The quickening disintegration of Tony Abbott

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Sunday, 4 August 2013 18:19 by Ad astra
It shows in his face. Taut, tense, worried, he looks like a man under great pressure when he fronts for impromptu pressers. His sycophants, seldom smiling, occasionally furtively smirking, nod behind him in unspoken approval. He often has Margie at hand to prop him up. He speaks haltingly, his gravelly voice grinding out his ‘message for the day’ dutifully learned at the morning briefing from his minders.

He was not looking good when I wrote The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition in November 2012. Nine long months later, his disintegration is noticeably worse.

Reasons abound for his decline. In the latter months of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership with poll after poll running persistently and decisively against her, his confidence of an electoral triumph on September 14 was running sky high. Then, on June 20, what he had been plumping for since 2010 occurred abruptly – the political demise of his bête noir Julia Gillard. He must have thought about this possibility, but when it arrived at the eleventh parliamentary hour, out of what he thought was a clear run to the election, he seemed surprised, looked flat-footed, and reacted lamely. It had all looked so easy, but suddenly he was facing a resurgent Kevin Rudd, who obviously had been planning his prime ministerial resurrection for many months, planning how to counter this slogan-driven man.

All Tony Abbott’s plans for countering Julia Gillard had to be discarded and new ones to counter Kevin Rudd rapidly developed. Predictably, he flicked the switch to extreme negative, talked about Rudd being a dud, brought out from storage the nasty comments Rudd’s colleagues had made about him eighteen months before, and ran some ‘lemon’ ads along these lines. But their frequency soon dropped as Rudd’s reappearance evoked an enthusiastic reaction from the electorate. Many out there felt he had been very badly treated when he was rejected and replaced in 2010, and derived satisfaction at his dramatic renaissance. For many voters ‘revenge was sweet’; they revelled in Rudd’s rebirth. Abbott was caught open-mouthed.

Clearly, Rudd had been developing his strategy for ages. He saw that neutralizing key planks in Abbott’s election platform was crucial.

His first move was to defuse the ‘carbon tax’ charade. Although Abbott and the sycophantic Greg Hunt mindlessly continued with their ‘carbon tax is ruining the economy’ mantra, all the evidence of the last twelve months made that catchphrase unsustainable. Whyalla continued to prosper, the small increases in electricity costs resulting from the tax were exactly as predicted, and the cost of lamb roasts failed to soar to $100. Well-compensated consumers ceased complaining. Talk of ‘the ever rising cost of living’ by Abbott, Joe Hockey and the Fourth Estate was soon seen by objective observers as empty hype.

A problem that never was had lost its illusory magic for the Coalition, but its minders persisted in pumping out the same tired old carbon tax rhetoric. When Rudd declared that Labor would bring forward by one year the transition from a price on carbon to an emissions trading scheme linked to the market in Europe and elsewhere, the Coalition’s carbon tax scaremongering was effectively buried. Rudd pointed out that he had thereby effectively ‘terminated’ the carbon tax, leaving Abbott’s longstanding threat to ‘axe the tax’ an empty gesture. Abbott could not terminate it any quicker.

Abbott’s reaction was to insist that an ETS was still a tax and that Rudd was using sleight of hand. He lamely told a Launceston audience that "He's changed its name, but he hasn't abolished the tax. He's not the terminator, he's the exaggerator. He’s not the terminator, he’s the fabricator”. He continued with his line that business would still be heavily burdened, although with the price of CO2 on the European market being less than the existing fixed price, the burden would actually lessen. Abbott’s carbon tax weapon buckled - a flimsy plastic sword attempting to pierce tough armour.

Although people stopped listening to his weary predictions of carbon tax doom, it took many days before his minders advised him to ease up on what was now a spent campaign of fear mongering. He still occasionally utters carbon tax hyperbole, but without conviction. His intention that the next election be a ‘referendum on the carbon tax’ quietly evaporated, leaving him dismayed, stammering and deflated. The Abbott disintegration gathered pace. He was like a boy whose most treasured marble had been smashed by his opponent’s prize tombola.

Anticipating an adverse ICAC finding about ex-Labor ministers Eddie Obeib and Ian Macdonald, Rudd announced a reorganization of the NSW Labor Party and a new mechanism for replacing a Labor PM. Knowing that he would have to wear the ignominy of that corruption inquiry, Rudd attempted to blunt it. Abbott was soon out trying to implicate Rudd and Federal Labor. ”Labor is rotten to the core” he insisted. How much that affair will be in the mind of NSW voters at election time is unknowable; Nathan Rees estimates it will reduce Labor’s primary vote there by 2 to 3%. How much can Abbott damage Labor over and above the damage already done? Rudd was proactive, leaving Abbott to react, but to what effect?

Next Rudd sought to deactivate the asylum seeker issue, one that has bedeviled Labor ever since he removed elements of Howard’s Pacific Solution in 2008. The issue was causing such angst among some voters, most noticeably in Western Sydney, that it needed to be defused. Curiously though, a recent Essential Report revealed that it was well down the list of voters’ most important issues in deciding how to vote. But as it was going to be a source of adverse publicity every time another boat arrived, it needed to be neutralized, and Abbott’s ‘turn the boats around’ strategy nullified.

Rudd met with Indonesian President Yudhoyono, who in a joint communiqué with Rudd made it clear that Indonesia did not approve of any unilateral action by Australia, which turning boats around would have been. Rudd pointedly drew that to the Coalition's attention. Abbott, Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop tried to counter by suggesting that they had some sort of understanding with Indonesia about the turn back policy, only to have that rebutted by Indonesian officials. Desultory talk of the boats being ‘Indonesian boats, Indonesian flagged, boarded in Indonesian ports, and crewed by Indonesians’, which was code for ‘these are your boats, you can have them back’, was not well received. All this exposed Coalition disrespect towards Indonesia, an aggressive, hairy-chested, Howardesque ‘we will decide who comes here’ approach, and a neo-colonial attitude. It reflected Abbott’s lack of diplomatic skills, his aggression, and the disarray of his plans to counter boat arrivals.

Next, after a meeting in Brisbane with the PM of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, Kevin Rudd announced jointly with him an arrangement for PNG to permanently resettle those arriving by boat without a visa. The message to asylum seekers and people traffickers was strident: "Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee".

At first Abbott seemed impressed enough to not instantly oppose the PNG plan, no doubt thinking it could serve him well. Predictably though, he could not resist the temptation to knock the idea, and Rudd, the originator. Soon he was telling anyone who would listen that Rudd was all talk and no action, that while he was great at making announcements he was hopeless at implementation, that the PNG plan would likely fail, and that the boats would continue. Abbott and Bishop unwisely said that Rudd was handing O’Neill a blank aid cheque, (which of course the Coalition would never do), and that O’Neill had boasted to them that he now had full control of Australia’s aid budget to PNG. A stern rebuttal by O’Neill left Abbott and Bishop floundering and wary of exacerbating their diplomatic blunder. Losing his nerve in an aspect of national leadership in which he has had no experience, Abbott looked flummoxed; Bishop bravely tried to parry it away.

So far two planeloads of single men are already on Manus Island, and the boat arrivals have slowed. If the boat arrivals are halted, if the people smugglers accept that their ‘product’ – residence in Australia – is no longer saleable, Rudd will be able to say: ‘Labor’s PNG plan has stopped the boats’, which would leave Admiral Abbott slopping about in his own boat, well and truly up the creek without a paddle. Time will tell how well Rudd’s PNG plan neutralizes Abbott’s ‘We’ll stop the boats’ mantra. If it does, that would leave another Abbott weapon blunted and crumpled, and Abbott’s disintegration gathering speed.

The Coalition’s next reaction was to boost the Nauru facility with a big increase in capacity with lots more tents. Abbott extolled Nauru as a pleasant island, implying that refugees ought to be satisfied being housed and even settled there. Scott Morrison travelled there on a private jet at the invitation of Toll Holdings, major suppliers of tents, along with a News Limited reporter and photographer to give publicity to the Coalition announcement that it would put up more tents to accommodate another 2000 asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Tony Burke quickly pointed out that putting a public figure on total capacity was a mistake, “as it gave people smugglers intelligence about how to ‘game’ and ‘overwhelm’ the policy”.

Yesterday, in a move that emulates Abbott’s Nauru Plan, Kevin Rudd and Nauru's President Baron Waqa signed an agreement similar to the PNG one. Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat can now be processed in Nauru and, if found to be genuine refugees, can be resettled there. Once more, the Government is calling the shots on refugees; when the Coalition makes a move, Rudd matches it. Abbott and Morrison play their top card; Rudd trumps it. They can't take a trick!

The level of disarray in Coalition circles was then exposed even more starkly, this time over education funding and the Gonski recommendations. Initially, Abbott and his verbose education spokesman Christopher Pyne ridiculed Gonski, with a ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. Pyne could see nothing wrong with the current system of funding despite the report of the Gonski committee after many months of exhaustive work that demonstrated conclusively that the system was unfair, inequitable to the disadvantaged and the public sector, and indeed ‘broken’.

The Abbott/Pyne reaction was first to say that Gonski was a ‘con’, a ‘Conski’, and that since this National Plan for School Improvement was indeed a national one, unless all States collaborated the Coalition would not proceed with it in government. Then it insisted that the ‘vast majority’ of States should be ‘on board’. Then it stepped back a little and said it would honour any deals done with the States for its first year in Government. Last week Abbott wrote to all school principals indicating that the Coalition had ‘deep reservations’ about the Gonski arrangements. Yet the next day he announced it would match all the Gonski funding arrangements that Labor has made with the States, boasting that ‘Kevin Rudd and I are on a unity ticket’. Obviously, he needed to neutralize this issue. Did State premiers put a flea in his ear, or did private Liberal polling tell him that opposition to Gonski was a big negative among voters?

In a blustering interview, Pyne confirmed that the Coalition would honour the Gonski ‘funding envelope’, but would dismantle what he termed ‘Labor’s central command and control features’. He insisted the Coalition would give more control to schools and principals. Abbott, Pyne, and the Coalition, have collectively turned turtle on virtually every aspect of Gonski, except on the issue of ‘school autonomy’, which incidentally runs counter to the concept of a national curriculum and consequent Gillard reforms. After all the huff and puff on Gonski, what we have now is an almost total Coalition retreat, or to use journalistic parlance, ‘a massive back flip’. Some commentators though are labeling the back flip a ‘con’. Time will tell.

In the lead up to the Government’s Economic Statement, Joe Hockey was out there preempting its content by insisting that the Government’s estimates were always wrong, never right, never to be trusted, that the Government had lost control of its budget, and in fact it was hopeless! He went close to demeaning Treasury. No doubt this outburst was also to preempt the inevitable criticism that will be heaped upon his head when the Gonski funding of $5 billion a year is added to the $70 billion Hockey has already conceded he has to find in expenditure cuts, and he struggles to do so. He seems unwilling to accept Treasury figures, is not committed to the Charter of Budget Honesty that Peter Costello established, and is talking about using State government resources and private accounting firms to verify Coalition costings – shades of the ‘audit’ of its costings that Perth accountants HK Howarth carried out last time, for which it copped a professional reprimand and a fine for its shonky work.

Have you noticed how testy, angry, and belligerent Hockey has become of late? His bellowing has become more strident; his mouth opens even wider, his assertions are more raucous, his fists clenched tighter. It is a sign of tension, anxiety and anger that the election that was to be a shoo-in is now a tight race to an uncertain finishing line.

Last Friday came the Government’s Economic Statement where Treasurer Chris Bowen and Finance Minister Penny Wong detailed the Government’s revised projections for revenue and expenditure, rather unsettling reading, the result of a volatile global economy that has resulted in large write-downs in revenue, and consequent severe cuts to expenditure. Among them was the already-announced modification to the Fringe Benefits Tax arrangements for motor vehicle use, which is designed to eliminate the rorting that results from the flat 20% salary package allowance for travel, one that is applicable no matter whether the vehicle is or is not used for business. The move has angered many businesses and charities, and the salary-packaging industry, and the Coalition has vowed to reverse it.

Then there was the increase in tobacco excise, clearly to boost its revenue, but importantly a health measure that in the past has always resulted in fewer smokers. Reflexly, Abbott was out commiserating with poor old pensioners used to enjoying their smokes and booze now having to pay more, but failing to acknowledge that many young people might now never start smoking. Implicitly, he was offering support for important Liberal Party donors – the tobacco industry.

Next was the establishment of a Financial Stability Fund to help in the case of future bank bailouts, to be funded by a 0.05% levy on deposits of up to $250,000. The banks and tax associations screamed blue murder. They soon had a sympathetic Abbott and Hockey smoothing their ruffled feathers, presumably thereby willing to forego that boost to their budget bottom line.

There were other measures to reduce spending, and funding was announced for some new items such as the PNG plan.

Within hours, Joe Hockey was on the airwaves literally spitting out his ‘crisis’ message: “The Budget is in freefall, the Government has lost control of the Budget, and it is losing control of the economy”. He stopped short of saying that the Government had bullied Treasury in making its estimates, but barely. Shadow Finance Minister Robb was soon insisting the Government did not know which levers to pull, and Mathias Cormann was on the TV berating the Government from every quarter. But none of them suggested what they would do differently. It was all destructive criticism; with not a skerrick of constructive advice.

Yet, it is the Coalition that is losing control. Losing control of its election agenda, losing control of its most telling strategies, losing control of its key points of difference from Labor. With its ‘carbon tax’ mantra deactivated, its asylum seeker policy neutralized, and its Gonski funding backflips now aligning it with Labor’s policy, what has it left? Abbott is a worried man. Some of his supporters too are worried.

Niki Savva, one of Abbott’s most sycophantic supporters, is clearly panicky. She writes: “Ultimately not all the credit for Rudd Reflux belongs to the media or to his selfie. The opposition deserves some for fluffing its initial responses to the PNG Solution and meandering hopelessly on Gonski. If it mucks up its handling of Bowen's statement and its own economic policy, it's pretty much over. Three strikes will count the opposition out and Kevin in.” When the likes of Savva write like this, the panic will soon permeate Coalition ranks and corrode the Abbott mind. His disintegration will move apace.

What do other Coalition backers say? Writing in The Australian this weekend, Peter van Onselen says: “In the ordinary course of events the Coalition would not be returned to power…because it hasn't developed an alternative vision for the nation. Even if Abbott found a sudden interest in, and stomach for, these policy scripts, his frontbench would struggle to implement the changes." Chris Kenny says: “Abbott's greatest weakness could well be that he is too timid.” There’s not much enthusiasm for Abbott there!

Abbott has already chickened out of a debate on the economy, leaving Rudd to make a comprehensive statement on the state of the economy at the Canberra Press Club alone. He has also backed away from a debate about asylum seekers. The man is scared and it shows. The best he can do is to habitually clutch to his chest his favourite Noddy book: "Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians" that he hopes will convince voters that he actually has a plan!

Abbott has an established reputation as a vicious attack-dog, a vacuous bully-boy, and a bad-tempered head kicker who hates losing. His arms outstretched, he sees the keys to The Lodge receding. He sees a dead cert turning into a tight contest. He sees his tactical weapons deactivated one after the other. He sees his options diminishing. He sees the popularity of his new adversary rising, the polls reversing, his chances evaporating.

He is angry, dismayed, uncertain, unable to struggle out of the slogan-driven rut that has been his home for three years, unable to reinvent himself. He looks tense and desperate. Rudd is playing with his mind, until today leaving him uncertain about the election date, uncertain about what Rudd will do next, uncertain about what he should do next. Uncertainty breeds anxiety and self-doubt. Both corrode. Disintegration follows: steady, then quickening, finally inexorable. It is now clear for all to see.

What do you think?

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