The disintegration of the Abbott machine

Early every morning, the Abbott machine swings into action. Fresh batteries are placed in Abbott man, he is briefed with the day’s messages, slogans for the day are identified, and he is sent on his way, a Duracell Bunny thumping his tub, to friendly TV stations for a puff piece encounter with a morning host who asks soft questions that serve as a vehicle for him to regurgitate the day’s messages and repeat his well worn slogans. It doesn’t matter what the issues are, or what questions he is asked, his answers are the ones for which he has been pre-programmed, and out they come on cue, with some tub thumping slogans as an encore.

He has done this successfully for years because seldom has an interviewer had the courage or perspicacity to challenge his answers, or divert him from his pre-ordained script. It has all been so easy. All that has now changed.

There have been gathering doubts about Abbott man’s legitimacy, about his authenticity, about his grasp of the complexities of today’s politics, about his capacity to cope with anything that is thrown at him, about his ability to answer the awkward or embarrassing question. The doubts have been obvious in recent press articles, documented in Journalists awake! You know Tony Abbott is conning you

But it was not until Leigh Sales took her courage in both hands and challenged Abbott man’s answers in a 7.30 interview last week on the deferment of work at BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam project, a commercial decision that Abbott man insisted was the fault of the carbon and minerals taxes, that he was exposed as the deceitful person we have always known him to be. The fact that the minerals tax does not apply to copper or uranium mining meant nothing; Abbott man ploughed ahead with his faux sorrow at the deferral, labeled the two taxes as responsible, and so sure was he that there was political mileage for him in this event, he precipitously took up a longstanding invitation to appear on 7.30. He now wishes he hadn’t. Through insistent questioning, Leigh Sales exposed his deception, his lies, his scaremongering, and his inadequacy as an alternate PM. If you haven’t seen it, here is the link to the interview and the transcript.

Abbott man obfuscated, hesitated, lied, tried to avoid answering her questions, diverted attention by reference to Jacques Nasser’s statement about the taxes made some months ago, said he had not read Marius Kloppers’ statement about BHP Billiton’s decision, and later said he had, and under Sales persistent questioning steadily disintegrated into a confused wreck. When she changed the subject to his scare campaign about the carbon tax, out came the now modified slogan, ‘python squeeze’ rather than ‘cobra strike’, and when she nailed him on his use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe asylum seeker arrivals by boat, he was left flabbergasted. I have not heard anyone extol Abbott man’s performance, because it was appalling, the worst since his infamous performance with Kerry O’Brien and later with Mark Riley. Here is the transcript of the O’Brien interview. Here is the video. Here is the Mark Riley shit-happens interview.

The disintegration of the Abbott man and the Abbott machine accelerates.

Emboldened by Leigh Sales, Channel Nine’s Lisa Wilkinson tackled Abbott man herself over the BHP Billiton deferment. What is usually a cakewalk for him on this channel turned into another rough road. Here is the link to the interview on The Wall website, which has added some amusing subtitles to the video. (You need to click ‘View all images/videos’ at the bottom to see them.)

Challenged by Wilkinson, Abbott man bumbled his way through, repeating his pre-programmed messages no matter what questions she posed, umming and arring, obfuscating, insisting he had read the Kloppers statement after all, yet having denied this in the Sales interview. He excused his ‘confusion’ over this by saying Sales’ questions were ‘rapid-fire’ and that he ‘had a lot on his plate’. If he thinks his plate is overloaded now, how could he possibly cope with a prime ministerial plate? Arthur Sinodinos was soon out in Abbott man’s defence, obviously feeling he was somewhat ‘embattled’, a term usually reserved for the PM.

The Wilkinson interview was another calamity for Abbott man, who was stunned by this usually benign interviewer really putting in the boots.

NormanK has pointed out how Abbott man blinked his way through this uncomfortable interview, blinking at a rate that indicates nervousness over and above what might reasonably be expected from a senior politician accustomed to being on TV. Notice this when you view it. Note too that Julia Gillard faced questions from the Canberra Press Gallery for almost an hour without ‘blinking’!

These two female interviewers were not the only ones to leap all over Abbott man. The PM opined that he seemed to have a misogynist streak; Nicola Roxon, who had had an unpleasant encounter with Abbott man during a press conference on health before the 2007 election, called him out by saying he seemed threatened by women in powerful positions, and Tanya Plibersek agreed, citing his behavior in parliament that had him thrown out for defying the Speaker’s ruling. Abbott man responded by claiming he was ‘a modern man’ used to working with women at home and at work!

He made another telling mistake last week when he said private schools were the disadvantaged ones, not public schools, where the majority of disadvantaged children attend. He was hammered on this by Julia Gillard in QT and characterized as ‘Jack the Ripper’, ready to ‘rip out’ funds from public schools.

It was a miserable week for him.

The media has noticed Abbott man’s disintegration. The sycophantic News Limited will probably go softly on him for a while, but a few journalists haven’t waited. In the SMH, Paul Daley says: “Beneath the veneer of assuredness around the Coalition, confidence in Abbott is also waning. That's got nothing to do with a single poll that indicates Labor's primary vote has lifted from catastrophic to merely disastrous. But it has everything to do with the fear that the opposition's ongoing tactic of negating or obfuscating on major government policy - not least on the interim carbon tax, the mining tax and education reform - is starting to lose potency, as the media and the public demand detail and alternatives. Abbott fared badly under the blowtorch last week regarding the reasons for BHP Billiton's decision to shelve its Olympic Dam expansion. He looked like a leader with a short attention span, and none for detail.”

Misha Schubert, in her last piece for the SMH, asked: “Will Abbott continue to lead the Liberals, and become prime minister? After last week, with his line that private schools - not public ones - were hard done by and his exposure on trying to tie the carbon and mining taxes to BHP's Olympic Dam deferral in a mesmerising interview with Leigh Sales on 7.30, some - including in his own ranks - began to wonder anew.”

Even Peter van Onselen in The Sunday Telegraph said in: Is Tony a one-trick pony? “In a week where media attention followed the saga of the Prime Minister's legal dealings 17 years ago, Tony Abbott has also come under pressure. His performance on the ABC's 7.30 Report on Wednesday was not good by any measure, and the government stepped up its attacks on the opposition's slippery accounting and overstated criticisms of the carbon tax in parliament. Even one of Abbott's own frontbench colleagues told me: "The carbon tax attacks are starting to look a bit stale, don't you think? Like he's a one-trick pony perhaps." There are growing internal voices calling on Abbott to broaden his appeal beyond what he plans to repeal if elected prime minister. So far the calls are falling on deaf ears.”

Paul Howes made a cryptic comment: “When the Harbour Bridge was built, the Liberal Party didn't even exist but, given the shrill knee-jerk reactions we see coming from the Liberals today about investment in new infrastructure projects such as the NBN, you could imagine a yesteryear version of Tony Abbott waxing lyrical about Labor's waste in building a massively expensive bridge across the harbour when there's a perfectly good ferry system in place.”

Lainie Anderson in the South Australia Sunday Mail also asks: Is Abbott just a one-trick Tony? She begins: “Every time Opposition Leader Tony Abbott opens his mouth, I feel like I need a shower.

“He's such a grubby piece of work - so naked in his ambition, so willing to stretch any truth to score a quick political point and so unimaginative. When he started picking over the carcass of Olympic Dam this week, he might at least have had the decency to wipe the smug look from his face.

“He might have taken five minutes to get his facts straight on the reasons for BHP shelving the $30 billion project. And it wouldn't have hurt to workshop a few credible arguments on how Gillard policies have had an impact on BHP's cost pressures, instead of lazily (and incorrectly) parroting his "great big taxes" line. Actually, if he had been really strategic he would have been a statesman - saying very little about the demise but announcing a Coalition plan to work with key states and mining companies such as BHP on new strategies to keep investment flowing in a volatile resources market.

“Alas, that's not Mr Abbott's style. He's a kick-heads-now-ask-questions-later kind of guy.

“That's OK when you're bull ... . ing over a few beers around a barbecue, where you can mouth off without fear or favour and your words aren't thrown back at you on national TV. It's not so cool when you're keen to run a country of 23 million reasonably well-educated people, many of whom would quite like the political discourse to rise above three-syllable slogans.

“With Labor's polls beginning to rise (albeit from a pathetically low base) and Mr Abbott continuing to languish near Ms Gillard in personal approval ratings, you would think party strategists would be single-minded in branding the Opposition boss as The Next Leader of Australia. But Mr Abbott seems incapable of transforming himself from masterful antagonist to credible alternative.

“Which begs the question. Is this man a one-trick Tony?

“Brand strategy group Marketing Focus ran 16 focus groups in four mainland states earlier this month to gauge customer views on the attributes of effective managers.

“They were surprised when talk turned to Australia's political leadership and unflattering perceptions emerged of Ms Gillard as a "turn-off" and Mr Abbott as "an angry, negative primate".

"The women participants were very specific," Marketing Focus chief Barry Urquhart told Radio National this week. "They felt uncomfortable, they felt offside, they didn't warm to him by nature.

"For that reason he's going to have to reach out, be warm, be embracing, be engaging."

“For the record, I'm not buying Labor's increasingly shrill line that Mr Abbott has a problem with women in positions of power - he has a long and strong record of promoting women into leadership. But there's no doubt he has to improve his standing among female voters. Taking a more considered, less opportunistic and bombastic line of attack would go a long way to achieving that. (Or, perhaps, that sounds too much like Malcolm Turnbull?)

“The Age political editor Michelle Grattan summed it up best this week: "If trust is the Prime Minister's stand-out problem, Abbott's is credibility. Put simply, the man exaggerates."

“When he was gleefully "exaggerating" about the carbon tax and the mining tax killing off the Olympic Dam project this week, Mr Abbott did at one stage try to insist that his primary concern was the future of our state. "I want those jobs for South Australia," he said. Really? I don't think so. There was only one job on Mr Abbott's mind when he seized the opportunity to opine on the Olympic Dam demise.

“There's only one job on his mind. The rest of us are just collateral damage.

Another focus group story emerged last week, which ended with the words: “When Tony Abbott’s name is mentioned, people laugh”. What a telling indictment.

Look for the signs of accelerating disintegration of the Abbott machine and the Abbott man in the weeks and months ahead. It probably won’t be explosive; a more gradual process is likely, as too much of the Coalition’s future and News Limited’s campaign to destroy the Gillard Government is tied up in Abbott man’s survival.

The Coalition has no one to replace him; Malcolm Turnbull would be the people’s choice, but his party can’t stomach him. News Limited has invested so much of its reputation in destroying Julia Gillard and replacing her with Tony Abbott, that it is unlikely to call Abbott man out. It will try to wrap him in cotton wool and distract from his disintegration by attacking Julia Gillard as it has done so disgracefully this last week via its ‘Walkley Award winning investigative journalist’ Hedley Thomas, and a host of opinion pieces and editorials, unadvisedly continuing these even over this weekend to justify its reprehensible position.

And there’s more to come. As the polls narrow, how possible will it be to repeal the carbon tax, which would require a Senate majority for the Coalition? How popular will stopping the NBN be among those who want the same as those that have it? How will Abbott man compensate Telstra for continuing to provide and maintain the ageing copper wires required by Fibre-to-the-Node technology, the Coalition’s preferred approach? How will Abbott man find the massive savings to fund his PPL and his other expensive promises? How will Abbott man cope with the increasingly strident connection between him and Campbell Newman being made by commentators and the public as Newman’s decline in popularity continues?

Abbott man and his Abbott machine have had a dream run. Propelled by three word catchy slogans, enhanced by countless stunts – truck driving, banana stacking, and fish kissing – to highlight the ‘catastrophic’ carbon tax ‘wrecking ball’ that will cause ‘unimaginable’ increases in the cost of everything, Abbott man is faced with the inconvenient reality that this has not come about, and the people have noticed. He is left naked, still reciting his negative mantras, scratching around for the odd statement that seems to support his position, and making one up if he can’t, as he did with the BHP Billiton announcement, now being openly challenged by journalists who are sick of his deception and lying, and now looking vulnerable to his own party’s machine men who will be wondering how they can ditch him if the polls fall away for the Coalition. The Abbott machine is shaky, destitute of any positive policies to appeal to the people, still reliant on boring, tired old slogans that are now being seen for what they have always been – hollow, disingenuous, and deceptive.

The Abbott machine is disintegrating, and the Abbott man with it.

What do you think?