Fear, uncertainty and doubt grip the Coalition

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Tuesday, 10 April 2012 17:42 by Ad astra
Rusted-on Coalition supporters will find the title of this piece laughable. Those who regard the next Federal election as a shoe-in for Tony Abbott should read no further. What follows may be unnerving.

With just about every pundit, and even two-bit commentators predicting a win for Tony Abbott and the Coalition, the only question being by how much, the gathering fear, uncertainty and doubt in Coalition circles, while invisible to most believers, or dismissed by those who but dimly perceive that all is not well, is real, serious and potentially terminal. The bravado of its members, and at times their hubris, is all that shields the Coalition from public gaze into their internal tensions. Those members who sit on small margins in their electorates will feel the tension rise as the polls narrow.

There are many in the party who contribute to this FUD, there are policies that do, and there are factors outside the party that accentuate it.

The people who create FUD
Far and away the person who creates the highest level of fear, uncertainty and doubt is the Leader, Tony Abbott himself. Recent pieces on The Political Sword have heralded this: Abbott’s atrophy and No Tony, it’s the Abbott brand that’s toxic. This piece elaborates.

Tony Abbott’s persona and behaviour
From the outset as Opposition Leader, Abbott’s pugilistic nature, manifest in his early days at university where he kicked in a door after losing a close election, and well documented from his days as a boxer at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, have been obvious. He has exhibited unbridled aggression and combativeness, exacerbated by his near loss of Prime Ministership in 2010. The unremitting invective and abuse he has heaped upon PM Gillard, whilst applauded by like-minded members of the Coalition, has caused distress and dismay among more balanced colleagues, and at times acute embarrassment. His incessant labeling of the nation’s PM as a liar and a coward, his association with rabble rousers like Alan Jones and the rallies he has organized, and his deliberate standing in front of placards displaying ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ have created deep concern among senior Coalition members. Julie Bishop, Warren Truss and Malcolm Turnbull refused to associate with him at the rallies, in contrast to Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella who proudly stood alongside him. There is a deep split in Coalition ranks about Abbott’s persona and his behaviour.

The split was deepened in the last session of parliament when he told PM Gillard and Anthony Albanese they had bulls-eyes on their foreheads, a remark that even he realized was so over the top that he ought not to have uttered it and that he ought to withdraw, although no apology was forthcoming. Within days he had made another crass comment agreeing with Germaine Greer’s insolent remark about Julia Gillard’s dress and physical shape, which again he later said he should not have made, but of course once more there was no apology. He works on the basis that he says whatever comes into his mind, and if he is pulled up by anyone who counts, he expresses regret for his utterance and hopes for understanding and of course forgiveness from the public. His colleagues though are not so forgiving. While the Coalition is ahead in the polls they keep their anger and frustration at Abbott’s repeated gaffes under wraps among themselves, but should the polls turn, their rage is such that they will be unforgiving as they savage him.

It’s not as if he has made the occasional gaffe, the infrequent error of judgement; he has made them from the beginning in regular fashion. Who will ever forget his ‘shit happens’ remark in Afghanistan following the death of a soldier there, and his remarkable mute response to Mark Riley when confronted with it on national TV?

His vitriol, the venom he spews, the abuse he hurls, the sheer hatred he exhibits, are unbecoming of an aspirant to Prime Ministership. Even those who applaud his efforts in placing the Coalition in a strong position in the polls despise his arrogant and undisciplined behaviour and yearn for a more dignified leader. They despair of his constant negativity, so gross and so consistent that he even opposes policies that John Howard endorsed and that the party embraces, just because the Government has put them forward.

Although Abbott’s persona and behaviour is of deep ongoing concern to his sensible colleagues, what is even more concerning to them is that they know there is no hope of redemption for him. They know he will not, indeed cannot change. His behaviour is in his DNA. More than fear of what he will do next as Opposition Leader is deep-seated apprehension about what he would do should he become PM. While Abbott has improved the Coalition position in opinion polls of voting intention, his colleagues, and everyone else who watches his behaviour day after day, know he is a disaster for the image of the Liberal Party and the Coalition. Fear of Abbott’s behaviour grips the Coalition, corrodes confidence and creates uncertainty and doubt about its future. His persistent unpopularity among voters creates doubt about whether he is capable of leading the Coalition to victory, a doubt Coalition members have so far laughed off, buoyed by polling figures. On Politically Homeless, Andrew Elder says that even his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, “…does not have the sort of confidence in Abbott that a facile reading of polling data might suggest the Liberals ought to enjoy.”

Tony Abbott is on a knife’s edge. As soon as he puts a political foot wrong, he is gone. Coalition members know it, and so does he.

Barnaby Joyce’s persona and behaviour
Educated at the same school as Abbott – St Ignatius' College, Riverview, a Jesuit school – Joyce exhibits similar behaviour. He says what ever he likes when it suits him, except he seldom recognizes his indiscretions and therefore seeks no pardon. Unlike Abbott, who speaks clearly, Joyce assails us with gobbledygook. He is an embarrassment to his colleagues who fear what blooper will come next when he appears on TV or radio, or when he writes an ‘opinion piece’. His utterances on matters economic when he was shadow finance minister were so bizarre and irresponsible that Abbott took the advice of his apprehensive colleagues and removed him. But that has not stopped him making a fool of himself, recently querying whether Government cheques might bounce! Misha Schubert calls it ‘Barnaby-onomics’.

He is now angling to move from the Senate to become a member of the House and Deputy Leader, thereby becoming more active in politics, even acting as PM during Abbott’s absence should he win the next election! This prospect terrifies his colleagues who fear what he will say and do next, who tremble at the uncertainty his words evoke. Tensions are high among Nationals who see their leader, Warren Truss, being unceremoniously dumped if Joyce wins a seat in the House. And his attempt to find a Lower House seat has created tensions among those who might be displaced.

The only redeeming words we hear from his colleagues is that he is very popular in the electorate, presumably because he is personable. Most voters though don’t know what he’s talking about; they incorrectly assume that someone does.

Joe Hockey’s persona and behaviour
Hockey was another Riverview boy. His rotund jolly appearance matches his good-natured persona. He seems a reasonable fellow, but it is when he talks on matters financial that he embarrasses his colleagues who wonder what economic nonsense he will utter next, fearing that he will make yet another unsupportable statement – more Hockeynomics. Of course he is encumbered with the Abbott demand to paint any move the Government makes as inept, even dangerous. This leads him to make extraordinary statements about national debt, Government borrowing and their effect on interest rates, rabbitting on about how this Government’s ‘ineptitude at managing money’ and ‘its addiction to spending and debt’ is putting upward pressure on interest rates, notwithstanding the fact that they are falling and are much lower than under the Howard Government. Hockey sees no need for factual accuracy so long as he can make his point. Rational colleagues wonder how he could possibly manage a trillion dollar economy, having as he does such a sparse understanding of economics despite having an undergraduate qualification in the subject. His colleagues doubt if he could handle the position of Treasurer that he seeks, one that shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb would dearly love to wrest from him.

Julie Bishop
Always the bridesmaid, she seems to have retained her Deputy Leader position with three leaders by virtue of her gender and being a West Australian. Her colleagues must wonder what she really contributes apart from spiteful barbs directed to the PM. She scarcely ever asks a question about her shadow portfolio, foreign affairs, or contributes on TV or radio. She is said to be part of a policy think tank with Kevin Andrews but we have seen so little policy that colleagues must wonder if the promised flurry of policies will ever eventuate. She seems well liked, but how long will her colleagues tolerate her paltry contribution, beginning with a failed effort as shadow Treasurer that prompted her removal to foreign affairs? Will she be deputy to yet another leader? Who else covets this post? We know Andrew Robb does.

Christopher Pyne
Pyne seems to expend most of his exuberant energy as Manager of Opposition Business on countless, but mainly pointless ‘points of order’ during debate in the House. His colleagues must wonder when he will get round to asking a question about his shadow portfolio – education. He irritates his colleagues with his antics almost as much as members of the Government. His frequent and flamboyant appearances on TV must make them wonder what his party ambitions are – another source of uncertainty.

Peter Dutton
Perhaps most noted for his nasty interjections in the House and his frequent ejections, colleagues wonder how much time he devotes to his shadow health portfolio. So little comes from him that they must ask why he is favoured with such an important role. Doubt about his ability and commitment naturally follows.

Bronwyn Bishop
Colleagues must wonder what she really contributes except spurious points of order that never get up, and appearances at rallies designed to denigrate our PM in a disgusting way. Yet she is mooted for a significant role in a ‘return-to-Howard-style’ government, another source of tension.

Sophie Mirabella
She is a constant source of embarrassment to colleagues who want to see a modicum of dignity from shadow ministers. She has none and seems to revel in her gross behaviour.

I could go on and on pinpointing areas of tension in the Coalition arising from its less talented members, aspects of colleague behaviour that evoke uncertainty, doubt and fear among Coalition members, but the piece would become too long. If you think I’m alone in my description of internal tensions in the Coalition, read Misha Schubert’s April 8 article in the Sydney Morning Herald: Coalition is crying over spilt milk that reveals the tensions that have arisen over such a seemingly neutral issue as the ‘milk wars’.

Let’s turn then from the people who create fear, uncertainty and doubt to the policies that do.

Abbott’s policy impropriety
For a policy-light Leader of the Opposition, it is astonishing that he regards his overly generous and excessively expensive PPL as his ‘signature’ policy. This has created concern among colleagues about how the policy could be funded, a fear he brushes aside. Their astonishment is heightened by the fact that in government he strongly opposed such a policy. They see his move as opportunistic, one designed to appeal to women and erase his somewhat misogynist image. His obfuscation about it being funded by a ‘levy’, not a tax on large companies infuriates those who seek just a touch of honesty from politicians. Even John Laws picked him up on that.

His latest idea of paying for nannies from the public purse has generated even more uncertainty among his colleagues who wonder what bizarre idea he will come up with next. He pleads that he has only suggested that the Productivity Commission look at the concept, but behind it is still more opportunistic posturing as the champion of working women, irrespective of how impractical or prohibitively expensive his idea might be. No doubt he would discard nanny support in a moment should he become PM if it proved too expensive.

How many colleagues despair at Abbott’s ‘turn the boats round’ policy. We know that people of the humanitarian calibre of Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan are horrified, and fearful of what bizarre idea about boat people he will come along with next. Despite his hairy-chested posturing, Abbott knows he cannot and will not defy Navy advice and shout orders down his boatphone that would endanger Navy personnel, even if he doesn’t care much about the asylum seekers. He disregards relationships with Indonesia, which has signaled its opposition to boats being returned and with them the boat people problem. Julie Bishop already has had to smooth ruffled Indonesian feathers and fears she will have more salvage work to do as Abbott continues to defy diplomatic conventions and professional advice and push for his ‘solution’ to the exclusion of all others. His colleagues must scratch their heads at his intransigence and unwillingness to accept the compromise the Government offered that would give any government control over its processing arrangements. Of course the voluble Scott Morrison is ‘all the way with TA’. It suits his political ambitions, which likely include a senior leadership position.

Tony Abbott has no economic policies that anyone can discern. Despite an undergraduate degree in economics, he shows no interest in it or aptitude for it. Peter Costello’s advice to not let him near money matters remains sound. And it is not as if his team of Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann add much to the economic and fiscal competence of the Opposition. How dismayed Coalition members must be at the lack of rational policies, the irresponsible posturing about how the Coalition will repeal the revenue raising carbon and minerals taxes yet still reduce personal and company tax and provide a pile of benefits to boot, and the absence of a plausible budget for doing so. The team got it wrong to the tune of $11 billion last year with a set of shonky costings; Coalition members fear what they will come up with this time when it is $70 billion of savings they are looking for. Yet their colleagues will have to wear this uncertainty and doubt about the team’s capacity for sound fiscal management until near the next election, and even then they will have to wear Abbott’s refusal to have their figures checked by the Parliamentary Budget Office, preferring some of their accounting mates to do it.

Coalition members fear the repercussions of Abbott’s blood oath to repeal legislation that is already on the statute books and operational. They wonder how he will actually stop the carbon tax in its tracks, no matter how opposed to it they might be. They are uncertain about Abbott’s mechanism for doing so in the face of opposition from the Greens in the Senate. They doubt the wisdom of threatening a double dissolution to get his way, and fear the damage that might inflict on the party. Abbott’s loose cannon approach is generating FUD in spades, and eroding party unity. Colleagues wonder too why he believes miners are already paying too much tax and why he would repeal a tax on mining profits that three big miners, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata have already ticked off as reasonable. What must they think about him kowtowing to Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Twiggy Forrest?

Imagine the fear generated in Coalition circles by the threat of removing the benefits that flow from the taxes, especially the raised tax-free threshold, the pension increases, the family benefits and the company tax relief. Uncertainty about the reaction of an electorate stripped of benefits already in place must haunt the sensible members of the Coalition.

Take the NBN. Abbott no doubt thought he was on a winner assigning to his defeated rival for leadership the task of ‘demolishing the NBN’ knowing how enamoured Malcolm Turnbull was of Internet technology and how it would hurt him to destroy something in which he believes passionately. He has tried valiantly to come up with cheaper alternatives but knows that what businessmen and farmers, and educators and health workers want and need is super fast broadband that will revolutionize their work and place Australia at the forefront. Coalition members must despair as they see their leader putting the brakes on progress in areas that they know are vital for this nation’s future. They must doubt Abbott’s grasp on reality as he proceeds relentlessly down this track, must fear the reaction of the electorate being offered an el cheapo, second class alternative because he says we can’t afford to travel first class. And all because it was a Labor Government that initiated the NBN, not the Coalition!

Look at climate change. Malcolm Turnbull lost leadership by one vote because he had negotiated an ETS compromise with Kevin Rudd. Half the party room supported him; the other half backed Tony Abbott and his determination to not have such a plan. If that’s not deep division, tell me what is. Turnbull still believes in an ETS, as do many of his supporters. Instead they have had to swallow the Abbott/Hunt Direct Action Plan, regarded as economically irresponsible by economists and environmentally ineffective by environmentalists. How can a single party accommodate such diversity of opinion among its members without tension and uncertainty, without fear among those who believe in climate change and that global warming will get out of control, without tension between believers and denialists?

Abbott’s policy impropriety is major source of fear, uncertainty and doubt among Coalition members.

The competence of the Gillard Government
The final factor in the Coalition’s rising fear, uncertainty and doubt is the steadily increasing aura of confidence and competence exhibited by the Gillard Government. With over three hundred pieces of legislation already enacted Tony Abbott and his Opposition front bench look increasingly impotent in halting the steady progress of Julia Gillard’s Government whose ministers look more and more competent and on top of their portfolios. The contrast between her side and the shadow front bench looks more and more stark, striking fear, uncertainty and doubt into the heart and soul of the Coalition, whose rational members wonder if they have already lost the opportunity to seize government. Abbott envisaged a short sprint to The Lodge; it has turned out to be a marathon, and Coalition members doubt if he is up to it.

The rising competence of the Gillard Government will become an increasing source of fear, uncertainty and doubt among Coalition members.

While many Coalition supporters who have read this far will regard this piece as hogwash, those who support Labor will discern the stark reality of the Coalition’s position. They will see how fear, uncertainty and doubt are corroding the Coalition’s confidence, eroding trust between Coalition members, and fostering tension among them.

All this would be public knowledge were it not for the indolent MSM that for the most part turns a blind eye to the travails of the Coalition and declines to expose them to public gaze.

It is high time MSM journalists did some of the heavy lifting, exposing, as they should, the shortcomings, disingenuousness and sheer incompetence of the Coalition and its inept leader, Tony Abbott. If they won’t, we in the Fifth Estate must.

What do you think?