Abbott’s atrophy

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Monday, 26 March 2012 18:57 by Ad astra
Supporters of Tony Abbott will not enjoy this piece. They will likely read only part of it, and rejecting its proposition, will go elsewhere where writers say nice thinks about the man who wants to be the next leader of this nation, the man who insists he will be the ‘next elected Prime Minister’, the man who may succeed at the next election unless the electorate wakes up to his shallowness and the darkness of his nature.

This piece proposes that Tony Abbott is on the decline, and that this will accelerate.

Those who support him will point to his success in restoring the electoral fortunes of the Coalition to a position where it could easily win the next election if this position continued. This seems the basis for the continuing support he enjoys from his colleagues, support that might be found wanting if they judged him on anything other than the polls. Even there though, they are aware that despite the strong TPP position, Abbott is unpopular with the voters and unable to gain a sustainable lead over Julia Gillard in the PPM stakes. Take away the strong lead of the Coalition in the TPP stakes, and ask where would Abbott be.

Why use the term ‘atrophy’ to describe Abbott’s status? Its biological meaning is ‘a wasting away of the body or of an organ or part’. A generic meaning of the term is ‘degeneration, decline, or decrease, as from disuse’. It’s the latter meaning that applies here.

I am not referring to his thinning hair or his advancing gauntness, or his increasingly swaggering gait and raucous laugh. It is his degenerating behaviour, his decline in political stature that is the focus here. Of course, his ardent supporters will deny this is so, and take the view that those who see this are simply biased and deluded.

At the press conference after his surprise election to Coalition leader by one vote over Malcolm Turnbull, he said that if he succeeded in restoring the Coalition to power he would be considered a ‘genius’, but if he failed he would be seen as ‘road-kill’. Even then he realized what a challenge had been placed before him, and equally that he might not succeed.

What motivates this man to do what he does?

Writing in Crikey about Abbott’s remarks on the death of Margaret Whitlam in Abbott’s humour less than killer, but does he lack compassion?, David Ritter, academic, commentator and campaigner, says: “It is deeply disappointing…that opposition leader Tony Abbott saw fit to mark [Margaret] Whitlam’s death with a cheap shot on her husband’s political legacy. Tastelessly, he said: “There was a lot wrong with the Whitlam government but nevertheless, it was a very significant episode in our history and Margaret Whitlam was a very significant element in the political success of Gough Whitlam.”

Writing a pen picture in The Monthly, playwright Louis Nowra referred to Abbott’s time as a boxer during his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford: “Whenever Abbott entered the ring he was, as he once said, ‘terrified’. ‘It’s one of those things you make yourself do’. In his first bout – against Cambridge in March 1982 – he knocked out his opponent within the opening minute, and his three other fights were equally successful. He had little technique but a brutal sense of attack, which he called ‘the whirling dervisher’.” Is fear the motivating influence in Abbott’s political life? Another anecdote from his boxing days is that he relished flattening his opponent to the canvass. Nothing seems to have changed. His brutal sense of attack remains. But is fear his bête noire, his Achilles heel?

Ten days after his election as Opposition Leader, writing on The Political Sword in The pugilistic politician I drew attention to this characteristic and predicted an ‘unremittingly ugly period’ ahead. That prediction was accurate.

To those who support Tony Abbott and his quest for Prime Ministership, I ask some pertinent questions.

Do you want a Prime Minister who seems incapable of showing sensitivity at times of death and bereavement, one who uses such occasions to make political points, no matter how inappropriately? He has form in this regard. Not long ago he refused parliamentary pairs to Simon Crean and Malcolm Turnbull that prevented them from attending the funeral of their friend, painter Margaret Olley. Remember his comments to asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton just prior to his death, his disparaging remarks about Kevin Rudd’s account of his father’s death, and his ‘shit happens’ remark in Afghanistan after the death of a soldier there? Any one remark in isolation might reasonably be overlooked as an unfortunate slip of the tongue, but his repeated insensitivities point to a flawed character, one that seems resistant to correction.

It was instructional to hear the comments on Q&A last week about this latest error of judgment. While there was universal condemnation of his remarks about the death of Mrs Whitlam, the judgement of one panel member was: ‘Tony can’t seem to help himself’, almost as if that excused him. A recurrent theme is: ‘That’s just Tony!’, or “We all know Tony!’, the Jesuit trained Tony who seems to rely on confession of sins, forgiveness and absolution to wipe his slate clean of misdemeanors. Louis Nowra concludes his cataloguing of Abbott’s insensitivities surrounding death: “As one observes Abbott’s various distasteful remarks about death, one can only wonder whether the Opposition Leader is again terrified, driven by some visceral internal fear. If so, he deserves compassion.” Nowra seems to let Abbott off the hook – after all it’s just the way Tony is – driven by ‘visceral fear’.

Referring to Abbott’s obligation to comment on Margaret Whitlam’s death, Andrew Elder said on Politically Homeless: “It's clear he doesn't want to do it but he can't get over himself enough to throw himself into the task. He manifestly doesn't care that people are mourning her loss, and cares even less about her patronage of the arts…Taking a swipe at Gough Whitlam and his government on the way through may have been minor, but it reveals a character fundamentally too weak to become Prime Minister.”

Is this the PM you Abbott supporters want? Driven by fear into insensitive outbursts, and when the occasion beckons, paroxysms of personal invective? Would this PM make you proud? Would he be different when he had the keys to The Lodge? Or would this entrenched behaviour continue? To borrow from Abbott’s own phraseology, he seems to be ‘an insensitive, nasty leader, getting worse’. Has Abbott’s decline become irreversible? Has his atrophy reached the point of no return?

That Abbott’s aggressive behaviour is a product of his ‘visceral fear’ is a plausible hypothesis. We know that, like most politicians, he desperately wants to win, and even more so hates to lose, especially to the woman who is now the PM, a position he believes she occupies illegitimately. He has never overcome the anger and frustration he felt when Julia Gillard won the negotiating battle with the Independents to form minority government, and since that day in September 2011 has used every device at his disposal to bring down her Government. His anger at losing an election is not new; it goes back to his student days at university when he kicked in a door after a narrow loss.

Every day in parliament anger seemingly propels him to the belligerence we see from him in Question Time, which he interrupts time and again with ‘motions to suspend standing and sessional orders’ in order to berate the PM and her Government in most vitriolic terms. On the last day of sitting last week, he moved his fiftieth of such motions, no doubt determined to reach his half-century, and perhaps ‘a ton’ before the next election. In this one, again about the carbon tax, he accused the PM of having a new form of clinical disorder – truth deficit disorder – and ended his tirade with yet another insensitive remark, this time about Julia Gillard and Anthony Albanese having targets on their foreheads, a remark that even he acknowledged was tactless, one he needed to withdraw.

According to Government calculations, by virtue of his motions to suspend standing orders, the House of Representatives has foregone twenty-seven hours of Question Time and the opportunity to ask well over two hundred questions, questions he and his Opposition could have asked about significant policy issues. Instead, Abbott has chosen to waste the time of the House with motions to suspend standing orders, none of which have ever succeeded, simply to castigate the PM and the Government, and of course to provide a grab for the evening TV news – his daily picfac. The carbon tax and the minerals tax have featured strongly as subjects, but recently he attacked our PM about what he described as ‘a reign of terror on the streets of Sydney’, a reference to the discovery by the AFP and local police of a cache of handguns that were being smuggled into the country. ‘You can’t stop the boats and you can’t stop the guns’ was his fevered catch-cry. He attacks anything, but it is the style of his attack that alarms.

Take a look at him when he launches his tirade. Look at his eyes, at his body language. Half close your eyes and you may see the pugilist exercising his boxing gloves, clad in red budgie-smugglers, eyes narrowed with fear, jumping out from the blue corner with arms flailing, rushing his opponent, only to find she has neatly stepped out of the ring, leaving him shouting ‘coward’! Note how venomously he uses his favourite words of derision: ‘This Prime Minister’. Note how he berates her, accuses her of being a liar, an incompetent, heading a directionless government, incapable of governing – leading ‘a bad government getting worse’. No matter what the subject, he goes through the same routine, mounts the same derogatory assault. Note how his attacks are steadily becoming more ferocious. Does his ranting remind you of an infamous figure from the thirties? Is it fear that motivates these persistent attacks? Fear that unless he continues his attacks, he will be seen as losing his mojo? Yet when you look at him as he addresses almost empty Government benches, glance over his shoulder at his front bench and his back-benchers. You will not see smiles of delight or smirks of satisfaction. All you will see is bland indifference, resignation to the requirement that they sit through Abbott’s rant until its inevitable conclusion, defeat at a division.

Do those of you who support the Coalition want this man as your PM? Would you be able to point to him with pride? Is he capable of elevating his behaviour, or are we stuck with his steadily degenerating conduct, his progressive atrophy?

If we look away for a moment from his personal behavior, and examine his performance on the policy front, the picture is no brighter. What are his policies? We know of one, his Rolls Royce PPL, which he is determined to push through despite resistance from some of his Coalition colleagues; presumably it is meant to burnish the dull, and at times misogynist image he portrays. We know of his expensive and likely ineffective Direct Action Plan to combat carbon pollution. But that is the end of the policy road. We know though what he opposes, with his now familiar no, no, no, no, and no. He opposes the ‘toxic’ carbon tax and the minerals tax that will ‘kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs’, taxes he has given a ‘blood oath’ to repeal. But how come he opposes a reduction in company tax, this the leader of a party that boasts that taxes will always be lower under a Coalition government? How come he opposes recently introduced policy designed to improve trucking safety, and thereby the safety of other road users?

His propensity to oppose seems to have reached malignant proportions, metastasizing to almost every policy. From his book Battlelines we learn that he follows Randolph Churchill’s dictum for oppositions: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out”. His colleagues endorse the notion of opposition, but perhaps not to the extent he does, and at times despair at his opposition even to measures that embrace traditional Liberal principles.

Coalition politicians and many commentators subscribe to Randolph Churchill’s dictum, but is it right? Do oppositions have no responsibility for the governance? They are elected by the people and paid for by the taxpayer. Of course, they are entitled to oppose policy they believe is bad, and suggest amendments to what they see as faulty legislation, but have they no obligation to contribute to policy that is in the national interest? From Abbott’s actions, day after day, it seems he has no intention of contributing to the government of this nation until he gets into The Lodge. Until then, he is determined to oppose everything and make it as difficult as possible for the elected government to actually govern, something it has done in spite of him with remarkable success - over 300 pieces of legislation passed so far - to his enduring vexation and anger.

His opposition is getting worse. His behavior is deteriorating. His inadequacies are exposed. His anger is escalating. His fear is rising. The atrophy advances.

This piece proposes that Tony Abbott, the would-be next PM of this nation, is in a state of decline. He looks and sounds more desperate by the day. Fearing that his attacks are not blunting Julia Gillard’s governance, not diminishing her efficacy, not stopping her in her tracks, not preventing the passage of piece after piece of legislation, he sees no option other than to intensify his attacks. As he does, not only does his record of success decline even further, his behaviour deteriorates also, to the lamentable level he now displays. Every time his venom is displayed, he is diminished in the eyes of much of the public; every time he fails, the despair of his colleagues increases.

He lives on a knife-edge of popularity with Coalition members and supporters, who would cut him loose should the polls turn towards Labor. He must live in fear of this, as he has almost nothing to offer in policy innovation or excitement, nothing that would appeal to the electorate as an attractive alternative, no rational economic policy, no budget costings that add up. He has nothing to offer but unremitting negativity and the promise of wrecking virtually every policy advance the Gillard Government has made.

To boot, Abbott has an incompetent and dilatory frontbench that he is fearful of reshuffling lest he evoke an angry backlash. As Andrew Elder says in his discussion of Alistair Drysdale’s acerbic comments last week on a possible Coalition reshuffle: ”Had the media treated Abbott in the same way that they treat the Prime Minister, he would have been peppered at every one of his picfacs over the past week about these [Drysdale] comments, with commentary about how weak Abbott is within his party's organization…”

Only a largely sycophantic media that refuse to really challenge him and call him out enable Abbott to keep afloat, his head just above the water.

We are seeing the atrophy of Tony Abbott before our very eyes. Worse is still to come.

What do you think?