Step to the rhythm step step to the rideThe Liberals clearly recognise that women are reluctant to vote for an Abbott government, and that having Margie Abbott talk about her husband in glowing terms might help turn that around.
I've got an open mind so why don't you all get inside
Tune in turn on to my tune that's live
Ladies flock like bees to a hive
Hey ladies - get funky
- Beastie Boys Hey Ladies
It is a standard tactic in American politics to have a candidate bring out their spouse as a way of generating positive impressions without the hard work of policy development and persuasion. Even the most appalling candidate can appeal to voters with a spouse or a family member who can tell endearing, humanising anecdotes about them.
Margie Abbott should be believed when she says that it was her idea to go on television to support her husband and deny that he has a problem with strong, capable women. It would be a misunderstanding to refer to her as someone who is "wheeled out" to spruik in the way one might refer to a backbencher, or to Chris Pyne, when they are required to prop up their increasingly inadequate leader.
The fact that Tony Abbott married a woman of substance requires not only a more nuanced understanding of her, but him too. Even people who loathe Tony Abbott should have more sympathy for his wife than they demonstrate when she makes a public stand in his favour.
At the same time, she has chosen to play the sort of blatantly partisan role that attracts negative attention from commentators, amateur and professional. Like Calpurnia, she speaks rarely and is above suspicion. In her public appearances Margie Abbott usually wears white, which probably isn't be a coincidence or simply due to her taste. If any criticism is due to her media appearances it is due to those who think they are clever in crafting media events of this type: to what extent will that appearance lift Tony Abbott's poll ratings? The judgment of and about those people, and not Mrs Abbott, lives or dies on those questions.
Liberal activists who bristle at any criticism whatsoever of Mrs Abbott are just being silly. Janet Albrechtsen's incredulity at describing people who dislike the policies and personalities of Abbott or John Howard drains her credibility on other matters. They are protesting a little too much, and clearly placing a lot of faith in
I didn't see the television interview but I read about it here, on a website that insists users pay to see articles whose quality is usually (often wildly) overestimated. That article was made publicly available as part of an effort to make the public think more highly of Tony Abbott than they/we do, and hardly entices anyone to fork out or more. Grog's Gamut deals with News Ltd coverage in more and better detail.
So what if Tony Abbott's sisters, wife and daughters are all strong and capable and love him dearly? Even members of the Liberal Party who have known him for many years (including members of his shadow ministry) and have learned to put up with him aren't that close to him. The voters of Australia are not being invited to join his family. The political premise behind Margie Abbott's remarks is absurd.
She should not have gone on television with Abbott next to her. It wasn't quite like a hostage haltingly reading out a badly-written statement with a Kalashnikov-wielding, balaclava-clad thug standing over - but she should have been free to tell the sort of anecdote that made him look like a bit of a doofus. Even better, she should have given an example of where she and/or the other women in his life have actually changed his seemingly inflexible mind. That might have made a difference.
He should also have recognised publicly that Barbara Ramjan, Cheryl Kernot and every other woman who has gotten in his way over the years are no less deserving of basic respect than the women closest to him. It would have built on the generous humanity in his comments to the Prime Minister on her father's death, and shifted the ground to an extent that puts opponents off balance and opens up some space in otherwise tight contests. Oh well, too late now.
That Tony Abbott's wife thinks he's nice is neither here nor there. An interview like this might have made a difference in early 2010, but it's too late. Again, the target here is Abbott's strategists, not his wife.
The question that should have been asked of her was: can you understand why some women don't like Tony? A good answer would have reinforced her as a basically sensible person whose opinions should be listened to, and given both of them the credibility that her husband clearly lacks. A poor answer (Albrechtsen-like incredulity, stand-by-your-man docility, and/or simply dumping on the media for misrepresenting him) would have invalidated the whole exercise and left it open to be defined by Twitter memes.
In any case, The Situation had better not have problems with strong and capable women. Julie Bishop is basically holding his leadership together.
The fight has gone out of Abbott. He failed to capitalise on Labor's divisions: the vote itself was decisive but the comments of Crean and other Gillard supporters have left scars ripe for the Coalition to pick at. He was reduced to unworthy targets like Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, and even though he went after them with full force they are still in place ... my kingdom for a Carbon Tax! He's vulnerable and he knows it.
He's not above the fray, acting all Prime Ministerial. This is a man who doesn't know he's alive unless he's being punched in the head, and who will gladly punch himself if nobody else will oblige. Mind you, Greg Jericho thinks he may have done himself some damage already:
Julie Bishop has been useless as a Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party for most of the time she succeeded Peter Costello in the role. She smiled inanely as Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull floundered, and she has been rubbish in her policy roles. Ever since Labor's leadership contest earlier this year, however, she has lifted her game.
It is Julie Bishop who takes it up to the government in Question Time. It is she who stopped Mal Washer and other Liberal moderates from letting the government escape the fate of adopting Liberal asylum-seeker policy, or making Abbott look like a loser over same-sex marriage. She put Pyne in the attack-dog role, because a snarling Pekinese can be endearing if not certainly less threatening than Abbott's pitbull. When she says that the Tony Abbott she knows is a milk-of-human-kindness kind of guy: whether or not you agree, you have to believe her.
The current debate over wheat marketing is one of those issues that rarely makes it to the forefront of national debates, and smart-alecs in the press gallery use this as an excuse to ignore debates like this that require both mastery of detail and considerable passion simply to understand what is going on.
(If policy detail bores you, skip the next three paragraphs and go to the politics, starting with "It's a basic function of politics ...". You're welcome.)
The idea that wheat farmers should sell their crop en bloc rather than individually came from the middle of last century. During the Depression and drought of the 1930s, farmers' incomes collapsed; individual farmers were played against one another by brokers. Government in the 1930s was subject to austerity and small-state fetishism, which went the other way in the 1940s when rationing and bans generated enough economic activity for national survival and little else. By the 1950s, state and federal governments had recovered their fiscal strength while tempering their command-and-control impulses sufficiently to establish a "single desk" for marketing the nation's entire, undifferentiated wheat crop. This continued until the 1980s/'90s economic reforms elsewhere in the economy made it unsustainable; qangos such as the Australian Wheat Board and NSW Grains Corporation were privatised and became sellers' agents rather than compulsory acquirers.
Most growers seemed satisfied that a brokerage system balanced out the highs and lows of annual wheat crops better than any other system. Some were enthusiastic free-marketers in the good years and equally enthusiastic agrarian-socialists in the lean years; many of these are from Western Australia, where Julie Bishop also comes from.
Bishop initially sided with her home-town heroes who wanted to go the whole free-market route. Then it was impressed upon her that she is the Deputy Leader of a national organisation than just facilitator/enabler for left-coast cowboys (the role most WA Liberals see as their purpose in life), and the rest of the country contained a) wheat farmers who love their agrarian socialism, as well as b) urban Liberals who are enthusiastic free-marketers, urging her to her original position, and c) those who would dump the nation's wheat crop into the ocean, preferably onto a coral reef, rather than help the incumbent government.
It's a basic function of politics to resolve competing arguments and interests by negotiation, rather than violence and/or sheer weight of money. Abbott should have been alert to the political difficulties involved in this issue. He should have apprised himself of the issues and got the stakeholders together and worked something out. It would have made him look hundreds of times more Prime Ministerial than sitting with his wife talking about Downton Fucking Abbey (to use its full title).
Howard would have gotten across the issues, gathered people together and worked out a solution. It's the sort of thing the incumbent PM could and would do too, regardless of the fact that she isn't running a Liberal-National Coalition government. You don't have to be some sort of agricultural-policy wonk in order to do this (it might even be a hindrance), you have to be a skilled politician with experience in the highest level of government. You have to be someone who brings people together, someone who can cut a complex but workable deal and make it stick.
Abbott couldn't do that, he didn't even think it was important. To say that Labor won't win many wheat-belt seats is to miss the point that Abbott lacks the top-level political skills required of a Prime Minister. Press gallery journos who overlook wheat marketing as a political issue - "devil is in the detail" - aren't much use either.
It is Julie Bishop who is saving his bacon here. Laura Tingle thinks it's Tony Windsor but the point is Abbott is not stepping up and leading, he's not saving himself and so he gets no credit whatever happens. (Google the headline) Paul Kelly is right when he says that Abbott's advisers aren't much chop, but wrong to stop there. Abbott has delegated the leadership functions to the point where he has pretty much negated himself.
Tony Abbott has well and truly proven that he can cause trouble but not resolve it. Winners present themselves as healers and solvers of problems:
- Bob Hawke titled his 1979 Boyer Lectures The Resolution of Conflict and presented himself as the constructive candidate in 1983.
- In 1996 John Howard presented himself as a healer of the divisions brought about by Keating.
- In 2007 it was Rudd who presented himself as the healer and resolver of impasses.
- Tony Abbott. Healer. Problem-solver. Yeah, right (but there still are people who not only think he's the next Prime Minister, but that it's inevitable).
- Abbott's wife and sisters have done all the mothering they are likely to do;
- Abbott's daughters are young women in their late teens/early twenties, so statistically at least they are unlikely to become eligible for parental leave during the 2013-16 period; and therefore
- Those of you voting Coalition in the hope of Paid Parental Leave should keep this in mind as to non-core promises, budget black holes etc.