The Accidental Prime Minister

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Tony Abbott was never intended to be Prime Minister, those who initiated the push to install him as leader in late 2009 were as surprised as anyone when they emerged victorious. Joe Hockey was meant to win the ballot; Abbott was merely Joe’s stalking horse. The role of the Member for Warringah was not to replace Turnbull but to damage him before a fresh and unscathed Joe Hockey rescued the Liberals from their state of crisis. When Hockey came in third place after the first round many Liberals despaired for their party’s future. The compromise candidate had been eliminated and the party now had to choose from two polarizing wings: The modernizers who refused to show deference to the party’s past and the rigid conservatives who remained trapped in a bygone era and who had little of relevance to contribute to the contemporary political debate. The pragmatists who had sided with Hockey were politically homeless.

There were at the time eighty five members of the Liberal Party Room, Abbott won the ballot with just 42 votes, 1 clear of Turnbull but 1 shy of an absolute majority. The decision of one MP-perhaps Hockey -to spoil their ballot and to vote invalid and the absence of MP Fran Bailey due to ill health did the unfathomable, it delivered a leader without the support of the party.  Meanwhile the reformist wing of the party who indulged their vanity by supporting Turnbull over Hockey in the first ballot were now saddled with a leader not merely beneath Hockey on their hierarchy of preferences but beneath Brendan Nelson and Peter Costello too. He would lead them to the election as the proud standard bearer for a particular brand of conservatism that had exhausted itself around 1998.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the conservative wing of the Coalition reasserting control over the party, admittedly the more pragmatic thing to do would have been to turn to a moderate like Hockey but hardnosed Conservatism is sellable as John Howard demonstrated. The problem was that the all the hardnosed conservatives who were capable of selling it were now gone.  Howard, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer and Brendan Nelson had all found work outside of politics leaving the so called drys with the unenviable choice options of Andrew Robb, Kevin Andrews and one Tony Abbott. They toyed briefly with the idea of a Robb leadership before the Member for Goldstein unequivocally ruled himself out due to ill health. This rendered Abbott, the enfant terrible of the Howard government, as the most plausible option. 

This should have been sufficient justification for the Minchinites to back down, whatever  Abbott’s strengths he is too inarticulate to be a successful Prime Minister. In fact, if we were to take all the Prime Ministers, Deputy Prime Ministers, Treasurers, Opposition Leaders, Deputy Opposition Leaders and Shadow Treasurers from the past decade only Wayne Swan had similar problems to Abbott in constructing coherent, persuasive arguments in the face of intense scrutiny. To install him as leader despite these shortcomings was always going to be the source of infinite problems, but the headstrong behaviour of Malcolm Turnbull was enough for them to forgive Abbott his flaws. Turnbull deliberately polarized the party-room, his internal rivals responded accordingly and Abbott was duly elected leader. With so unconvincing and interlocutor entrusted with articulating the case for a Liberal government,  Labor under Kevin Rudd needed only to stay the course, instead they diverted from the course in the most radical way imaginable.

Shortly after Abbott’s ascension to the leadership a string of disastrous tactical and administrative errors from the government saw them cede enormous quantities of political capital to the opposition. In April 2010 the decision to shelve the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was leaked to Lenore Taylor precipitating an enormous collapse in the governments polling. In order to fully comprehend the role of the leak in damaging the government it must be considered from two perspectives: the content of the leak and the manner in which the content was circulated.

Very few Australians understand the science of climate change, most form their opinion based upon the positions taken by public figures who they trust. It therefore stands that if individuals themselves are deferring to higher authority rather than engaging with the science themselves, then their support for climate action will be tied inextricably to the consistency of those who argue its necessity. Under Kevin Rudd and Kim Beazley Labor successfully prosecuted the case for a price on carbon to the extent that there was an overwhelming consensus in favour of it. John Howard despite being a skeptic himself proposed an emissions trading scheme in order to salvage his flagging political prospects in 2007. When Lenore Taylor revealed that Labor was prepared to delay action on climate change after previously insisting that it was a matter of urgency it shattered the perceived integrity of the argument in favour of climate action. Voters inferred that if politicians who had once emphasized the importance of climate action were now prepared to delay it indefinitely then the initial claim that it was an urgent necessity now seemed dubious. Voters began to doubt the veracity of the claims made by people like Rudd, Penny Wong, Peter Garrett, Bob Brown and Tim Flannery and the wait and see approach of Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin was elevated from the status of fringe lunacy to a reasonable alternative policy that fell within the technocratic consensus.

 The other angle from which the shelving of the Emissions Trading Scheme needs to be considered is the manner in which the announcement was made. The image control of the first Rudd government was legendary; under the leadership of a cheerful, energetic and intelligent Prime Minister the government appeared to be a highly functioning collection of clever chaps and chappesses working harmoniously and synergistically towards implementing an agenda which was in broad alignment with the desires of ordinary Australians. Deep within the beltway there were some observers who were clued in to the chaos that lurked beneath the surface but this knowledge was kept tightly within the political class and would not reach voterland until February 2012. For now the difference between the Labor government and the Liberal Opposition had been a theatrical contrast between peace and war, trust and betrayal, hope and despair. Then quite abruptly an act of treachery intended to illicit embarrassment and humiliation for senior government ministers devalued one of the governments greatest assets.

 Yet if a malicious leak and embarrassingly policy backflip were damaging they were as to nothing compared to the effects of replacing a Prime Minister in the circumstances of June 2010. The impact of sacking Rudd was intensified by the longevity of Rudd’s immediate predecessor John Howard, the stoic unwillingness of Howard’s partyroom to replace him with Peter Costello served to elevate the significance of toppling a sitting Prime Minister to mountainous heights. When Labor deposed a Prime Minister who had up until so very recently been revered it sent perceptions of the government into a tailspin. What dreadful and sinister deeds must have been occurring beneath the surface to justify this act of revolution? The explanation that was offered, that a good government had lost its way was flimsy to the point of embarrassment. In defence of Gillard I could have argued it no better, the mistake was in the decision not the spin but the spin was nevertheless inadequate.

 All of these strategic errors  by Labor changed the equation beyond recognition. No longer was Abbot required to present a positive, alternative vision for the future, the government had squandered the electorates goodwill and the voters now wanted them gone, Abbott merely needed to minimize the extent to which he was perceived as a risk and the top job was his. It was at this point we saw Abbott’s MO change drastically from a shameless media tart into a media shy opposition leader who would limit public appearances, repudiate his more controversial policy positions and cling to the talking points as though his life depended on them. Even still his gaffe count easily eclipsed that of his predecessors but he was ably assisted by a string of policy capitulations by the new Labor Prime Minister.

 When Julia Gillard became Prime Minister she outlined three areas of policy as her major priorities: Climate Change, Asylum Seekers and the Mining Tax. Her way of addressing these priorities was to lurch aggressively to the right so as to narrow the policy differences between herself and Tony Abbott to the point where he was no longer capable of using them as political weaponry. In accordance with this approach we saw Gillard swear Australia off carbon pricing until such time as a national consensus could be established by the climate assembly, she negotiated a radically watered down mining tax with Hancock Prospecting and Xstrata and she began ramping up the anti immigration rhetoric  while exploring the possibility of setting up an offshore detention facility in East Timor. The unintended consequence of all these enormous policy back downs however was to take  a series of policy positions held by Abbott which hitherto had always been regarded as extreme and to imbue them with the gravitas that comes with your rival conceding that you were right all along.

 The three years that followed the 2010 election were excruciatingly painful for everyone that watched. A terminally ill government refusing any analgesic as it doggedly attempted to battle its way through its incurable ails. The belief that Julia Gillard could ever have come back to win the 2013 election was pathetically fanciful. The voters had been given the chance to verify Gillard’s appointment as Prime Minister and they had not taken the chance, her decision to stay on regardless infuriated them. Matters went from worse to worse still for Australia’s new Prime Minister, having repudiated her positions on carbon pricing and asylum seekers at the 2010 election she was now forced to resurrect them in return for the support of The Greens in the hung parliament. As her standing in the polls soured further she responded with a hamfisted attempt to distance herself from The Greens, declaring that after 2014 the Clean Energy Bill would no longer have a floor price and by resuming John Howard’s policy of offshore processing of refugees and asylum seekers. As the Prime Minister back flipped and pirouetted with all the grace of a Pulcinella, the accidental leader of the Liberal Party became the people’s choice of Prime Minister by default. No other party, not even the Palmer United Party had the logistical capabilities to pose a serious challenge to the Liberal-Labor axis in the lower house so as long as Labor remained boxed into a corner by its own ill conceived scorched earth tactics  the prize remained Abbott’s for the losing.

 The last ditch attempt to return to prodigal Prime Minister perhaps turned out as well as Labor might have hoped. By 2012 the undignified, haphazard way in which Labor had behaved in the hung parliament left voters thoroughly convinced that incompetence and poor judgement was symptomatic of the Labor government. Such was the disillusionment with the government that the only way Labor was able to become competitive was to centralize all government operations in the ambit of one individual and hope the individual was capable of distancing himself from the Labor Party bureaucracy while simultaneously presenting himself as a competent administrator. History will record that there was only one individual left in the Labor Party that could even theoretically pull off such a feat but in fact there was a second.

 As Foreign Minister Bob Carr managed to distance himself very effectively from the partisan fray. He commenced pursuing an agenda within the technocratic consensus, deriving authority from overseas sources rather than domestic ones and in the end came to be viewed in a way more akin to a public servant than a politician. His personal standing was largely untainted by the unpopularity of the Gillard government,  but for Labor to turn to a third Prime Minister in three years and one who was a Senator  would have been theatrical to the point of embarrassment and sensibly they opted to restore the former Prime Minister instead. Yet the product Rudd was required to sell was so irreparably damaged he only succeeded in limiting the size of the defeat. His party made the right decision to return to him, but the fact that they had sunk so low that their public standing could be increased by returning to the man they’d deemed worthy of sacking three years earlier spoke volumes as to how dire the situation really was. The only chance of a Labor victory was an Abbott implosion and it didn’t happen and the accidental leader became the accidental Prime Minister.

As a Prime Minister who was carried into office on the back of a governments capitulation, Abbott is unique in having never asserted himself as an intellectual heavyweight, the consequences of which are becoming apparent with every passing Newspoll. In a long form interview with Leigh Sales or Sarah Ferguson Abbott often finds himself tongue tied and unconvincing, as an opposition leader against an unpopular government it was possible to minimize this intensive scrutiny but as a Prime Minister who is enacting reforms and implementing a legislative agenda his inability to persuasively explain his policy is damaging his government in the same way as Wayne Swan’s inability to sell the government’s response to the GFC harmed Labor’s perceived economic credibility. In lieu of an unpopular Gillard government it is no longer sufficient for Abbott to merely rely upon being someone other than Labor, he now needs to give voters a positive reason to support his government yet he is incapable of articulating such a reason.

 

The timing of Rudd’s revival was disastrous for Abbott, it meant minimizing the size of his victory while clearing the Labor frontbenches of the main combatants from the ugliest of ugly rows. Rudd and Gillard are now gone but so too are many of their most prominent footsoldiers. From Gillard’s camp the return of Rudd was enough to rid Labor of Craig Emerson, Wayne Swan, Greg Combet, Peter Garrett and Stephen Smith while on Rudd’s side the 2013 election meant the end of his own career along with Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Bob Carr and Robert McClelland. The Labor opposition now makes a convincing show of being a pragmatic and unified team, bland and uninspiring  to be sure sure but reliable and solid at a time when the Prime Minister is fumbling his way through interviews looking uncertain of the policy detail he is attempting to force upon a cautious electorate. 

The abrupt departure of the feuding Rudd and Gillard factions coupled with the increased scrutiny that comes from moving from opposition to government has brought on a decline in the Liberal Party’s standing that has been surprising, yet impeccably logical. He is a politician who was never intended to lead, who was installed as leader by accident and who was only elevated to a position of competitiveness by the strategic shortcomings of the Labor Party. He has never demonstrated an ability to articulate political arguments in a sophisticated and persuasive way yet his political future mandates that he is able to do just that. He thinks the Royal Commission into Union Corruption will revive the public’s antipathy towards Labor but it won’t, it left with Rudd and Gillard. He thinks the spectre of carbon pricing will frighten the public but carbon pricing is no longer a feared unknown, it is now a fixture of economic structure with which most voters have since made peace. He now cuts a tragic figure, imprisoned by his accidental success in a role he was never equipped to fulfill. Whereas the Howard Government and the Second Rudd Government turned to their leader in hope that he might be their saviour, the Abbott government attempts to minimize the impact of their leader’s unpopularity. We’re back in 2009,  the election is Labor’s for the taking, all they’re required to do is stay the course

 

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