMahon pulled almost all Australian troops out of Vietnam well before the 1972 election, they are puzzled: surely it was Whitlam who brought the troops home? For Abbott, wringing his hands and fretting over war dead goes completely against the whole persona. What's OK for gibberers like Switzer and Sheridan will not wash for would-be Prime Minister Abbott. Gillard can get away with staying or going, but not Abbott.
For the media, the fact that a politician makes a statement is the story. For everyone else, the fact that a politician makes a statement is neither here nor there. A politician who makes a statement out of character will be assumed to be a gibberer unless there is overwhelming proof to the contrary. Political tacticians who think it's smart for Abbott to call for withdrawal from Afghanistan, or for Gillard to stand like a bulwark for heterosexual marriage, measure their success only by press coverage.
There was no public clamour for Hawke and Keating to float the dollar. It was big and they made the case that it was right, so the public went along with it. Similarly, there was no public clamour for Howard to introduce a GST, bit it was big and they made the case that it was right, so the public went along with it. Gay marriage and withdrawal from Afghanistan are big and require leadership to get up; done badly these issues will damage leadership.
We saw this when Abbott proposed paid parental leave. You just knew that he would toss it straight into the maw of Labor's Budget Black Hole, so why vote for it? Just because gibberers in Canberra want to talk about it, and tell us "the policy is pitched at the mums and dads", doesn't mean that said target group have to behave as the strategists would wish. Abbott might call for Afghanistan withdrawal to "soften his image", but his lack of foreign policy knowledge would undermine any attempt at looking genuine and he'd just water down the appearance of toughness that it his one political asset. Gillard would get a lot of kudos for backing gay marriage, and it would expose the SDA (and thus exposed, diminish the ridiculous amount of power they appear to wield, leaving Gillard freer than she is and looking more powerful than she does).
Sometimes taking a contrary position is a sign of personal growth, a sign that you have to look at a politician in a new way (and thus think about the country and its politics in a new way). Mostly, though, it's the politician and their advisers attempting to look more clever than they are. Journalists don't look clever at all for failing to call them on it, or even know the difference between thought leadership and its absence. When policy goes against type it's the policy that suffers, and so does everyone who needs better policy from the politico-journalism complex.