As a political exercise, why not begin by jotting down what you are convinced Tony Abbott stands for? It may not take you long.
Don’t feel inadequate if you can muster no more than ‘end the waste, pay back debt, stop new taxes and stop the boats’. But wait, there’s a change in the air. On the last Insiders
for the year (which is well worth viewing in full) Tones launched a ‘softer, gentler’ set of slogans: "lower taxes, fairer welfare, better services and stronger borders".
Now doesn’t that feel better?
When I wrote a similar piece about Julia Gillard, I looked first at her acceptance speech after election as leader, at her address to the National Press Club and then at her campaign launch speech. I attempted to do the same for Tony Abbott.
First, I searched the Liberal Party of Australia website for his acceptance speech. No matter what search words I used, I couldn’t find it. It must be there, but well hidden.
The best I could manage was an account in the Sydney Morning Herald
of December 1 where there was journalist Nadia Jamal’s account of his speech headed I am humbled: Abbott
. Of course newly elected leaders always say they are ‘humbled’, when they are really as pleased as Punch. Read it and see if you can detect the vision Abbott has for this nation; play the video and see if it’s there. Check for the Abbott narrative.
After getting his ‘humbled’ out of the way, he talked about healing wounds, about his ‘stuff-ups’ for which he made a generic apology, and then promised he would be a collegial and consultative leader. He made conciliatory noises about Malcolm Turnbull whom he had just toppled, and then got onto the ETS as this was the raison d'être
for his becoming leader, saying ‘‘I think that climate change is real and that man does make a contribution,’’
but added that there was argument about the level of that contribution and what should be done about it. There were several more references to the ETS, the GBNT and Copenhagen, a passing reference to WorkChoices being dead and that while no one would mention it again, Australia needed a ‘free and flexible’ economy, (watch this space!), and still more references to the ETS. He ended with “Oppositions are not there to get legislation through; oppositions are there to hold the Government to account.”
The latter reflects his long-held belief in Randolph Churchill’s dictum: “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing and turf the government out.”
I suppose he was caught by surprise at being elected and that is why his acceptance speech was such a dog’s breakfast, but with his many years in Liberal Party ranks, his supporters might have hoped for passing reference to the Party’s ‘beliefs’. They are there on the website for all to see.
To paint a picture of what Tony Abbott might have drawn upon to give his acceptance speech some stature, here they are: “We Believe...
In the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples; and we work towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives; and maximises individual and private sector initiative
In government that nurtures and encourages its citizens through incentive, rather than putting limits on people through the punishing disincentives of burdensome taxes and the stifling structures of Labor's corporate state and bureaucratic red tape.
In those most basic freedoms of parliamentary democracy - the freedom of thought, worship, speech and association.
In a just and humane society in which the importance of the family and the role of law and justice is maintained.
In equal opportunity for all Australians; and the encouragement and facilitation of wealth so that all may enjoy the highest possible standards of living, health, education and social justice.
That, wherever possible, government should not compete with an efficient private sector; and that businesses and individuals - not government - are the true creators of wealth and employment.
In preserving Australia's natural beauty and the environment for future generations.
That our nation has a constructive role to play in maintaining world peace and democracy through alliance with other free nations.
In short, we simply believe in individual freedom and free enterprise; and if you share this belief, then ours is the Party for you.”
Note that even in a statement of its beliefs, the Liberals could not resist a derogatory reference to Labor.
Next, let’s look at Abbott’s campaign launch speech
After a couple of backhanders aimed at Labor, he launched his mantra: “I’m asking for your support to end the waste, pay back the debt, stop the big new taxes, stop the boats and help struggling families.”
He then went on to say; “Our task is nothing less than to save Australia from the worst government in its history.”
After which the well-worn catalogue of Labor crimes and misdemeanours were trotted out, how the government had ‘lost its way’, and I think for the first time he used the word ‘toxic’ to describe Labor, this time in reference to Kevin Rudd.
Then he spoke of the ‘positive’ things he would do: “The public are asking us to do more than just replace a bad government. They are asking us to restore some sense of honour and integrity to Australia’s public life. We must offer the Australian people a better way. So I say again, if elected a Coalition government will end the waste, pay back the debt, stop the big new taxes, stop the boats and help struggling families and we will do that from day one.
(We were glad he reminded us of that). From day one under a Coalition government, the mining industry could do again what it does best: creating wealth and employing hundreds of thousands of Australians without the threat of an investment killing, jobs destroying great big new tax. From day one under a Coalition government, everyone who uses energy – that’s pensioners, retirees, farmers, families and young people – could live without the threat of a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme that would raise prices, damage industries and cost jobs.”
You will see that all of these reiterate the GBNT theme. Nothing positive there; only countering what he has decided to portray as a negative.
He announced a Debt Reduction Task Force, an economic statement on the Murray-Darling Basin plan, a National Security Meeting to be convened to ‘take back control of Australia’s borders’ along with a call to the President of Nauru, tougher penalties for people smugglers, the reintroduction of TPVs, and a promise to stop school halls ‘rip-offs’ by giving money directly to ‘P&Cs that wouldn’t waste it’.
He talked fleetingly about an emissions reductions fund and a Green Army, business reforms, health reforms, and prudent and responsible stewardship of the nation’s finances. He repeated the mantra: “Under the Coalition, spending will always be less and tax will always be lower than under Labor.”
He then went on to put a little flesh on the bones of his education, health and water policies, said he would reduce bureaucracy, spoke of his PPL scheme, and vowed to break "the cycle of welfare dependency for young indigenous people and others trapped in intergenerational poverty, provided they are prepared to renounce their welfare entitlement in return for a guaranteed job"
, and promised to "publish all the modelling associated with all the Henry recommendations to foster the tax debate that Australia needs and now must have".
He finished by assuring us that "...no one will accuse the next Coalition government of being all talk and no action"
, lambasted Labor for a ‘re-election strategy…based on fear and lies’ and an advertising blitz that ‘will be all fear and smear’. For good measure he concluded: “…let’s start, from day one, repaying the debt, stopping the big new taxes, stopping the boats and helping struggling families.”
The party faithful were ecstatic and gave him a standing ovation. In archetypical pugilistic fashion he was taking the fight up to Labor and that’s what they wanted. But where was the vision? Look carefully at what he said and you will see the bulk of it is about fixing what he characterizes as the mess that Labor has created. In other words, he created a straw man, indeed many straw men, and promised to systematically knock them over. He assumes that everyone sees these straw men, agrees that they exist and need knocking down, so he promises to put a bullseye on them all, and knock them over. But if the premise is flawed, so is the reaction.
What does that speech tell you about what Tony Abbott believes in, what he stands for? What sort of Australia is he promising? How inspiring is his vision? Read it and judge for yourself.
Tony Abbott’s pre-election speech on August 17 to the National Press Club also defied discovery on the Liberal Party website, so we have to rely on a report of it in The Australian
by James Massola somewhat ambitiously titled Tony Abbott outlines vision for opportunity society.
It is not the whole speech. It contains some of the same material as his campaign launch speech, plenty of condemnation of Labor, and Massola’s idea of vision: “But it was during his unscripted speech, which ran for about 25 minutes, that Mr Abbott was best able to outline his vision for Australia which would help ‘individuals and communities to better realise their better self’. My vision for Australia is not simply that my dreams will be writ large, far from it, my vision is of an Australia where everyone's dreams can be better realised”, he said. “I don't envisage an Australia where people conform to a vision that government has created for them, I envisage an Australia where government helps individuals and communities to better realise their best selves there is a better way.”
So there it is, Abbott Vision with a capital V. If this is the extent of his vision, it is not just laughable; it is tragically wanting for a man who would be PM. Yet Massola gave it a tick.
Finally, there was Abbott’s comment after the majority Labor Government was formed, this time taken from the Liberal Party website: “I now rededicate the Coalition to the task of Opposition. I believe that we will be an even more effective Opposition in the coming Parliament than we were in the last one. We want a strong Australia and we want better lives for the Australian people. To the extent that that is what the confirmed government delivers, we will give credit where it’s due. To the extent that it doesn’t, we will hold them ferociously to account because that is what the Australian people will expect of us. I rededicate the Coalition to the task of being a credible alternative government and that will be more important than ever given the inevitable uncertainties of the coming Parliament.”
A slight touch of ‘vision’: “…a strong Australia and we want better lives for the Australian people”
and more of “ferociously holding the Government to account.”
So that’s it. That’s the vision. That’s what Abbott has in mind for this country.
Abbott’s plan is much, much more about correcting Labor’s so-called mistakes, and replacing Labor’s so-called incompetence with a supremely competent Coalition which of course will always have lower debt and lower taxes.
Try if you will to find a positive Abbott narrative among those public statements; try to indentify what he would do to make ‘a strong Australia’ and ‘better lives for the Australian people’. You’ll have no trouble finding his negativity and obstructionist intent.
Let’s conclude this assessment of what Tony Abbott stands for by focussing on some specific policy areas. Climate change
George Megalogenis puts it well on page 48 of his recent Quarterly Essay: Trivial Pursuit – Leadership and the End of the Reform Era
where he says of Tony Abbott’s attitude to climate change. “Abbott had been a supporter of the ETS before he was against it. He said the science was ‘crap’ but still felt the undertow of the polls dragging him towards a gesture on climate change, so his first act as leader was to promise $3.2 billion in hand-outs over four years to buy emissions cuts. He ran three fantastically contradictory lines. He agreed climate change was happening, while questioning the science. He said Rudd’s scheme was a great big new tax on everything, even although it was revenue negative. And he had his own budget-draining plan to buy reductions in carbon pollution from industry and farmers, while simultaneously arguing that only a Coalition Government could pay back debt and end the waste.”
Abbott realized that what he was saying did not have to be consistent or even true. He could say whatever he liked, make it up if necessary, and get away with it so long as a compliant media allowed him. Economics
Even a generous assessment of the Coalition’s credentials reveal they are flimsy, despite polls showing the community’s confidence in its capacity for economic management. This is a myth left over from the Howard era. Let’s look at the facts: The ‘economics’ team
By his own admission, Tony Abbott is uninterested in economics and not once has he made a substantial statement on national economics. He pushes that to Joe Hockey or Andrew Robb. Joe Hockey, who was left holding the baby after Abbott’s reply to the 2010 Budget, himself failed to detail during his National Press Club address the savings the Coalition claimed it had made, and passed the baby to Robb, who then, in his characteristically convoluted way tried to explain what was essentially a con job. The ‘savings’ charade
The supposed $50 billion of savings were always suspect. No self-respecting economist ever confirmed them; economics correspondents who were supportive of the Coalition declined to show how they added up; even The Australian
conceded they were ‘massaged’. At least half were political smoke and mirrors illusions. The $50 billion of savings were simply not there. The contortions through which Hockey and Robb went to try to justify their ‘savings’ were a wonder to behold. They were just not believable. The campaign costings
Again we saw a Hockey/Robb duo – Abbott was AWL – trying to convince the public that an ‘audit’, done by Liberal Party-friendly accountants, which took the Coalition’s assumptions for granted, were accurate and believable, while a Treasury assessment found an ‘$11 billion black hole’ in them. Rob and Hockey, who could argue the leg off an iron pot, reasoned this way and that about assumptions, but convinced only those who wanted and needed to believe. It was another charade – everybody with eyes to see knew it. Most of the media looked the other way and tossed the black hole off as inconsequential, a misdemeanour that was OK for the Opposition but would have lead to crucifixion for the Government. The bank interest saga
Joe Hockey has the well-honed skill of finding a way to criticize the Government about interest rates if they go up, and as stridently if they stay the same. His genius allows him to convert any interest rate situation into a lose-lose for the Government. He takes convoluted logic to a new level.
He opportunistically seized on the banks raising interest rates beyond the RBA rate rise to propose his nine point plan which he rushed to present and thereby paint himself as a champion of the struggling mortgage holder, and in the process gazump the Wayne Swan plan that was in preparation after lengthy consultations with the banking industry and the ACCC. Hockey got a tick from several economists despite its rushed preparation; will Swan get the same for his careful approach? After all the fire and brimstone, Joe’s plan seems to have faded into the background, like so many of his half-baked ideas.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Coalition economics team is simply incompetent, and at times willing to pull the wool over the eyes of the public with dubious financial contortions. Paid Parental Leave
Here is another policy area where inconsistency reigned supreme. When in government, Abbott declared such a scheme would be introduced ‘over the Coalition’s dead body’. Then he had an epiphany and decided it was needed by some female friends with whom he had spoken. He mentioned it in his book Battlelines
. After election as leader, despite his post-election assurance that he would be ‘collegial and consultative’, he introduced his PPL out of the blue without consulting the party room, and to everyone’s surprise revealed it was to be funded by a tax on business, having vowed there would be ‘no new taxes’. Caught in a trap of his own making, he then promised to reduce company tax by the same amount.
All of these contortions were regarded as amusing by the media – just another of Tony’s thought bubbles not to be taken too seriously, because, after all, he was only in opposition.
In the face of this and other about-faces he has made, it is breathtaking that he has the temerity to castigate the Government if it changes its mind, when he changes his over and again to catch the prevailing breeze, weathervane-style. Water policy
Here again we see inconsistency. The Howard Government set up the Murray-Darling Commission (now the Murray-Darling Basin Authority) as an independent body to report on the rivers’ future. The current Government allowed it to complete its work, the Basin Plan, publish it, and hold public meetings to discuss its recommendations with stakeholders, independent of Government. When the report was seen to upset irrigators and rural communities, Abbott leapt on the opportunity to condemn the Gillard Government for carrying out exactly what the Howard Government had set out to achieve – a report for discussion among stakeholders. But did you see the media pointing out Abbott’s inconsistency, hypocrisy and opportunism? What does Tony Abbott stand for?
So there it is. I searched for evidence of the Abbott vision for this country and found just a few motherhood snippets: “...my vision is of an Australia where everyone's dreams can be better realised”.
I searched for the Abbott and Coalition narrative and found mountains of negativity, a tiresome recital of the problems that he insisted Labor had created that he would fix. I looked for his positive plans for the nation should he become PM and found a tiny mound. I looked particularly for his reform agenda for crucial areas such as education, health, industrial relations and foreign affairs and found almost nothing. I examined his contribution to policy matters such as climate change, economic management, paid parental leave and water, and found a confusing set of contradictions and in the case of his ‘savings’ and ‘costings’, ineptitude and deception writ large.
Yet when I sought out the media’s response to this exhibition of monumental incompetence, I could find but a sprinkling of occasions when Abbott was confronted by journalists – in a couple of Neil Mitchell interviews on Melbourne 3AW
and in the Kerry O’Brien ‘I don’t always speak the truth’ interview on the ABC's 7.30 Report
. The media chose to overlook most of Abbott’s crass statements, preferring simply to echo them as if they were valid beyond doubt – ‘The Opposition leader said this’, or ‘Mr Abbott said that’, or ‘Tony Abbott accused the PM of’ - anything that happened to enter his mind at the time, or ‘The Labor brand has become toxic’ whatever that vacuous statement means. And most, particularly News Limited outlets, pumping for a Coalition defeat of Labor, chose not to highlight the Coalition’s negatives, focusing only on any fragment of positivity they could find, any poll that showed improvement in the Coalition's standiing.
How can this nation be governed responsibly while the media seems unprepared to confront the alternative PM and the alternative government with its inconsistencies, its ineptitude, its deception, its paucity of plans, its lack of a vibrant vision and a coherent narrative, its largely obstructionist and negative behaviour, preferring instead to laugh off all this as the quirks of this sometimes eccentric, but eminently likeable Tony Abbott? It is only too ready to challenge Julia Gillard and her Government, as was evident this week in Kerry O’Brien’s final 7.30 Report
interview with her.
When will the media and the public begin to turn around Tony Abbott’s oft-repeated remarks about the incompetence of the Labor Party, insisting with as much vehemence as he does, that the Coalition is the most incompetent alternative government in this nation’s history?
What do you think?