... For mine own good,What we saw at Abbott's press conference on Monday was his last stand.
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.
- William Shakespeare Macbeth Act III Scene IV
Polls a symptom not the illness
Never mind the polls. That's like taking someone's pulse to diagnose cancer. There never was any substance, any plan, any grounds to believe Abbott could capably run a capable government. Everyone who thought otherwise - the press gallery, the Coalition and all who vote for them - were wrong. Everyone who thought otherwise and who isn't big enough to admit they were wrong is participating in a pantomime about what a surprise it is that Abbott is no good, that he's somehow come over poorly all of a sudden.
Abbott was rotten from the start. Only bloggers could see this. Journalists who think they have, and should maintain, some sort of lock on political coverage underestimate how crap they are at the job they get paid to do.
The reason why political parties used to release policy position papers before elections was to give some idea of their thinking about their general approach to policy in government. They wanted to get their policies out there without media slant. It wasn't to provide a list of gotcha opportunities, which is what the traditional media think they are.
This is why political parties stopped issuing policy papers. They demonstrate their thinking about policy approaches at speeches to party fundraisers. Journalists are excluded from these events and are too lazy to get that information regardless. This government slid into office with almost no challenge from the press gallery; claiming surprise and befuddlement won't salvage lost credibility and confidence.
Political parties still complain - even with the internet - that they're somehow constrained in getting their message out. The Coalition in Victoria is doing this now, even though the state press gallery and the outlets that employ its members agreed that the Coalition should be returned.
Politicians and journalists both expect people to take them on trust when they won't engage their thinking on issues.
The beginning of the end
Abbott can't back down; his pride and his backers won't let him. He can't go forward; he has, as Lenore Taylor points out, and as I pointed out last week, snookered himself. Think of Tony Abbott as Australia's next ex-Prime Minister.
The whole barnacles thing shows that Abbott underestimated the degree to which the government of this country has to change. A metaphor has to help illustrate the thing to which it refers, or demonstrate familiarity on the part of the speaker. If Abbott had been some sort of master mariner before entering politics nobody would doubt his expertise in dealing with barnacles. When done badly, as this was, it's a lampoon - like Monty Python's Norwegian Blue parrot "resting" and "pining for the fjords".
Nobody has any confidence that Abbott can distinguish between barnacle and ship. From the engine room to all classes of passenger and everyone outside the bridge, it's clear he has done such a crap job at running the vessel.
He can't just slip away. The traditional model of politics holds that problems are brushed under the carpet, and/or managed in the back rooms. Labor tried to dispose of Rudd quietly on that June evening in 2010, scheduling their crisis meetings after the press gallery had finished up in the mid-afternoon, inventing a one-liner excuse and running with that. This was never convincing. It was never going to be. Big-time political operators looked like clowns when they fell for, executed, and defended that approach.
One does not dispose of elected Prime Ministers* without a clear reason for doing so. One should not appoint someone to the Prime Ministership without some appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses, and one's own abilities to burnish the former and play down the latter. The idea that the Liberal Party did not realise he'd be rubbish as Prime Minister, or that it worked with the media to sandbag his shortcomings far longer than was dignified for either of them, is the kind of synchronised shallow thinking that is killing both major media companies and major political parties.
Acting-ere-scanning is not charming and it neither sells newspapers/airtime, nor shifts votes. It's professional failure, not success, and the fact that you can't tell the difference means you're all stuffed.
What you cover when you cover a press conference
The press gallery was negligent in its reporting of Abbott's press conference on Monday.
Keep in mind (which they don't) that press conferences are staged events put on for their benefit. They are not naturalistic, random chats.
Some reported that Abbott had apologised, which was false. He wasn't even apologetic in tone. He basically reiterated what he'd always said, a bit more slowly and a bit less boldly.
He talked about the week being 'ragged', as though feeling sorry for him was the only valid response. Look at the analysis from those who agree with him uncritically, there are your press gallery muppets practically begging for unemployment.
Keep in mind that Tony Abbott did not get where he is by holding regular press conferences. Wondering why a man who rarely puts on press conferences suddenly does one is not cynical, and it's not up to journalists to decide this is too hard for their audiences to understand. It's part of the analysis that seasoned and savvy observers of politics should do as a matter of course.
It shows the less-stupid members of the press gallery that Abbott can hold press conferences when he wants to, and that you should stop being so soft on him (and never, ever, simperingly thank him for gracing his presence as Leigh Sales did on Thursday).
It is nebulous to say that press conference "changed the tone". The tone of this government was nasty and brutish, and Grattan can't bear to admit that it follows the life left in this government is short.
Stabbed in the back
I will tomorrow —The closest I've come to feeling sorry for Tony Abbott, an insouciantly privileged man both callous and selfish, is when the Murdoch press have turned on him.
And betimes I will — to the weird sisters.
More shall they speak, for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst.
The fact that the Murdoch press have turned on Abbott is significant. Their advice to Abbott is to do what he's always done, but more so; that's what he's doing, and it isn't working for him. This sort of cod analysis is what stops NewsCorp translating its dominant market share into real clout with its audience. We saw this at work when the nation's largest selling newspaper** The Herald Sun recommended that its readers return the Napthine government.
The first member of the government to decry NewsCorp for abandoning them when the going got tough would suffer a bit, but such a person would be the rock upon which the Coalition might build a post-Abbott future.
It would have been the perfect excuse for Malcolm Turnbull to renege on cuts to the public broadcasters: if you're going to turn on us then we won't do your dirty work on the ABC. Turnbull is more committed to those cuts and to Murdoch than many erstwhile supporters dare admit. Cultured, handwringing Malcolm is not the authentic Turnbull; the mogul's facilitator is.
Watch for Peta Credlin to start polishing her resume: the press gallery won't. Her departure will of course be perfectly amicable, as Arthur Sinodinos' was from John Howard's office in early 2007, and as with his hers will both signify the end and bring it closer. The whispering campaign against Credlin has begun because to hold a position like hers, you have to be absolutely right about everything all the time. I'm a Credlin sceptic too but this government will get worse, not better, once she goes.
But this is not Turnbull's last stand, it's Abbott's.
Nobody liked him. The press gallery didn't just cover him in opposition, they covered for him; unemployment is just desserts for professional gutlessness. Nobody is grateful for his few, poor, and essentially negative achievements: terrorising asylum-seekers and slowing our transition to 21st century power and communications. He had no right to get this far; the press gallery gave him a free pass, declining to ask the hard questions about suitability that they put to Mark Latham a decade ago.
Now the economy is turning down, and nobody but press gallery sucks have any confidence this lot can turn it around. Howard would have freaked out had the Budget not been passed by MYEFO, having seen the Whitlam government sacked for such a failure early in his career. What his fans insist is calm resolve is nothing but cluelessness and carelessness, and all but the most hard-bitten among them see it shining plain.
Abbott went to a long press conference looking apologetic but not being apologetic, and the press gallery was grateful for that old magic. The press gallery are doing their 2014 In Review pieces and goodness me, it does appear that the whole year (rather than just the week) has been rubbish.
It's almost charming that such people should regard the eminently foreseeable failure of the Abbott government as such a surprise.
Why have they only just realised this, having observed Abbott up close for so long? What is wrong with these people? Why are they still getting the pay and privileges attached to their positions? Why has this Walkley-winning journalist produced the kind of formulaic takedown you'd expect from a blogger, and why wasn't she awake to this two years ago? After Abbott has gone (!) these are the questions that remain.
Tony Abbott's government was never going to end with a bang, despite him and those close to him being the most bloody-minded Götterdämmerung types. It is ending with a whimper of self-pity, as it was always going to - muffled by those who should be listening for it, who should be amplifying it, so that we far from Canberra might know how we are governed.
* Fine, I'll cop your lecture on Westminster government and how 'Prime Minister' is nowhere defined in the Constitution, if you'll accept that the political parties that govern this country design their entire offerings each election around the persona of their leader, and that replacing the leader post-election means a different offering to that put to supposedly sovereign voters beforehand.
** Which are the more reliable stats: media circulation/ratings figures, media-commissioned polls, or neither? Vote now.