When George W. Bush was running for US President, his image as a callow and immature man turned off conservatives who were looking for a bit of dignity to follow Bill Clinton. Republican messaging held that Bush could draw upon the gravitas of his father to guide him through foreign policy and other issues requiring a calm and steady head. People fell for that, and the rest is history.
When Abbott became Prime Minister he dumped Warren Entsch as Chief Whip and replaced him with Ruddock to give both men a veneer of gravitas, for which the entire press gallery fell hard. They wanted to believe in an Abbott government and still do, which is why the subtext of most press gallery reporting is: Stop it Tony, you're embarrassing us!.
Appointing Ruddock as Chief Whip was a mistake. The job of Chief Whip, as Ruddock pointed out on departure, is within the gift of the party leader. The point of the job is its two-way communication between the leader and the backbench. The Chief Whip allays the fears of skittish backbenchers who had no role in contentious decision-making but who cop a public backlash nonetheless. The Chief Whip acts as a sounding board for dissent (especially when the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, the leader and his chief of staff, are as tightly interconnected as they are), and is able to tell whether complaints from the backbench are:
- Just the murmurings of some whinger who can be safely ignored; or
- A bit of a concern, but nothing to worry about too much; or
- Worth a bit of the leader's time to calm the horses and maybe tweak things a bit; or
- *grabs leader by the lapels and shakes hard* This is serious! Here's who your enemies are and who you need to work on! Cancel that junket to London/ Beijing/ Washington, you'll be finished by the time you get there and their intelligence services will brief their leaders accordingly; or
- It's over, see ya.
Counting heads is a basic political skill. Everyone in politics got elected to the job. In military dictatorships the leader would have practiced a form of officers-mess politics before leading the troops to the palace, and whisperers in the cloisters run ecclesiastical dictatorships. Whips have to be across everyone in the party room: what motivates them, how do they perceive the leader, is that combination of fast-pace and loneliness in Canberra getting to them? The Whip's job is to keep a running count of the numbers in his head; the leader has other things on his mind, and can be forgiven for brushing off a backbencher's quibble.
Tony Staley, who decided Billy Snedden couldn't beat Whitlam but Malcolm Fraser could, came to that conclusion in the Whip's office. Francis Urquhart, the lead character in the UK House of Cards series, made his bid for power from the Whip's office. When Kevin Rudd challenged Julia Gillard the first time she thrashed him, but Chief Whip Joel Fitzgibbon didn't warn his leader and she sacked him. Fitzgibbon then began briefing gullible journalists against Gillard; anyone who briefed against Gillard got an extra helping of gravitas from the press gallery.
The Whip is not some fusty relic of Empire, like Peter Slipper's eighteenth-century garb as Speaker. Political leaders stay or go depending on the quality of their Whips.
John Howard had been both the victim and the beneficiary of backbench revolts. As Prime Minister he used his Whips assiduously to take soundings of the backbench, and trusted their judgment on how far he could push them. This is another of Howard's political skills that Abbott lacks.
Press gallery journalists of many years' experience should have the subtle understanding that good Whips do - but they don't. Julia Gillard was beset by a small band of whingers, but they made her detractors look bigger than they were. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were subject to leader-tossing rage from their backbenchers, yet the press gallery couldn't pick it before it happened. Peter Reith observed:
You only need one or two backbenchers to wander through the press gallery with a titbit of leadership distraction and the issue will rumble on for months.One can forgive a partisan like Reith for not pointing this out in Gillard's day, but the press gallery cannot enjoy the same indulgence. It's silly for the press gallery (most of whose members remain from that time) to cover up the insubstantial nature of both their constant leadership speculation, and their misrepresentation of Abbott as an alternative Prime Minister.
Ruddock is a man of subtlety. It is possible that he detected backbench dissent well before it started to threaten Abbott directly, well before even the better-connected members of the press gallery woke up to it. It is possible that he warned Abbott, in his courtly and understated way. It is possible that Abbott missed his subtle cues, or that he shouted at Ruddock to be yet another messenger of the lines cooked up in the PM's Office. The Whip failed the leader, not the other way around; the Whip should have known what he was like and responded accordingly.
Phillip Ruddock was 30 years old and a former President of the Young Liberals when he was elected to Parliament in 1973 (when Tony Abbott was in Year 10, and before his factional opponent John Howard won a neighbouring electorate). In 1983 the Fraser government lost office, and with it went his chance of becoming a minister: Howard had been Treasurer. He got onto the front bench under Peacock but was demoted by Howard.
He disagreed with Howard over Asian immigration; while that hardly endeared him to the then leader it enabled him to play a subtle game of courting donations and votes from non-English-speaking migrants to the Liberal Party. At this point, Tony Abbott was wondering whether he should join the Liberals at all.
In 1993 Hewson lost to Keating; Ruddock was now 50, he'd never been a minister, he had no contacts that might provide a comfortable post-political career. Had Tony Abbott not won preselection for Warringah in 1994 he may well have picked off Ruddock in Berowra. By then, Ruddock had learned to stop worrying and love John Howard. Other moderates followed him. Howard is seen as a great leader in the Liberal Party because he wore down his opponents. The right are big on forgiving prodigal sons, including Ruddock and all those ex-Marxist wasters in places like Quadrant.
Phillip Ruddock apparently told Abbott before last Monday's ballot that he should expect 16 to 18 votes against his leadership. The actual figure was 39. That isn't some minor discrepancy. Ruddock stuffed up very, very badly. There were only a dozen votes between Abbott and oblivion: nobody else was running. You'd sack an accountant who stuffed up so badly they almost sent you broke.
People who reviled Ruddock as Immigration Minister and Attorney General now keen for his dismissal as Whip, which is stupid. This blog is irredeemably biased against Abbott but dumping Ruddock is an understandable act of self-preservation.
Last Monday's vote was the last chance for Abbott boosters to prove their boy was capable of change. He looked gutted and contrite; someone with more humility, like Howard, would have used self-deprecating humour to garner sympathy and time. Abbott just floundered for about forty-eight hours and then reverted to his worst qualities.
He had to unify his party and stifle dissent. His Whip had failed, utterly and in public, to do that job. Abbott orchestrated blasts of hatred against Labor, with collateral damage against Professor Triggs' report on refugee children in detention. He had attack wombat Peter Dutton go Labor on some technical point that had to be explained even to people who follow politics closely (as a comedian has failed when their jokes need explaining, so too a politician has failed when their political pointscoring efforts need explaining).
That blast of hatred reminded Libs when they had a common, hapless enemy, and when they feared that rage being turned on them. It only works when the target withers in the face of it; they didn't. It only works when the hatemonger doesn't overreach, as Abbott did with his "holocaust of jobs". The press gallery reported this as a 'gaffe', which is stupid - it's not an aberration, it's how Abbott works. He overreaches, he apologises and withdraws, he overreaches again. Sin and purge, over and over, for years and years. Press gallery experience really is worth nothing.
The junkyard dog is the aspect of Abbott's personality swinging voters hate most, and which Liberals have the hardest time defending. Conservatives can't understand why Abbott doesn't just set aside all the hoo-ha and just govern, but here they are victims of their own mixed messaging. Abbott on his bike is like George W. Bush on his ranch - busy doing something other than imposing regulations or raising taxes on conservatives. If he enjoyed governing he would have put out and defended detailed policies.
The press gallery didn't notice the absence of policies. Only policy wonks who'd never vote for him did, and only they/we worried what a policy-inept government might mean.
Having started the week with a wake-up call, Abbott ends it by reminding people about two things. First, the division within the Liberal Party is real, it runs deep, and will fester. Second, it reminds people - friend or foe - what a vindictive prick he is. Any calm, moderating influence has gone. The junkyard dog is most dangerous when wounded, and will fight off anyone who tries to help. Good government never stood a chance.