This is the fourth in a series of eight pieces charting the course of Australian politics from 2007 till today to coincide with the 10 year anniversary of the 2007 election.
As Tony Abbott fumbled and bumbled his way through his final major interview as Prime Minister you can easily imagine an exhausted, sleep deprived Liberal backbencher, watching on a small monitor in a poorly lit office in Canberra sighing in despair. It was the final confirmation, Abbott was never going to turn this ship around. The slim hopes that may have been held of the Abbott government being re-elected were over. Despondently he picks up the phone and dials Malcolm Turnbull’s numbers man. “Yeah mate. I’m in.”
It’s difficult to conceive just how demoralising it must have been to be an MP in a marginal seat under Tony Abbott. Your fortunes are tied to a man who doesn’t take questions at press conferences because he just isn’t fast enough on his feet. He doesn’t do high profile interviews on the day of launching a major policy because he just isn’t articulate enough. You wake up in the morning and you scan the press cuttings with full of trepidation in case he’s made another captain’s pick. He comes to visit your electorate and you do most of the talking because you’re afraid he’ll inadvertently insult one of your constituents. This is life under Prime Minister Abbott.
This blog has noted on a few occasions now that when Abbott was installed as Liberal leader back in 2009 it was not done with a view to retake government. Installing Abbott was a symbolic decision, his climate sceptic backers were going to suffer electoral oblivion rather than yield to a political tide that ran against them. It surprised them as much as anyone when they suddenly found themselves in a winning position a year later.
Abbott’s fabled gifts for running a negative campaign are greatly overstated. Most of Labor’s unpopularity was self-inflicted. When Labor ceased the self-harming in 2013, the legendary Abbott scare campaign suddenly seemed a little toothless. He had become leader at a unique moment in time where it was possible to win an election without asserting himself as an intellectual. The moment soon passed, but he was still Prime Minister and was expected to serve a three-year term in the role despite lacking the necessary qualities.
Perhaps if Abbott had an appealing manifesto to sell, his verbal shortcomings might have mattered less. Perhaps if he was more gifted at reading the electorate he might have been able to steer the government into safer territory. But Abbott was neither of those things. He was a tribalist, his loyalty was to the Liberal Party first and his country second. Abbott reverted to an old form of politics that Rudd had crusaded against in 2007 and the entire political class paid a dear price.
Abbott won government and immediately set about abusing the position to reward those who helped him get there. Liberal figures Abbott appointed to plum jobs included Maurice Newman, Alexander Downer, Barry Hasse, John Lloyd, Paul Neville, Gary Johnson, Peter Coleman, Janet Albrechtsen, Peter Collins, Tim Wilson and Ian Campbell, meanwhile Labor figures in line for government jobs like Steve Bracks were blocked. This was vulgar, this was greedy, in the eyes of some; it was practically corruption. It behoves us to keep in mind, Abbott managed to appoint all these Liberal figures in less than two years.
The appointment of Bronwyn Bishop as speaker was the Abbott government in a microcosm. As a politician Bishop was pompous, biased and intellectually feeble. Where Rudd had surrendered many of the advantages of incumbency, Abbott had sought to expand them with the appointment of a shameless partisan. If the Rudd government was perceived be taking decisions for altruistic reasons, and the Gillard government was seen to taking them for tactical reasons, Abbott was taking decisions for nepotistic reasons.
When Abbott was asked to justify what looked like cronyism, he couldn’t. He had never been able to explain anything. He would predictably chastise his interviewer for not asking him about the carbon tax or the turn-backs policy. His performances in parliament were much the same. While his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, was inflicting austerity budget cuts on the nation, Abbott was giving cushy, taxpayer funded jobs to his allies and refusing to justify it. Some cynical observers may also perceive links between Abbott’s antipathy towards the renewables energy sector, and the financial contributions of the Minerals Council of Australia to his 2013 campaign.
As Abbott’s polling dipped his behaviour became more alienating. He became more insular, giving fewer and fewer interviews to those outside of his bubble of media cheerleaders. Perhaps attempting to recreate the success of opposition, he became more pugilistic, more aggressive. But his success in opposition was always in spite of his chest beating, not because of it.
Outside of the very odd place that is the Liberal Party’s rank and file, Abbott is regarded poorly. Intellectually sloppy and ideologically radical, with a nasty streak to boot, the public now looks at disbelief that his party allowed him to occupy such an important position for so long. Abbott’s premiership was a brief affair, he made few legislative changes but the damage he did to the reputation of parliament was substantial. Bill Shorten is not a beneficiary the Abbott premiership. Nor is Malcolm Turnbull. The disgust with which voters now view the parliament is intense. The road to restoring trust in this institution is long. And the man that contributed most to this was Anthony John Abbott.