I just am not going to get caught up in Canberra gossip, I'm not going to play Canberra games.Tony Abbott had spent the better part of the last quarter-century doing little else but Canberra gossip and Canberra games. Even to the end, no press gallery stenographer called him on it, or had the humanity to laugh. He had his second-last photo op as Prime Minister in a traffic management centre in Adelaide, one of those strange places to which hidden-camera video goes to facilitate transactions the "controllers" can't possibly know - how emblematic of his Prime Ministership, a yen for control without any interest in understanding.
- Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (!), Monday
Thy rod and thy staffHere was a man who had ascended to high office by ingratiating himself with the powerful. The powerful had to cover for him or look as though their judgment was off. When they departed the scene, when Abbott ascended to a ne plus ultra role he couldn't cope. There was always someone to keep Abbott in check - the Jesuits at Riverview, Kerry Packer, John Howard - until there was only Peta Credlin.
You can't tell the Abbott story without talking about Credlin. He was right to outsource the administration and the discipline for which he had no patience, wrong to rely on her so completely. She didn't have any special insights into the Australian people that real Prime Ministers only begin to glimpse toward the end of their careers, careers in which they have put themselves on the line and in people's faces more than any backroom operator ever dares. She wasn't a scapegoat or a martyr. Those who romanticise the Abbott government and her role in it have to admit she wasn't up to propping up and covering for such an inadequate man. Margie Abbott wasn't, and even John Howard couldn't keep up the fiction - once again, preserving his record of dumping on every Liberal leader but himself.
Credlin's successes were separable from his, while her failures were inseparably theirs. Mind you, she is the most substantial answer to the questions: what's the difference between Abbott and Mark Latham? Why was the latter so repulsive while the former was inevitable?
Abbott retreats to Forestville with Margie-and-the-girls. Credlin goes back to her husband, who is probably not up to the job of managing the re-election of the Turnbull Government.
Off the recordThose who thought Abbott was a capable fellow, or might become one, were mistaken. Same with those who thought he was a good guy, pleasant and amiable and intelligent when in safe, off-the-record company - they wanted to believe, and they were mistaken too. Samantha Maiden actually said Monday night on Lateline that "Tony Abbott isn't a wrecker" - one of those astonishing falsehoods that is so diametrically opposed to the truth it mocks the sheer futility of accurate reporting.
Tony Abbott is a wrecker, he's always been a wrecker; to deny that he's a wrecker is to fail even the most basic understanding of the man and his place in our politics. His assurance that he won't wreck or snipe or undermine has zero value. Abbott was and is a wrecker in the same way that the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are palpably located in Sydney, and that to assert that they are somehow located in Geraldton would not be just a difference of opinion but flatly wrong. You can't even talk about this government without talking about basic truths and denials thereof.
Those who reported on that government thought we were being 'partisan' when we objected to the blatant falsehoods, not only for their falsity but their blatantness. Take, for example, this blog's official bunny: he was sent to report on something that actually happened (that Abbott sulked for almost a full day, and was ungracious when he did speak), and which has happened repeatedly. He then pretends that this reality is somehow out of character:
Even at its most benign, it was a parting non-decision, characteristic of his government's mostly hollow presentation as little more than a non-Labor government.He went out the way he went on. To the very end, press gallery journalists made Abbott out to be a better politician, a better man, than he ever was or could have been. When historians start to fossick through the wreckage of this government, Mark Kenny will still be trying to recover the sunk costs of his credibility by insisting his insider notions really are worth something, something more than what is obviously true.
Regardless of intent, it conveyed an absence of grace which not only reflected poorly on Team-Abbott, but seemed at odds with Abbott's own more honourable style.
Abbott's departure should have been marked by the dignity of a swift exit, not a sullen vacuum.
It's amazing how those savvy insiders only found out after it was all over: if not this, etc. Paul Sheehan reckoned he knew two weeks ago and declined to let us in on it, which goes to his credentials as a journalist.
The Abbott government was a fake government, and the press gallery covered up for it until the loss of credibility began to bite them too. They never had any basis for their blithe assumption that Abbott would or could make a transition from wrecker to statesman, and it did them no good to re-state that he never made the transition. A dog might chase a car and even displace the driver, but it is never going to become a capable driver; everyone of the contrary opinion was kidding themselves. Decades of political judgment, before Abbott became Prime Minister and now since, count for nothing.
Not since Alfred Deakin have we had a Prime Minister so steeped in media training from early adulthood that he could only imagine politics through headlines and bylines. Abbott was Murdoch's Manchurian Candidate, which is why the old bastard had to come from New York to reverse-midwife him out of office. Abbott had entered politics as Hewson's press secretary, running his own agenda ahead of his boss and party even then. He replaced Reith as Howard's favoured leaker. Through this the press gallery grew to love him, and why their grief at his departure is genuine if not well-founded.
The real reason why his swipes at the media in his sooky, churlish farewell address are so unfair are not because any and all criticism of the media is unfair, but because he lived by the media cycle and assumed he was too clever to perish by it. Abbott's claim that he could calm the media was always Canute-like in its hubris. No conservative, nobody with any media experience, has any excuse for believing that or even playing along.
The press gallery couldn't believe their man would turn on them as he did - but by then his only alternative was to turn on himself, and nobody expected him to do that. If Tony Abbott was no good at media, what was he good at? What was he good for?
The loyalties which centre upon [the leader] are enormous. If he trips, he must be sustained. If he make mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good, he must be pole-axed.Liberals stagger and stumble under the demands of office, and look to a leader to make their lives easier. When Abbott didn't, and couldn't make their lives easier, when they spent more time covering for his missteps and misstatements, they got rid of him. They leaked to ensure they weren't entombed with him, like the entourage of a Pharaoh. They spent six hours meeting over same-sex marriage - not war, nor economic reform, nor Indigenous recognition - but because they were sure Abbott was wrong while lacking the ability to come up with and enact the right answer.
- Winston Churchill
Howard, Fraser, and Menzies made their lives easier - they chafed and grumbled, but they accepted imperfect leadership over the hyper-engagement required in its absence. The Liberal Party got rid of Gorton, Snedden, Peacock (twice), Downer, Nelson, and 2009-model Turnbull for the same reason they got rid of Abbott; the leader supports the led, not the other way around. The Liberal Party is not a commune. They want leadership and they will pay for it in blood if that is its price.
The Liberal Party has failed as an organisation for electing and maintaining such an inadequate leader. It is one of only two political parties that leads governments, and its leaders must be Prime Ministerial timbre. The Liberal Party's three longest-serving leaders are three of the four longest-serving Prime Ministers. Abbott is their fourth-longest serving leader but has one of the shorter Prime Ministerial tenures. Claiming that Abbott was brilliant at media is like Labor claims that Evatt was a brilliant at law - all very well, but never sufficient for leading a government.
Having come to office with so little public goodwill, it was incumbent on Abbott to reach out, to flesh out the bare bones of the campaign offering, to take people into his confidence. Just because the sheep in the press gallery accepted "on-water matters" and other obfuscations, it didn't mean we all did. Abbott's "slowing down the media cycle" ensured we always remained suspicious about him, and denied the Liberals the honeymoon they had expected.
Washed up on the northern beaches
The 1960s TV series Skippy was filmed in Kuring-gai National Park, on Sydney's northern beaches. The area is notoriously parochial. Communities there have actually campaigned against better roads and public transport because they do not want to make it easier for interlopers. Yet, their two representatives in the House of Representatives, Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop, are from the upper North Shore - Killara may as well be Timbuktu for those on the insular peninsula.
Bishop has her branches sewn up. Insofar as she can conceive of her political extinguishment at all, she will probably be succeeded by her chief of staff Damien Jones, Kerry's husband. Abbott is likely to be succeeded by someone more like Mike Baird (Baird's state electorate lies within Abbott's) rather than a rock-ribbed conservative like himself.
To quote from Abbott's farewell speech:
In my maiden speech here in this Parliament, I quoted from the first Christian service ever preached here in Australia. The reverend Richard Johnson took as his text: "What shall I render unto the Lord for all his blessings to me?"This is all very well if you see God as your personal service-provider. In his columns for The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter FitzSimons mocks award recipients in sports or showbusiness for thanking God for looking out for them while apparently neglecting so many and so much else. Here too Abbott's limited idea of his own piety must not be seen as compensating for, but instead compounding, his other shortcomings.
At this, my final statement as Prime Minister, I say: I have rendered all and I am proud of my service.
Conservatives demand that their opponents make a dignified exit but feel under no compunction to do so themselves. Peacock and Hewson departed after crashing while Howard and Downer did not. On Monday night, after all was lost, Kevin Andrews made a bid for the deputy leadership against Bishop that might have seemed laughably futile. Andrews' pluck/ doggedness, and that of Bishop, stands in stark contrast to the moderates-in-name-only who've made their peace with bad, right-wing policy for the tinkling bells and clattering cymbals of office.
Those who went along with Abbott in order to get along, like Joe Hockey, now look foolish for having done so. They should have known better, which goes to questions of judgment that apologias like this tend to avoid. As Treasurer Hockey meant well and was diligent, just as John Kerin or Les Bury were.
A coup?What a lot of silly reporting has invoked this loaded word.
If Roman Quadvlieg or Angus Campbell were seizing the keys and passwords of government and suspending the Constitution, if leading figures in Abbott's government were dead or in prison, that would be a coup. What happened on Monday night was not a coup.
I still remember when John Howard conceded defeat at the Wentworth Hotel in 2007. He'd conceded defeat before; he plodded through his speech, in his way, with more good grace for Rudd than Abbott could muster for Turnbull - while the eyes of Jeanette Howard darted around the room, as though she feared they were going to rise up and strangle the Howard family, as though she felt they deserved no less.
I have been, and I remain, a Turnbull sceptic.
When all is said and doneThere were a number of people who contacted me via social media to tell me that I should be posting - I'd just prioritised other things over the past few weeks. It's really touching, thank you all.
Because the press gallery coverage of the Abbott government from beginning to end has been such terrible shit, even the summaries by one of the better members of the gallery is barely competent.
Abbott had been looking ragged and I felt reluctant to fully cheer his defeat and subsequent silence. But no - he's just a sook and a churl, others will have to look out for him, and man the medicine cabinet in a way he never would or could.
For all the long-winded blather of this blog:
- this is the best summary of Tony Abbott. It was written
beforejust after he became PM and stands as a better obituary than all those catalogues of flags, onion-eating etc.
- this is the best summary of Abbott's final speech, and what Abbott was about as a reactionary.
- this is worth reading on what comes next.