Tony Abbott – the man who walks away

Tony Abbott is playing us all for suckers. He believes, and the contemporary polls of voting intention support his belief, that come 2013 he will waltz into The Lodge with no more than we see from him day after day. He believes that he will do that by opposing everything the Gillard Government is trying to achieve, by promising to repeal the carbon and minerals taxes and demolish the NBN, by mindlessly mouthing mantras over and again – about the ‘toxic’ carbon tax and the tax that is ‘killing the goose that is laying the golden eggs’, about how he will ‘turn back the boats’, and about the Gillard Government, ‘a bad government getting worse’.

And he believes he can do this by walking away without ever answering the hard questions.

Analyze carefully what this man says, and there’s not much more to it than that. No policy, no thoughtful statements about the economy, nothing of substance about the environment. Just vacuous utterances day after day after day, even in Question Time where it might reasonably be expected that policy issues might emerge, but no, it’s virtually all about the toxic carbon tax that will propel a wrecking ball throughout the entire economy, wiping out industries and towns and countless jobs and forcing the price of electricity, and everything else that you can think of, up and up and up to ‘unimaginable’ levels. Note the threefold emphasis.

He is not just playing the public for suckers; he’s playing the media for even bigger suckers. Journalists are the only ones who have intimate contact with Abbott, the only ones who can ask him penetrating questions, insist on answers, probe his responses, and be firm that he gives cogent answers. But this lily-livered bunch rarely does. And when an occasional journalist summons sufficient courage to be confronting, we see the typical bumbling Abbott, stumbling over accusations by Kerry O’Brien that he is careless with the truth, and mute when confronted by Mark Riley with the ‘shit-happens’ remark in Afghanistan.

It was therefore reassuring to read that at least one journalist is up to Abbott and prepared to call him for his evasive behaviour. Dennis Atkins, writing in the Courier Mail of 23 June in an article: Abbott steers away from the media, says: “In Canberra there's nothing more frustrating for press gallery journalists than trying to pin down Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, even though he makes himself available almost every parliamentary sitting day.

“Abbott very rarely fronts a full news conference in Canberra, preferring to do "doorstops" at staged events outside Parliament House. These are at a place where the Opposition Leader can run a line on the carbon tax and then take a few questions.

“There are not many - he will cut the session short by just walking away if questioning turns to things he doesn't want to talk about. Also, because these events are outside Parliament House, only a small number of journalists attend, as most have time and filing pressures and can't afford the hour necessary to get to and from what is primarily a picture opportunity.”

Note Atkins’ words: “…he will cut the session short by just walking away if questioning turns to things he doesn't want to talk about.” Exactly.

Atkins concludes: “Prime Minister Julia Gillard does at least give news conferences in Canberra when she takes questions until the reporters run dry, and she will appear on shows such as Lateline, Four Corners (to her regret) and the hour-long Q&A.

“Usually you learn something about Gillard when she subjects herself to this form of questioning - for better or for worse, as far as she's concerned.

“It should be a serious concern that the man who wants to be prime minister and, the polls say, is short odds to achieve that goal, doesn't give longer, searching interviews.

“The fact Abbott and his advisers have a deliberate policy to avoid scrutiny should be a major concern for all who take an interest in our national public life.”

We know what Atkins is talking about. We have seen Abbott in doorstops scores of times, doorstops he calls to make his statement of the day, or comment on something the Government has done or proposes. His spiel is well rehearsed (and is often repeated by others in his party), laden with his short snappy slogans, and is inevitably derogatory. He fields a few questions with glib answers, then walks away if the questions become awkward, leaving the journalists floundering with little for their efforts. They never get an in-depth story, never get to probe, never satisfy their journalistic desire for a solid, well-documented piece. Many don’t bother any more, but that doesn’t trouble Abbott so long as he gets his clip for the evening TV and radio news.

Not only does Abbott walk away when the questions get too hot for him, he avoids walking up at all to formal occasions where pointed questions might be asked.

How often does he front up to the National Press Club where journalists from many media outlets can ask questions? The last day in January of this year was the last occasion. His speech is on the Liberal Party website, but none of the questions or his answers. His previous NPC addresses were in August 2010, July 2009, and August 2006.

How often does he front on 7.30? Seldom, and then his interview is on specific matters, avoiding general questions, and is recorded and edited. And with limp interviewers like Chris Uhlmann, and the Dorothy Dixers he throws at Abbott, it’s not much of a challenge.

What about Q&A? The last time he fronted was almost two years ago, in August 2010, in the context of the election campaign. While Julia Gillard is prepared for an hour’s grilling, Abbott is not prepared to walk up for scrutiny. He has condemned everything PM Gillard and her Government has done, and has threatened to repeal much of it, yet has not been prepared, despite repeated invitations, to come on Q&A to explain his policies, his objections to the Government’s policies, how he would repeal its legislation, why he would run a better Government, and answer any awkward questions that the audience might ask.

When has he featured in a Four Corners expose? In March 2010, there was an edition on him. You can see it here; I can’t find any other recent appearance.

What about Lateline? Writing on Crikey, Jeremy Sear, in a 13 June article with a long title: #asktony – in which Mr Abbott tries to make up for avoiding Lateline or Q&A by pretending to be available to answer questions on Twitter for twenty minutes, and it backfires, had this to say: “Yesterday afternoon Tony Abbott tried a bit of a stunt where he pretended to be available to answer meaningful questions if people sent them to him on Twitter with the #asktony hashtag.

“You can see why the concept appealed to Abbott – it would make him look like he was open to being challenged on his pronouncements, whilst letting him ignore questions he didn’t want to answer and in a forum where nobody could expect more than 140 characters anyway.

“Which is good, because Tony’s preferred response to any question is the asinine (and false) “axing the carbon tax will fix it!” And the twitter “interview” lets him just keep repeating it (regardless of the question) whilst ignoring follow-ups…”

Sear gives some examples; here is one:
“Mark J. Cohen – What will be the macroeconomic effects on Australia if the Eurozone fails to stabilise its banks? #asktony

Tony Abbott – Serious. That’s why it’s important not to make extra burdens for ourselves such as the carbon tax and no ABCC. #asktony.

Can you believe it? Yes, you can!

Here’s another:
”Tim Ferguson – When you gut the carbon tax, do our other taxes stay the same? #asktony

Tony Abbott – I want to get taxes down generally. There’ll be no tax increases to pay for the carbon tax abolition.

Cate – Then how will you pay for it? And how will you fund the NDIS?

Cate – Lower taxes = razor gangs. What gets cut? Pensions? Who suffers most? The poor. Taxes = services. End of story.”

Abbott didn’t reply to Cate’s questions.

Sear goes onto say: ”Actually, many had tried to ask serious questions, but Tony didn’t respond.”

Then there was this tweet: “Emma Alberici – @TonyAbbottMHR #asktony When will you accept our invitation to do an interview on #lateline?”

Sear comments: “Like the other genuine questions, Tony didn’t dignify THAT one with a response.”

Sear concludes: “Naturally, other journalists were outraged. Tony Abbott, a man who expects to be Prime Minister after the next election, thinks he can avoid genuine scrutiny with faux interviews on Twitter? He thinks pretending to engage with the electorate for twenty minutes online whilst ignoring anything he doesn’t want to deal with is the equivalent of a Lateline interview or being grilled by a Q&A audience? He thinks ignoring the difficult questions he was asked won’t be noticed?”

“Tony Abbott is lucky that Herald Sun readers will be left with the impression that he bravely “reached out” and the Internet was too stupid and nasty to engage seriously, rather than the more accurate account that he declined to answer difficult questions and when people realised it was a shameless stunt then they started mocking him.

“Kudos to Jessica and her paper for not being annoyed by a politician’s attempt to sideline them and avoid genuine media scrutiny by spending twenty minutes ignoring difficult questions on Twitter in place of actually being grilled by a real journalist.

“We’ll find out how Tony Abbott is going to magically cut taxes without raising others or slashing public services whilst still maintaining the ALP’s surplus after he becomes PM. It’s just rude to ask him before the election. Twitter might not realise that yet – but the journalists Tony is willing to speak with do.”

So Abbott uses Twitter to walk away from giving thoughtful answers to genuine questions, seriously asked. It’s not surprising his glib non-answers soon attracted sarcastic, and at times silly questions. They could see he was just pretending to be interested in addressing the public’s questions; it was all another charade, yet another Abbott stunt.

Harking back to Lateline, Abbott’s last substantial appearance seems to have been in November last year when it ran for 21 minutes. An appearance in January lasted around three minutes, as did appearances in 2010. He simply does not favour this program with his presence. He deliberately avoids it.

In recent days, you will have seen Abbott, as he walked down a corridor, being asked about his response to the suggestion of some of his party and the Independents that he ought to re-enter into negotiations with PM Gillard about asylum policy. Several journalists asked him questions; there was no response. None at all. He simply refused the answer their questions in any way.

Yesterday we saw him walking away from genuine compromise, something yet another boat tragedy demanded of all parliamentarians. His so-called compromises were nothing more than a strategy to avoid making compromises that could really address the asylum seeker issue. Once more, he played his cynical game of avoidance by walking away from bona fide compromise.

But there are some interviews from which he does not walk away. Where? On 2GB where Alan Jones or Ray Hadley ask him soft questions and Dorothy Dixers, where he is never challenged with anything awkward, where every derogatory remark he makes about Julia Gillard and her Government is not just echoed, but amplified. He will go on Channel Seven’s Sunrise or Sky News where he knows he has supplicant interviewers, only too ready to promulgate his poisonous messages, and never assaulting him with questions that challenge or confront.

So here we have the man who would be Prime Minister of this country, this nation’s leader, who is unprepared to subject himself to any sort of scarifying scrutiny of the media, to answer penetrating questions about his statements and assertions, to respond to the probing questions of journalists who want to uncover his vision and his plans for the nation, his policies, their cost, his strategies for undoing what the Government has worked so hard to achieve.

All we get is glib answers, endless slogans, mindless mantras, incessant negativity, and unremittingly obstructive behavior, most recently about negotiating a compromise on asylum policy. We not only get nothing positive, we get nothing that lifts the spirits, that gives the hope and encouragement one ought to be able to expect from the man who wants to lead us. We get just negative nothingness.

If this man has anything to offer at all, we want to hear it. We suspect though that he really has nothing. Sycophantic journalists tell us that this is a clever strategy, a smart way of keeping under wraps the fifty policies that are said to be lying in wait, ready to be launched on an adoring public that will erupt with ecstatic enthusiasm once revealed.

To the discerning observer though this ‘clever’ strategy seems to be nothing other than one to avoid answering anything that might place him in a poor light, anything that might expose his hollowness, anything that might show up his shallowness, anything that might further highlight his nastiness, his malevolence, his destructiveness.

This man who would be leader of this nation is a fraud, a con man and a coward, one who walks away, with never a backward look at his questioners, and his public.

Tony Abbott is the man who walks away – shamelessly. He is playing us all for suckers. Who will have the guts to pull him up?

What do you think?