The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition

Just look at him in QT and during his pressers. Does he look like a happy and confident man? Is there a spring in his step? Why is his brow so often furrowed? Why does he so seldom smile? Does he look like the next PM in waiting?

Recall the cockiness he exhibited as he swaggered around factories, drove large trucks, operated machinery, stacked bananas at supermarkets, and kissed fish at fishmongers. Reflect on the hubris he showed as the polls rose spectacularly for the Coalition; remember the sly smile that lit up his craggy face after every poll. All gone now!

Something must be wrong. What is it? Is it his demeanour, his attitude, his behaviour, the way he looks, or even the way he walks? Or is it his policy positions on a number of issues? Perhaps it is all of the above.

On policy matters, he persists with his cobra-strike or python-squeeze or octopus-entangled carbon tax scaremongering although the predicted doom refuses to eventuate. At first persuaded that the sky might well fall in, then skeptical as it stayed in place, then jaded with the whole matter, and finally unconvinced in the face of contradictory data that put the lie to the scare campaign, the electorate has moved onto other matters. Because of this, and because his colleagues are uneasy about what now looks like a spectacular fizzer, the Opposition Leader has eased up on this a little. He now asks few questions himself in QT, his front bench is busy running a ‘disappearing surplus’ campaign, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition is promoting a vicious resurrection of the tired old Slater & Gordon matter that has been settled years ago and again recently at PM Gillard’s mammoth press conference. Even the ‘turn back the boats’ mantra is losing its punch. There is nothing else. The grab bag of mantras is empty. And the bag of costed policies is bare. All there is left is a vacuum.

Until recently, it was only writers in the Fifth Estate that were pointing out that the vacuousness of the Leader of the Opposition, his nasty and at times vicious personality, the sexism he repeatedly exhibits, particularly directed towards our first female Prime Minister, and his spiteful behavior in the House and at sundry rallies and press conferences, made him wholly unsuitable to be leader of this nation.

Meanwhile the Fourth Estate continued with the charade that he was a shoo-in as the next PM, and that the real issue was by what vast number of seats he would win and how decimated Labor would be. All the leadership focus in the MSM was on the Gillard/Rudd ‘contest’; there was never a suggestion that the position of Leader of the Opposition was in jeopardy. How quickly things have changed.

On Insiders, a program where scarcely a word has ever been uttered that questioned the security of the position of the Opposition Leader, last Sunday one of the panelists, Mike Seccombe, acerbically summed up his feelings about the Opposition Leader. After an introduction by Barrie Cassidy who referred to the weight Dunaden will carry in the Melbourne Cup, Seccombe said:

”Tony Abbott is a weight for the Liberal Party – he is a handicap for the Party. I think he is being exposed as a man with severe character defects. Frankly, he has been exposed as a man with lack of judgement – the Alan Joneses and Cory Bernardis and people like that.

“And his foot-in-mouth episodes that keep on rolling on and on and on – either showing him to be extremely mean-spirited and bullying on the one hand if he meant it as Mark Riley said, or if he didn’t mean it, he’s a dope who can’t open his mouth without accidentally getting into trouble.”

“So I think Tony Abbott is on the slide; at the moment I don’t see that it’s going to stop – it just goes from bad to worse day by day.”

We had never heard such a condemnation before on that program.

Seccombe, a Fourth Estate journalist, left no doubt about his feelings when he wrote an article in The Global Mail later in the week. Titled The Pack Circles, he begins:

”Tony Abbott is looking a bit beaten down these days. He has been for a little while actually.

“People who watch these things closely – and that means almost everyone in this merciless place – are noticing and reacting.

“In the press gallery, that means lots of speculation over coffee, if not yet so much in print and on air, about who might replace him. Give it a couple more of those dreadful poll results showing souring public perceptions of the opposition leader, and he’ll be in their sights, just as Julia Gillard was a few months back.

“On Abbott’s own side of politics, it means the backbench becoming increasingly unruly in Question Time…On the opposition front bench, it means other senior people are lifting their aggression levels…

“It is the opposition leader’s own behaviour, though, that is the real sign that things have changed. It used to be that he would open the bowling and carry much of the attack in Question Time each day. Not now. This week, Abbott has let the burden of attack be carried by others…Hockey and Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Scott Morrison and the odd backbencher.”

Seccombe then described how Greg Combet had mocked the Leader of the Opposition about all the dire predictions he had made about the carbon tax that had not come about.

He concluded: Combet ”finished his answer with a suggestion that it was about time the opposition got a new leader. He suggested either Hockey or Turnbull and, just for laughs included a possible ‘roughie’, the colourless Kevin Andrews. “Get someone who can tell the truth,” he snarled.”

“Well, there was hubbub. The government benches roared with amusement. The opposition benches roared with outrage.

“But Tony Abbott? He made no interjection. He made no eye contact. He stared fixedly at some papers in his lap.”

Has there been such a disparaging piece in the Fourth Estate? Yet, there has been more.

Last weekend, in News Limited’s The Weekend Australian no less a Coalition sycophant than Peter van Onselen gave the Opposition Leader a significant spray in Is this the turning point. He begins:

”Has the Gillard Labor government turned the corner? The evidence is mounting that Julia Gillard's political fortunes are improving. Whether these improvements morph into political salvation will take time to assess. There could be as long as 12 months to go before the next federal election is called, and the campaign itself can change the political climate significantly if the contest is close enough going in.”

Later he says: ”History therefore dictates that Abbott must find a way to arrest the decline in his party's primary vote, which may require pivoting from his deliberately negative style of campaigning.”

He concludes: ”In 1993 Abbott was press secretary to John Hewson, who lost what came to be dubbed as an unloseable election. If Abbott doesn't win next year's election he, too, will go down in history as having lost such a contest.”

We are yet to see similar warnings from Dennis Shanahan, Paul Kelly, Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt!

But Michelle Grattan is beginning to have doubts. In Headaches for Abbott as tactics falter, she talks about polls, dissension in the ranks, too many tactics, some flawed, and not enough strategy, and ends with characteristic Grattan reassurance: ”Abbott doesn't need to push the panic button, but unless the final polls for the year bring some good news for him, there will be pressure for serious stocktaking over Christmas.”

There is still more from the Fourth Estate. It was in The Courier-Mail that Steven Scott wrote Something in the way he moves - Tony Abbott's swagger is turning off voters

”It's the swagger. That's the reason most frequently given by people in focus groups about why they do not like Tony Abbott.

“To single out the Opposition Leader's rolling gait for criticism may seem superficial or even unfair, but it's what this symbolises for many swinging voters that has Coalition strategists worried.

“To those uncommitted voters whose views are gold to political parties, the cringe factor that comes when they think about Abbott's confident strut is followed swiftly with a series of negative impressions - arrogant, cocky, angry.

“In what is now a clear trend, Labor's support is slowly improving and the Coalition's is falling. Satisfaction ratings for Abbott are on a continual slide.

"Tony has got a perception problem everywhere," one senior Coalition figure says of the impressions voters have of the Opposition Leader. "It's the way he walks sometimes ... the swagger."

“The Opposition is still on track to win the next election, but this is no longer looking as easy a task as it did only months ago. Many in the Coalition camp are starting to fret and a lot of their concern is directed at the man who helped get them into a winning position in the first place - Abbott.

“There is no suggestion that Abbott will face a leadership challenge. Even some of his toughest critics within the party concede leadership talk would cruel the Coalition's chances at the next election.

“But if Abbott's polling does not improve, this position could change.”

It already is. But Scott could not bring himself to write off the Opposition Leader, leaving himself a fall back position: “The Opposition is still on track to win the next election…” and “There is no suggestion that Abbott will face a leadership challenge.” I’m sure that as the momentum against the Opposition Leader builds, we will see more of this ‘backing the horse both ways’.

In a report in ABC News on the debate on the wheat deregulation bill, the previous Speaker, Peter Slipper was quoted. Although few might give much credence to his views, here is what the report said:

”Former parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper has lashed out at Coalition MPs, accusing them of abandoning their free market principles by opposing Labor's wheat deregulation bill.

“Mr Slipper, now an independent MP, voted with the Government, which won the vote 70-67.

“He says deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop and other Opposition MPs are hypocrites because they favour wheat deregulation but are voting the other way to avoid a fight with the Nationals. I suspect many of them will vote with a heavy heart with the Opposition, because there are many people on this side of the house who support the Government's intentions," he said.

"This is all about preserving the flawed and fatal and terminal leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, the Member for Warringah."

"I suppose you have to admire the Deputy Leader of the Opposition because she's supporting her leader - after all, she's supported how many leaders? How many leaders has she been deputy to?

"I find it abhorrent that the deputy Leader of the Opposition is prepared to say it's important to defeat the Government's legislation, but not on any manner of principle."

I’m sure Slipper felt much better after that spray.

On a more serious note, the business community is expressing concern at Coalition policies. Writing in Business Spectator Rob Burgess begins his article Abbott’s now in real fiscal trouble with:

“Comments from the Business Council and Australian Industry Group, published yesterday, look like a major headache for Tony Abbott.”

Burgess goes on to say that both groups, neither of which is a fan of big government, are expressing concern about Labor’s severe spending cuts to achieve a budget surplus. Likewise, they are concerned at the even more extreme cuts proposed by the Coalition.

He continues: ”The BCA and AiG comments put a tiny bit of pressure on the government, and a massive amount of pressure on the coalition, which plans to do away with the carbon tax, mining tax (not that it appears to be worth a cent), maintain lower-income tax cuts and increases in the family tax benefit and pension (which the carbon tax pays for), and instead balance the budget through more extreme expenditure slashing.”

Burgess concludes: ”In short, team-Abbott is going to have to do some rapid rethinking of its plans before an election is called…there is time for the coalition to work out how to massage the revenue side of the federal budget to bring it into balance. Simply slashing public spending no longer looks like an option.”

So it’s not just the Opposition Leader’s behavior that irks, it’s his policies too.

Turning now to the Fifth Estate, writing in a piece: Sweetest of them all: how Julia Gillard won the 2013 election in The Conversation, William Bowe of Poll Bludger fame, says this:

“From the time the carbon tax policy was unveiled in February 2011 until its implementation on July 1, the unchallenged consensus of the Canberra press gallery was that a Tony Abbott prime ministership was simply a matter of time…

“Not for the first time though, the self-confidence of political commentators, together with the utility of mid-term polling as a pointer to outcomes at long range, has been shown to have been greatly exaggerated.”

He went on to describe what seats Labor needed to win in 2103, and how seriously possible that was.

In Abbott’s Doubly Whammy in Archies Archive, the author outlines a series of issues where there is dissension in Liberal ranks over policy issues, one serious one being the wheat deregulation matter mentioned above, where Julie Bishop unsuccessfully assumed the role of enforcer to keep the Liberal Party members together to shore up the Leader’s position.

He concludes: ”Reality is finally seeping into the Federal Liberal Party and it is difficult to see Tony Abbott surviving the swirling storm of dissent which is forming within the Liberal Vacuum Flask.”

In an article Can ‘Dr. No’ become ‘Mr. Yes’? in Open Fire, the author begins:

”As the Australian public continue to tire of ‘Dr. No’ and his parties Pythonesque contradiction of the ALP government, the challenge, with less than twelve months until the election, is can Abbott move from ‘Dr. No,’ telling us daily what he is against – carbon tax, gay people, asylum seekers, carbon tax, any taxes, carbon tax and then the carbon tax, to become ‘Mr. Yes’ and reveal what he and the Liberals stand for?”

Later he says: ”The contemporary image of Tony Abbott, with the ALP applying the brushstrokes, is of a sexist, immoral, bully boy. An image Abbott has done much to assist with over the years. Most recently by using the toxic ‘dying of shame’ phrase while in parliament, only days after…Alan Jones muttered it in yet another display of his inhumanity. For that gaffe there was no escape for Abbott, he was either a cunning, sly asshole looking to hurt Julia Gillard personally or such a buffoon as to not consider the implications of using such a phrase. Whatever the case, he made his bed, or probably his wife did, and he must now lay in it.”

In Here Come The Polls! on New Matilda Ben Eltham says:

“…the party enjoying the big lead gets a boost in positive coverage. Little scrutiny is applied to their various statements. The election result can seem almost pre-ordained.

“This is the position Labor has found itself in for most of 2011 and 2012, as poll after poll showed a government on the ropes. It was particularly marked around coverage of the carbon tax, which the opinion poll data showed was very unpopular. In contrast, Tony Abbott and the Opposition got a fairly easy ride, and plenty of coverage every time they decided to attack the government on carbon.

“But in recent weeks, a ray of light has glinted. A number of recent polls have shown Labor closing the gap. The most recent Newspoll actually had Labor at parity. The latest Nielsen has Labor on 48-52. Any way you look at it, Labor is suddenly competitive again.”

Later Eltham says: Attention now turns to the Liberal Party, with press gallery leader Phil Coorey reporting today that "several Liberal MPs" had told him that "Labor’s recovery was now clearly a trend and Mr Abbott needed to broaden his approach beyond attacking the carbon tax."

A post in Aussiepollies discusses recent poll results and concludes:

“The polls are undoubtedly getting closer, but how close and how real the narrowing of margins is remains unclear. It is still on the naughty side to be talking of leadership change in the Opposition despite results being less assured. What is almost without doubt is the need for a shift in the focus of Coalition strategy.”

Writing in The Opinion Bruce Haigh begins his piece Abbott on the edge:

”David Marr put the cat amongst the pigeons with his Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott.

“Abbott would have us believe that he has changed since his days at university, when by Marr’s account he was an insufferable bully and misogynist, a word much used in relation to Abbott, particularly these days. In my experience people change little in essence from the time at their alma mater to middle age, particularly politicians. They might develop a façade of gravitas, but even that has escaped Abbott. Beazley, Dawkins and McMullan changed little over the years from when I knew them at the University of Western Australia to the end of their political careers, except perhaps Beazley who honed the depth and breadth of his bombast.

“Chances are that Abbott has also changed very little. Anger is a by-product of his ruthless, ‘whatever it takes’, ambition. Wed this to his conservative Christian beliefs and he becomes a crusader, using religion as a shield from criticism and to mask his real persona, or so he thinks. He is not trusted and he is not liked, particularly by women, but also by a lot of men who distrust his superficiality.”

Let’s finish with a little delectable humour from Mike Seccombe writing in The Global Mail in an article: Bringing the house down. Having prefaced his story with reference to the great rhetorical turns of Paul Keating, he recounted Greg Combet’s ripostes this week in QT:

On Wednesday Combet riffed on the carbon tax price effect on staples like milk and cereal. On Thursday he chose as his subject the effect of the tax on Australia’s spring racing carnival.

“Having noted that Abbott had predicted the carbon tax was a threat to “the whole Australian way of life”, Combet hastened to assure racing fans that there was no cause for alarm.

“Treasury modelling showed the carbon price impact on sport and recreation will be only 0.3 per cent, or around 20 cents a week,” he said.

“Fashion at Flemington [the style slice of Melbourne’s track], it’s going to be okay because last week’s CPI [consumer price index, the measure of inflation] showed women’s clothing… the prices actually fell by 0.2 per cent in the September quarter.”

“What people who cared about racing needed to understand, he continued, was that Abbott’s scare campaign on the tax was ‘the biggest shakedown’ since the Fine Cotton affair in 1984.

“And the ring in that day was called Bold Personality… and that’s all we’ve had.”

“It was time for the ‘Liberal Party stewards’ to intervene and consider a substitution, he suggested, and offered a form guide of alternative Liberal leaders.

“One time leader of the Opposition, Goldman Sachs man and renowned barrister Malcolm Turnbull? A classy thoroughbred if ever there’s been one. He was badly checked by the Member for Warringah [Abbott, who deposed him] in the 2009 race.”

“Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey – who was absent, having just been chucked out for interjecting? He’s hungry for a win but he’s demonstrated yet again today that he’s not up to Group One racing level.”

“What about deputy leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop? Three times runner up. Surely a chance at last.”

“And Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison had promise but for the fact that he was spooked by foreign horses.

“It was a good riff. Not quite Keating perhaps, but it had the same effect: even the Opposition benches laughed, Malcolm Turnbull appearing particularly amused.

“Not as amused as Julia Gillard, though. One gets the feeling she is looking forward to further mirth at the expense of the Carbon Tax scare campaign.”

Photo courtesy of Mike Bowers and The Global Mail

When a man becomes an object of ridicule, the end must be nigh!

Need I say any more? The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition continues apace. It shows. More and more are noticing.

The Leader of the Opposition, Anthony John “Tony” Abbott.
Photo courtesy of Mike Bowers and The Global Mail

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