Prediction in politics is fraught but tempting. Will Tuesday 29 May 2012 go down in Australian political history as the day the decline of Tony Abbott, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, accelerated? This was the day he announced to the Coalition party room: "Gillard won't lie down and die, and where there's life, there's fight"
, reminding his colleagues that their job would not be over until the election was won. It was an extraordinary statement to make in such a public forum (which clearly has its leakers), as it was a tacit admission that the task of tearing down Julia Gillard and her Government, one he set himself from the moment the Independents supported her to form a minority government in September 2010, will be a formidable task, one that is becoming more difficult by the day.
For a man who has exhibited such hubris, boosted every week or two by polls of voting intention that showed the Coalition’s position was strong, this was a significant concession – winning the next election would be no pushover. What Abbott thought would be a sprint to The Lodge, has turned out to be a marathon, for which he is beginning to realize he has less aptitude.
This is the man who would be PM
In politics, seemingly small events can have a disproportionately large effect. Remember the repercussions of ‘that handshake’ – the one Mark Latham gave John Howard at a TV studio door during the 2004 election campaign, a handshake that journalists deemed to be overly aggressive, too confronting, the tall man hovering threateningly over the shorter. While media reaction was over-the-top, that event signaled the weakening of Latham’s campaign, which steadily declined to end in defeat. Remember Kim Beasley’s confusing the name of Karl Rove, George Bush’s adviser and deputy chief of staff, with that of Rove McManus, our own TV entertainer. An innocent slip, but magnified by the media as a sign of Beasley’s incapacity to become PM, his unsuitability for this high office. Beasley never recovered from this seemingly small memory lapse.
In the same way, we have to ask whether Abbott’s “Gillard won’t lie down and die”
was a momentous admission of concern that events are not unfolding as he predicted, or had hoped they would; an expression of anxiety, even fear that the certainty of winning the next election was receding. Anxiety and fear engender uncertainty and doubt, which in turn fosters more anxiety, more fear, which is so corrosive of confidence.
What precipitated Abbott’s admission?
Let’s go back to the beginning. Read again The pugilistic politician
written on 10 December 2009, ten days after Abbott’s ascension to leadership. Here are some excerpts. After recalling his boxing exploits at Oxford where flattening his opponents to the canvass in the first round was his aim, I wrote this: ”… suddenly, and for most unexpectedly, he became Leader of the Opposition last week, and found himself thrown into the spotlight, with nothing much in the ledger but opposition to almost everything the Government was trying to do, trenchant opposition to the Government’s ETS leading to its defeat, a heap of political baggage, a mediocre team, a disgruntled ex-leader, and very poor popularity ratings in the opinion polls.”
Later in that piece there was this: ”Abbott intends to criticise everything the Government does, to fight everything it attempts to do, to refuse to collaborate on anything, and to decline to reveal any policies until the last moment…”
In the next paragraph: ”So to what can we look forward? If one can judge from Abbot’s demeanour and performance during the last week, from the look in his eyes, from his aggressive attitude, from his determination to fight in hand to hand combat, we are in for a ruthless, cruel, bare-knuckle fight with no holds barred. This week Abbott reminded me of the familiar scene before a prize fight when the combatants line up – hairy-chested, jaw-jutting, throwing punches in the air, loud-mouthed, asserting their prowess, and promising to knock their opponent out early in the bout.”
The final paragraph of The pugilistic politician
reads: ”…we can expect Abbott, the pugilistic politician, to attack Government policies and actions incessantly and relentlessly, to keep Coalition policies under wraps as much as possible to avoid having to defend them, and to exhibit venom, vitriol and vituperativeness the like of which we have not seen in politics in Australia for a long while. It will be unremittingly ugly. What a prospect for 2010!”
I suppose one cannot accept acclaim for a prediction that has turned out to be strikingly accurate. It was not rocket science to make that prediction – the evidence was there for all to see. Reflect. Is there anything that was predicted in that piece that has not come to pass? In fact, Abbott’s behaviour, if anything, has become worse
than predicted. His belligerence is more overt, his aggression escalates almost by the day, his vitriol pours out in ever-increasing volumes, his hatred rises, his anger boils over into unseemly language and gestures. He becomes more grotesque by the week. Several longstanding politicians have cited this period of politics as the ugliest ever.
So making the prediction now that Abbott’s decline is accelerating, feels less hazardous than most political predictions usually are.
Let’s look at a few facts. Tony Abbott is a failure, and he knows it.
It is his failure that is the likely reason for his contemporary behaviour. Failure fosters doubt and fear, and eventually evokes despair. Despair manifests itself in increasingly desperate and bizarre behaviour. The ferocity of his questions, the nastiness of his rhetoric, and the bare-knuckle approach he brings to the parliament, is the only behaviour he knows, and it escalates with every sitting week.
Coalition supporters will protest that Abbott has been a very successful Coalition Leader, and many journalists would agree, because he has elevated the Coalition’s TPP level to what they like to describe as ‘an election winning lead’, although no election is imminent. That seems to be the one criterion of success to which Coalition supporters cling. But as a parliamentary performer he is an abject failure
. He has not succeeded in defeating even one of the three hundred pieces of legislation that the Gillard Government has passed this term, and we are only halfway through. His opposition to a tiny handful of legislation has blocked them being presented to parliament, but only with the help of the Greens. He follows Randolph Churchill’s dictum that: “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing and turf the Government out”
, but so far he has opposed without success, and is far from turfing the Government out.
He has moved almost sixty motions to suspend standing orders to censure the PM or the Government, or initiate a debate to castigate the Government. None have succeeded. Yet Abbott goes on hitting hit head against a brick wall. Until now, failure after failure has seemed no deterrent, but there is now evidence that it is getting to him.
He and his Coalition colleagues ask question after question in Question Time, but never score a direct hit. In fact, during this current sitting the Government has had the better of QT by far. Time and again questions asked by the Coalition about ‘the world’s biggest carbon tax’ have rebounded on them as Julia Gillard has catalogued the wild claims of disaster that Tony Abbott has made about the effects of the carbon tax – the death of the coal mining industry, aluminium smelting, cement production and of manufacturing, the disappearance of towns from the map, notably Whyalla, skyrocketing electricity prices, up by 30%, food prices going through the roof, or as Abbott would have it, up and up and up, and countless thousands of lost jobs. She has thrown these claims back at Abbott over and again with colourful turn of phrase and repetition: “When the sun goes down on July 1…” all of Abbott’s scaremongering will be shown to be deceptive and false, and he will be exposed for the dishonest scaremonger he is, always frightening the people, always talking down the economy, always eroding confidence.
Despite the failure to gain any advantage from questions on the carbon tax, which in fact are now a liability, the Coalition persists, like a broken record, bereft of any better questions to ask.
Today, in the last QT for this session, Julia Gillard slaughtered Tony Abbott with her replies, some would say ‘smashed’ him, and Jenny Macklin, talking about Abbott’s intention to claw back the Schoolkids Bonus, attacked him with the words: “The Leader of the Opposition has failed Australian families; he has failed the leadership test for families”
. But it was Greg Combet who gave the most impassioned, the most eloquent performance, where he massacred Abbott, and with a smile on his face, broke into song with “I’ve been everywhere man, everywhere is doomed man”
, as he characterized Abbott’s peripatetic campaign of spreading unmitigated doom and gloom once the carbon tax begins. Even the Coalition front bench smiled, but I suspect few realized the import of what Combet was saying, and the effect it would soon have on their leader’s credibility.
If one can judge from Abbott’s uncomfortable facial expressions and his body language, this is getting to him. He senses that another failure is fast approaching him, failure of his campaign of fear-mongering – when the carbon tax arrives and the sun still comes up in the east, the sky does not fall in, and the world goes on as before, while the people thankfully pocket the compensation money that Government ministers continually remind the recipients will be ‘ripped from them’ should Abbott become PM, he will be exposed for the deceitful fraud he is.
It may take some months, but by year end it ought to be obvious to all that Abbott has lied to them consistently since he became leader on his ‘defeat the carbon tax’ platform. He fears this exposure, and the damage it will do to his credibility.
There are other signs that Abbott is on the decline, perhaps they have contributed to his “Gillard won’t lie down and die…”
meme. From the outset Abbott has been unpopular as recorded in opinion polls. We all know that an unpopular leader can lead a popular party, but his unpopularity scarcely altered as his party’s lead in the TPP stakes rose and rose, and this week a small recent gain has reversed. While it is wise to give no credence to polls of voting intention this far from an election, and even take approval/disapproval ratings with a grain of salt, I suspect that this week’s Newspoll
was unnerving for Abbott. His popularity has declined and his PPM rating with it, while Julia Gillard’s has improved, although the TPP has changed little and is within the margin of error. He must be asking himself if his negativity is putting off even his supporters.
Another fragment of relevant information was an online poll in the Sydney Morning Herald
this week that asked: “Do you think Tony Abbott’s negative approach is hurting his popularity?” We know these polls are unreliable because they do not poll a representative sample, and even the pollsters add a disclaimer: “These polls are not scientific and reflect the opinion only of visitors who have chosen to participate.” What was notable though was that although these polls generally reflect very poorly on the Government, I imagine because of the bias inherent in the sample of respondents, this one, in which 6913 voted, revealed a ‘Yes’ count of 70%, a ‘No’ count of 26%, and only a 4% ‘Don’t know’ count, the reverse of results usually found in these polls. So even many of those who would be expected to support the Coalition added to the total of 70% who thought Tony Abbott’s negative approach was hurting his popularity. Abbott must have become aware of this.
Another sign of Abbott’s decline is his unwillingness to confront questions at doorstops and press conferences. It is increasingly attracting criticism. When the questions get tough he simply walks away. He prefers interviews with sycophantic shock jocks and seeks pre-recording of important interviews on ABC TV, some of which are edited. He is a failure when the going gets rough. People ask how he would cope with the questions that he would have to answer were he to become PM. What we are witnessing is a steady and accelerating unravelling of Abbott’s credibility and his status, even among his supporters, and among his opponents confirmation that he is becoming unhinged, something of which I wrote in the last piece.
Evidence of this unhinging was starkly displayed when he attempted to scurry from the House on Wednesday to avoid having to count Craig Thomson’s vote among the Coalition’s on a gag motion, all to justify his unconstitutional insistence that the vote of the member for Dobell’s vote should not count, even although this would disenfranchise voters in that electorate. It looked childish; it was. It further damaged his credibility and that of the Coalition. Here’s how it looked:
Another look with a little humour added:
Here’s how cartoonist Sean Leahy saw it.
So what does "Gillard won't lie down and die, and where there's life, there's fight"
really mean? In my opinion, it means that ‘this Leader of the Opposition’, this Tony Abbott, is becoming increasingly unnerved and progressively unhinged, as he sees the prize – the keys to The Lodge – retreating from his eagerly outstretched hand. He realizes that it will be no cakewalk now to grasp the keys. He knows that his strategy to demolish Julia Gillard and her Government has failed – that she is going from strength to strength, that she won’t lie down and die as he had hoped and anticipated.
He knows that he will have to fight fiercely for his prize, yet the only fight he knows is not working. He must now know that his incessant negativity is not only not working, it is actually working against him. He must know that the only strategy that could work for him and the Coalition would be coming up with sound and attractive policies, properly costed, policies more attractive and less costly than the Government's, smartly packaged and presented. But this option is inconsistent with his lazy approach to policy creation, his dilatory approach to costings, and his ignorant approach to economics. It’s all too hard.
He expected to surf to power on the unpopularity of the Government and a wave of favourable opinion polls, waving triumphantly from his surfboard in his red budgie smugglers. But the surf has become choppy, the rocks too close, and the best waves are now down the coast where a red-headed surfer is riding quietly and confidently, headed for a welcoming sandy beach. ‘Gillard won’t lie down and die’
really is Abbott’s dilemma.
What do you think?