The Abbott ‘family’ rush to prop up its errant child prodigy

It began right after Tony Abbott was unexpectedly elevated to the lofty position of Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. There was only one vote in it, but there he was, where he had long fantasized he might be, in line to be the nation’s next Prime Minister. His hurriedly called press conference was a mix of surprise and high expectations, albeit tempered a little by the reality of being pitted against a once very popular PM in Kevin Rudd. Just one sentence was memorable: “If I win the next election I will be considered a genius; if not, I will be road kill.” How prescient. Yet that sentence gave hope to a languishing Coalition torn by the trauma of ejecting one leader, then selecting one that was not planned to be the leader at all. It was supposed to be Joe Hockey, but having messed up his campaign with equivocation about his support for an ETS, he was surprisingly eliminated at the first ballot, leaving just Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott to slug it out.

The prospect of a genius wresting power from the Labor usurpers was appealing. After all, John Howard’s Coalition should never have lost to upstart Rudd and his Labor Party. The Coalition, as the natural party of government, one that had been so for over eleven long years, should have continued. Having been robbed of victory, and the Prime Minister having lost his seat to a journalist, redress was needed, and as soon as possible.

The earnest Brendan Nelson never had a hope against the determined and resourceful Malcolm Turnbull, who quickly edged him out. But despite showing high promise, Turnbull’s reputation was badly dented by the Grech affair, and even more dangerously so within his own party by his support for a modified Rudd ETS. The hard right conservatives and climate skeptics/deniers, led by Nick Minchin, cooked up a plot to replace Turnbull with Hockey, but when that backfired there was the astonished Tony Abbott facing the media.

At that time, Abbott scarcely had a family at all, that is a political family. Having messed up badly during the 2007 election, he had few followers. But what his party knew, and many in the Fifth Estate could see, was that this man was a pugilist from his university days and that this was an attribute he would bring to leadership, having already had plenty of practice as John Howard’s attack dog. It was not long before we saw his pugilism in savage action.

Always a prizefighter, he settled on a strategy based on short unforgettable slogans, jabbing endlessly at Labor’s soft spots. The carbon tax, boat arrivals, and debt and deficit were all simple targets, with easy to remember, easy to create three word slogans that could be repeated ad nauseam no matter what the occasion.

The public, disengaged at that time from serious political discourse, readily cottoned onto these slogans and were soon repeating them over a beer or a latte, or at the water cooler. It was an easy strategy, and as polls steadily moved in favour of the Coalition, was seen by journalists as a ‘clever’ and successful one. Soon the notion of ‘Abbott as genius’ captured the imagination of the Canberra Press Gallery, always excited by the prospect of a fight, especially where the underdog showed a good prospect of winning. Traditionally inclined towards the conservative side of politics, and becoming disenchanted with PM Rudd and his Government, many in the MSM joined the ‘Abbott family’, and verbalized their support through their columns. ‘Genius’ Abbott, now showing ‘child prodigy’ attributes, could do no wrong. He, and his strategy, was soon categorized as ‘brilliant’, and he was already being dubbed ‘the most successful Leader of the Opposition in Australian political history’.

Then came the abrupt removal of Kevin Rudd, and his replacement with Julia Gillard. This traumatic event, and Laurie Oakes’ revelation in the 2010 election campaign of the behind the scenes plotting that seemed to some to implicate Julia Gillard, turned the public away from Labor. As the polls moved more and more to the Coalition until the two parties were level, the Abbott genius was amplified, and soon pollsters were predicting a ‘hung parliament’, which turned out to be the case.

Then came the agonizing seventeen days of negotiation with the Independents and Greens, in the end clearly won by Julia Gillard, and lost by Tony Abbott whom we now know would have done anything, anything at all to get the prize. The Independents judged him to be less suitable than Julia Gillard to be the PM. He lost, and as Anthony Albanese has often said, subjected us to ‘the longest dummy-spit in Australian political history’. He was a sore loser during university days, and still was.

Because PM Gillard was landed with a minority Government, Abbott saw her as vulnerable and illegitimate, and set about to destroy her and her Government just like he had done with his opponents in the boxing ring at Oxford. He threw everything at her, believing he would soon knock her and her Government to the canvas, bloodied and beaten, and that a new bout would be ordered which he would win in the first round. He sharpened his slogans. It was now a ‘toxic tax’ that would create economic havoc and devastate whole industries and towns; it became ‘a tax built on a lie’, and some of his distant political family organized carbon tax rallies that sported ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ placards in front of which Abbott and his shadow ministers stood.

As his flurry of wild punches hit the mark, Julia Gillard’s ratings plummeted, and Labor’s stocks steadily fell as the Coalition’s rose. Soon the Coalition was so far ahead in the polls that the Canberra Press Gallery was confidently predicting a landslide to the Coalition at the next election, the reduction of Labor to ‘a rump’, and a decade for it to recover. The Abbott family grew as more and more journalists joined the congratulatory throng. Abbott truly was a genius, more successful than any previous Opposition Leader. It was just a matter of time before he knocked PM Gillard out and forced another bout, which he would win without working up a sweat. The Press Gallery was enthusiastic.

Although Abbott had laughed when she said: “bring it on”, PM Gillard would “not lie down and die”. No matter what Abbott and the MSM threw at her, she kept coming back, feinting, throwing more and more effective punches, and accumulating points with each piece of reforming legislation passed.

Although he may have had his moments of doubt, his ever-supportive extended ‘family’ treated him as the child prodigy they felt sure he was. His brilliance was never doubted. They tolerated, even applauded his belligerence; after all, opposing was the job of an opposition! They ignored, even excused, his lack of policy and costings. They good-humouredly accepted his appearances at sundry businesses with fluoro vest and hard hat, and had no complaint about his predilection for soft interviews, his poor performance in probing ones, and his penchant for walking away when questioning at doorstops got tough. All the defects so obvious to others were overlooked or discounted by the growing political Abbott family. Tony could do no wrong.

They wrote PM Gillard off and reveled in the thought of a massive Abbott victory. They used the polls of voting intention to support their predictions, always believing an election was imminent. But PM Gillard refused to drop. She was at times bloodied, but her seconds got her up as each new round began. One year went by, then another. Journalist after journalist wrote about the ‘inevitable’ Rudd challenge, citing date after date by which it was likely to happen, but when it was finally arranged, PM Gillard was the clear victor, and although Rudd’s supporters still make intermittent subterranean noises, nothing seems likely to now bring about any change.

The Abbott man began to tire, and the Abbott machine began to run down. Throwing the same old punches, punches that missed their mark or made no lasting impact, Abbott and his family became disheartened. They had placed so much store in their prodigy, but now he was flagging before their very eyes, and before the eyes of the electorate too. His popularity slid in poll after poll, but the Coalition vote held up well, reassuring the family that although Tony was tiring, the Coalition would win easily ‘if an election was held today’. But of course it wasn’t being held today or tomorrow, and now not until next year.

Then the boy genius began to make mistakes. When his past caught up with him via David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, he mucked up his response to Marr’s revelations. His behaviour towards women became a talking point. Alan Jones joined the fray telling a Young Liberals’ audience that Julia Gillard’s father had died of shame because of his daughter’s lies. Revulsion at this outrage was widespread, but Abbott was slow to respond, slow to condemn, and to add insult to injury, he repeated the ‘died of shame’ phrase in parliament, leading to the most excoriating dressing down of an Opposition Leader by a Prime Minister ever witnessed in the House, made all the worse by the sexist overtones that showed Abbott up in such a poor light. Labor women, and women all over the country applauded, gratified that at last someone in authority had stood up for them against the sexist discrimination they had all endured. The speech went viral around the world. The child prodigy looked mean and nasty, and all the worse for him, diminished in the eyes of the electorate, women and men alike.

Family members rallied behind their boy, quibbling about the use, or as they saw it, the misuse of the word ‘misogyny’. Half brother Greg Sheridan wrote an indignant article; this was not the Tony he knew, and he had known him from university days. Margie Abbott went public about her Tony. We were told he was not a misogynist; he loved his wife and daughters. As if we ever doubted that! Abbott’s political sisters, Julie and Sophie, and his political brother Christopher, came out singing in unison that the Tony they knew was a nice man, not sexist, and certainly not a misogynist.

Brothers in the MSM wrote articles in defence. With Tony so assured of an easy victory, no matter when the next election was held, surely he couldn’t be so easily sidetracked by his past. His gauche reaction to Marr’s revelations and his handling of Jones’ ‘died of shame’ remark made matters worse. His ‘family’ began to see certainty eroding, and when Newspoll twice had the parties level pegging, mild panic began. Surely the child prodigy couldn’t mess up now.

Cousin Peter van O began to doubt, and said as much in an article: Is this the turning point. He asked: ”Has the Gillard Labor government turned the corner?” Having conceded that it could be as long as 12 months before the next federal election is called, he opined 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” and then expressed the unthinkable thought that, like his previous boss John Hewson who lost an ‘unloseable election’, Abbott might do likewise.

Even grandmother Michelle began to have doubts about her favourite grandson. In Headaches for Abbott as tactics falter, she ruminated about the polls, dissension in Coalition ranks, flawed tactics and not enough strategy, but not wanting to upset dear Tony too much she gave him a gentle reassuring pat: ”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.”

By the weekend though, she felt she might have gone too far, so penned a ‘can-you-believe-she-actually-wrote-this’ puff piece: Tony, lighten up for the battle ahead:

“Dear Tony,
Suddenly you have become THE talking point among the chattering commentators. We're all running round quizzing nervous Liberals about what's going wrong and what you must do about it. So, a few thoughts.

“If we mark your performance as Opposition Leader, you get distinctions for the early grades. You helped bring down Kevin Rudd, put big holes in Julia Gillard. But, unfortunately for you, Tony, you're enrolled in a continuous assessment course. There's a big exam at the end, but if you start to bomb out in the monthly assignments, there could be unpleasant surprises later.”
If Tony hadn’t already realized that this was not a short-run course, there is little hope for him. But grandmothers do sometimes state the bleeding obvious!

She wasn’t finished: ”So, you need to get those grades up, Tony - by which we mean your performance and your personal ratings. Look in the mirror - now. Why do 58 per cent disapprove of how you are doing your job?”

Like all adoring grannies, she swallowed whole her boy’s lofty, but platitudinous rhetoric during a recent economics address: ”On Friday you said you had outlined ‘plans for a stronger economy, stronger communities, a cleaner environment, stronger borders and modern infrastructure''', but, taking her courage in both hands, warned: ”Unfortunately you don't look like a guy with a plan, let alone a dream; your image is of a bloke with a pickaxe.”

Not done, Granny Michelle gives some good health advice: ”Tired mind, tired body. Cut back on the exercise a tad. Say no to some of those fund-raisers. It's been a long march and the heavy ground lies ahead”, finishing with: ”And a small postscript. Could you smooth, albeit only a tiny bit, what Barnaby calls that ''square-gaited'' walk that makes you look slightly menacing? A step too far?”

If you think I’m making this up, do read the whole article here. Is this satire? Is she having us on? I suspect this really is granny advice. Oh dear!

Even Aunty Samantha has a go in the Herald Sun in her piece: Time Tony Abbott had a good lie down. It begins: Tony Abbott celebrates his 55th birthday today. The Lodge for his 56th is probably top of the Liberal leader's wish list. But to get there, some of his mates reckon the best present for him would be to crawl back under the covers and go back to sleep. Poor Tony’s tired after a year of wildly swinging punches that mostly now miss their mark.

Malcolm Farr writes an incomprehensible piece linked somehow to the Spring Racing Carnival: On the track Tony Abbott’s odds shorten. Searching for meaning, I came across this: “Tony Abbott is no John Howard. Voters are not yet sure what he stands for, and he doesn’t have much time left to tell them. This doesn’t mean an Abbott-led Coalition would not win the next election. There could be issues and incidents over the coming12 months which wreck his bid for national leadership, but at the moment they are not obvious.

“The notion that the ALP is hauling back its primary vote to the point of making the next election a close contest is fanciful. Forget Newspoll’s 50/50 two-party preferred split.”

Coming from wise old Uncle Malcolm, I guess that will reassure poor Tony. He was supposed to be rejuvenated by a day at the races, but dwarfed as he was by his daughters in their mega stiletto heels, he did look so tiny. Never mind Tony, Uncle Malcolm is backing you still.

Writing in Business Spectator last week in Abbott’s now in real fiscal trouble, Rob Burgess asserted threateningly: “Comments from the Business Council and Australian Industry Group, published yesterday, look like a major headache for Tony Abbott.”, but in the same paper yesterday, Alister Drysdale, former senior adviser to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett writes in: Abbott's changing the sermon: ”A new Tony Abbott is emerging as the Gillard government regains electorate approval. Direct attacks are losing their impact and if the Coalition is to defeat Labor then considered policy debate must be its new weapon.”

Drysdale goes on: “There are tentative signs that Abbott is subtly changing. The smear aimed at Gillard over her long gone days at Slater and Gordon is now coming from the flaying female deputy, not from him. He’s less agitated and aggressive and involved in Question Time fracas – a small but notable change in political management. He’s attempting to come to grips with quiet speeches on issues of productivity and economic management.” Uncle Alister is relieved.

Later he writes: ”In the months to come, Gillard could still be easily tripped. The ALP could keep yabbering on about themselves…the forecast Budget surplus could melt away – a political disaster". But he offers Tony a word of caution: ”Then too, the polls could keep tightening and buoy the government’s political mission. They could even act as a catalyst for boldness in public policy.” Should the latter come about though, his advice for nephew Tony is simple – be bold!

This extraordinary bout of revisionism has been confined to the Fourth Estate where most of the Abbott ‘family’ dwells; the Fifth Estate remains resolutely of the view that the Leader of the Opposition is disintegrating inexorably.

Uncle Andrew tweeted yesterday morning that things were not as bad for Abbott as they might seem, but so far we have not heard from Uncle Dennis and Uncle Paul. No doubt they will become a second phalanx of reassurance for nephew Tony that all is not lost as he approaches the end-of-year recess. He needs a break, he needs to give his tired brain a rest along with his aching arms, he needs to get his mojo back, and if he does this, their child prodigy must surely win the prize he so richly deserves, one so cruelly denied him in 2010, one they all covet – Prime Ministership and all the clout and influence that goes with it, so important for any close knit, power-hungry 'family'.

Their child prodigy, now exposed as errant, needs all the propping up he can get, and his extended 'family' is already giving it to him in spades.

What do you think?