I am not going anywhere.The traditional media are making the same mistakes with Abbott that they made when he was Opposition Leader. Almost all members of the press gallery were there when he was Prime Minister. None of them learned the lesson that Abbott talks a lot but achieves very little. All of them just did what they did in 2011, and ran his slogans verbatim.
- Tony Abbott
Abbott became Prime Minister in 2013 on a promise to end the interpersonal turmoil between Rudd and Gillard, and promising to change relatively little policy-wise. When he began reneging on promises to maintain education funding, and other matters scarcely covered by the press gallery for their beyond-Canberra impact, his polling sank and stayed low. The press gallery put Abbott's decline down to the 2014 budget, but only because they continued to give him the benefit of the doubt long after wiser observers had turned away. We had seen Abbott for what he was and is.
Even those who believed in this shower of platitudes must know that Abbott can't make good on it. He can sow confusion about carbon abatement measures, but he can't pretend it is a non-issue, and the idea that he might come up with a workable solution is long proven false. And that's the most credible of his pronouncements! All the rest of it - reintroducing the 20-shilling pound, reducing costs on WestConnex by importing English convicts under a new deal with the equally desperate and incompetent May government - if press gallery experience really was worth more than I prize it at, then they would have dismissed both messenger and message long before now.
Tony Abbott is not newsworthy simply as a former PM. When tax-and-spend social democracy faded in the late 1970s - after Whitlam, and with the uninspiring examples of Callaghan and Carter and Schmidt - Billy McMahon did not start monstering the Fraser government. He was treated as a irrelevance whenever he proffered the mildest suggestion. While Whitlam himself refrained from commenting on many of the Hawke-Keating reforms, Whitlam-era relics like Tom Uren or Stewart West spoke out and were received with bemusement. Abbott's contributions should be viewed in a similar light. His slogans are slightly reworded from half-a-dozen years ago, and were stale a century before that: he has learned nothing and forgotten everything, just like the press gallery.
Some believe Abbott returning to the Prime Ministership would further ensure a Labor win at the next election, a weak-tea version of the marxist notion of 'accelerationism'. All this would mean is that the next government would be so traumatised by the ratbaggery that preceded it, that the imperative for far-reaching reform would be weakened. Areas where the current government has clearly failed, such as school funding or reducing carbon emissions, would yield half-baked compromises to "get it off the table" rather than well-considered solutions.
Weak-tea accelerationism is idle. Either go all out with buckets of blood, like the Bolsheviks did, with the risk that the blood spilt might be your own; or start planning for both the victory and what might lie beyond it.
Abbott might be disrupting the Turnbull government from its stumbling, whatever-happens agenda, but he is weak on three levels that the press gallery don't really appreciate.
First, he's weak in the administration of government. There was no link between what he promised the public and what transpired in his government. He could not get legislation through parliament: bleating about fractious politics ignores the Gillard government's successes in getting legislation through both houses in which no party had a clear majority.
Second, he's weak politically. A leader in the ascendant has his people in key positions. Abbott's people are either out of the party (e.g. Ross Cameron, Cory Bernardi) or on their way out (Jokus Ludicrous). You can't lead a party with people who aren't sure whether or not they want to be there. In parliament, his supporters are burnt-out husks (Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews), accident-prone clowns (Michael Sukkar, Peter Dutton) or unimpressive nobodies (Craig Kelly), who don't help Abbott in his attempts to establish a new future for the party and the nation.
He's not a great judge of character. His closeness to George Pell is not the asset is was; a bit like his other friendship with Ian MacDonald from earlier in his career.
Abbott has made assertions about the Liberal Party's base, and the press gallery dumbly assumes he knows what he's talking about. They haven't twigged to the idea that he might be bluffing or lying. Take this for example:
No similar picture exists of Abbott with, say, Trent Zimmerman, a fellow Liberal who holds an adjacent electorate to his. If you don't even like Liberals, you can't lead them.
Third, his timing is off. If he became leader now, or soon, his failure would be complete long before the 2018 budget. 2018 would see Labor dancing around a hapless Abbott, and backbenchers preparing for opposition and/or unemployment, watching those lobbying jobs recede before their eyes. Timing is crucial for a successful leader.
Timing, and loyalty. The ability of his most feared weapon, Peta Credlin, to enforce discipline would be weaker than it was in the first half of this decade. She and Abbott had commanded loyalty and discipline by demonstrating it, but that's gone now. Had Abbott been quiet and dutiful, busying himself with the quotidian concerns of Warringah, his outbursts might have more impact. They have shown the utility of disloyalty, and there would be pushback if they tried to reintroduce the permission-to-breathe environment they had established previously. I pity the first Liberal who tells Credlin to just fuck off, but life will be easier for those who follow.
No press gallery journalist is awake to the possibility that Abbott has been paid for his speeches, to 2GB and to the IPA and CIS. He has not declared any such speaking fees, but he is probably not too proud to seek them, outside of the Liberal Party's standard (and regulated) processes for accepting donations. C'mon press gallery, let's see some journalism from you.
Dickhead claims the Abbott-Turnbull disagreement is about policy, when clearly it isn't. The merest whiff of policyness is more than enough to overwhelm his argy-bargy detection skills. The gallery does not do policy, it cannot use policy to assess political disagreements. This is also why Bernard Keane (no I won't link to him) was so risible: if Abbott was ever going to be challenged on policy it would've happened long before now.
Where is the journalist challenging any minister in this government on policy? Scott Morrison made a long, dreary, focus-group-ridden speech about how we're all bored with politics. No mention of his own role in that, and no fingering the media whose crap reporting is largely responsible for creating that anomie either; little wonder the gallery loved it.
The press gallery added together and cubed has no more knowledge of policy, and no ability to call him on it, than Abbott does himself. His rise to the Prime Ministership the blind leading the blind: the gallery are still blind to policy, though in fairness there isn't much to see in their limited purview. Coorey and Keane and the rest of the gang are still hankering to be (mis)led and the sucking vacuum Abbott creates draws them on, helplessly.
The press gallery serves the nation badly when all policy discussion is "argy-bargy", and when statements about policy mask underlying tensions that have nothing to do with philosophy or policy.
To give but one example: when Senator Payne correctly points out that the Navy doesn't have the infrastructure to support nuclear submarines, journalists report it as a "slap down" of Abbott rather than a simple, indisputable statement of fact. Nuclear submarines and the infrastructure necessary to support them is relatively easy to research and describe in "good old fashioned journalism" terms. If the dwindling band of journos are so keen to invoke GOFJ, they should be keen to do it; and if they don't value GOFJ, who will?
No journalist has the courage to say to Abbott: come back when you have some policy chops, not just the meat but the motion too. He might, as Captain Oates said, be some time.
A decade ago, Peter Costello wanted to be Prime Minister but couldn't explain how he'd be better than, or even different to, the foundering Howard. One sharp live interview could have burst that bubble. The leading political journalists of that time are still fossicking for fool's gold with Abbott. Labor frontbenchers write whole books that may or may not survive contact with their respective policy areas. The policy landscape is changing: even the Business Council recognise that nihilism isn't an answer on carbon or energy policy, and the plebiscite on same-sex marriage is very much less brilliant than Christopher Pyne touted it as.
The last politician to defiantly declare themselves going nowhere was Abbott's self-described political mother, Bronwyn Bishop.
The reason why northern beaches Libs kept voting for Bishop was because they thought she was a heavyweight. The reporting from Canberra certainly described her in that light - they all knew how she loved a freebie, and how she'd monster public servants over relative trifles without anything like an overarching vision, but day after day they still put her in the thick of the action. All the tales came out after she'd lost preselection; sitting on them had been a mistake, in both journalistic and political terms. Had the press gallery done some GOFJ on Bronwyn Bishop, her embarrassed local branches would have dumped her years ago.
The more the press gallery pumps up Abbott as A Former Prime Minister, One Who Has Supped With Kings And Presidents And Deserves Hectares Of Media Space, the more prone they will be to give him another go. That doesn't mean press gallery should start sledging him - it just means that a simple application of GOFJ on things like his donations, and the fact that coal is subsidised to billy-o, and how his indiscipline is repellent to leadership rather than a guarantor of it. He doesn't have any answers on jobs. He doesn't have any answers on his own job, or the one he held less than two years ago, or on those of the journalists far beyond the press gallery.
He described himself as a junkyard dog in 1994, and that's all he'll ever be. He doesn't have any teeth any more, but he still goes around gumming people who have better things to do. You can be humane about it, but it's time for those responsible to put him down, and for the rest of us to turn away.
If he wants his stuff run, make him buy ad space: he can go on junkets after he retires. Abbott has access to the money, and goodness knows traditional media could use it. They're not going anywhere either.