In 2009 there were at most half a dozen members of the Liberal National Coalition who believed Tony Abbott was the best placed candidate to defeat Kevin Rudd in a general election. But morale was low and egos bruised, for three years they had been told by successive leaders that they had to compromise to be competitive and for three years Rudd had humiliated them at every turn and they’d had enough. If they were going to lose anyway, they were going to lose fighting for what they believed in.
Even still these ideological martyrs did not constitute a majority of the Liberal Party. The affable Joe Hockey was expected to replace the damaged Malcolm Turnbull. Although a moderate, Joe did not exhibit the same contempt for the party’s conservatives that Turnbull did. In a head to head ballot against either Abbott or Turnbull, Hockey, who had few enemies within the parliamentary party, would have won comfortably. Abbott and Turnbull represented polarizing and destructive hardliners, Hockey was an acceptable compromise between the two. The problem of course was neither Turnbull nor Abbott would drop out and Hockey was squeezed out in a three horse race. He never made it to the second ballot and the Liberal Party was confronted with the unenviable choice of two polarising and divisive figures.
And so it came to pass that the problem child of the Howard government became the leader of Australia’s natural party of government. He was not expected to win the election, he had only been given the opportunity because the upcoming election was thought to be a foregone conclusion. Indeed many in the parliamentary party and the rank and file consoled themselves with the idea that they would expend Abbott on an unwinnable election, then three years later when the public may have grown weary of the Rudd government, a more plausible candidate could lead them in a much closer contest. Yet all this was predicated on the Labor government continuing to proceed with some semblance of orthodoxy, instead they imploded.
Unbeknownst to the Liberals, Labor was already making preparations for their own self-immolation at the time the Liberals were performing theirs. Labor too believed the 2010 election was a foregone conclusion and a ripe opportunity to install their leader of preference with no serious electoral consequences. Alas they underestimated the extent to which their electoral fortunes were tied to the individual they decided to destroy. With hitherto unseen brutality the traditional power structures of the labour movement deposed the Keynesian in labour clothing who just so happened to be the only person to deliver them victory since 1993. Having interwoven its image with the personality of the individual they’d banished to the backbenches Labor struggled to present a compelling argument in favour of its own re-election. After a few weeks of honeymoon polling the absence of purpose in the post Rudd government was exposed and Labor’s standing with the electorate plunged long forgotten depths.
For three year the Gillard led Labor government attempted to present a coherent agenda for government while repudiating the legacy of the Rudd era and in doing so cobbled together a confused and paradoxical message which alienated huge portions of the electorate. They were for an emissions trading scheme, then for outsourcing climate policy to a so called “Climate assembly” then for a fixed price on carbon, then for a floating price on carbon. They were going to detain asylum seekers on East Timor, then Malaysia, then Nauru and Manus Island. Against these contradictions and Abbott led Liberal Party soon became the electorate’s preference but Abbott himself was never popular. His satisfaction remained at historically low levels throughout his tenure in opposition and his lack of personal popularity gave the Labor Party hope that they could still win under Julia Gillard’s leadership.
Gillard and Abbott were mutually dependant on each other’s unpopularity. Opinion polling throughout the three year period constantly suggested that a leadership change from either party could trigger a crisis in the other. When Labor finally turned to Rudd after two years of scorched earth tactics the Labor Party apparatus was deeply damaged. Political donations were already flowing in the direction of the Liberal Party, half his cabinet had resigned and the polling deficit was ten points. Against this damaged and unpopular government Abbott was elected but in losing Julia Gillard he had lost the reference point that gave him political purpose.
As a Prime Minister who was carried into office on the back of a government’s capitulation, Abbott was unique in having never asserted himself as an intellectual heavyweight, the consequences of which became apparent with every passing Newspoll. In a long form interview with Leigh Sales or Sarah Ferguson Abbott was simply too inarticulate to persuasively make the case for his government’s policies. Whereas in opposition his policies were all hypothetical proposals, in government they were tangibly impacting upon people’s lives and it was no longer adequate to explain them with platitudes and slogans. Indeed as Malcolm Turnbll repeatedly stated in outlining his reasons to challenge Abbott for the party leadership, Abbott’s recourse to political slogans was devastating the government’s economic credentials.
But sloganeering was all Tony Abbott had ever demonstrated an ability to do. He hadn’t been made the leader of the Liberal Party because he was articulate and nimble. He was elected to be a martyr, but his executioners kept surrendering. Success after success came to Abbott but none of them were strategically won and eventually he found himself the accidental occupant of a position he had never been well equipped to serve. Some may have held out hope that he might learn on the job, instead he did the opposite. His interview with Leigh Sales, a week before being toppled encapsulated precisely why Abbott was never going to be able to revive his party’s fortunes. Here was a Prime Minister being asked a flexible, open ended question about his economic record, it was a perfect opportunity for a more articulate politician to calmly explain the mechanics underpinning some of his economic policies to a hitherto unimpressed electorate and his response was “we stopped the boats.” A slogan about an unrelated area of policy. How could the Liberal MPs and Senators be expected to believe that he would be able to articulate the case for re-election in 2016? As the events of September 14 demonstrate, they couldn’t. They had never meant for him to become Prime Minister, they had never believed he was capable of being a successful Prime Minister. Now they knew it to be true.