The first words in the online description of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott
read: “Tony Abbott is the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years, but he has never been popular. Now Australians want to know: what kind of man is he, and how would he perform as prime minister?”
On last week’s Q&A
Marr repeated, with his characteristic certitude, that Tony Abbott “is the most successful Opposition leader…”
Marr is an outstanding essayist and political commentator. His views cannot be carelessly dismissed. So we need to ask how he can make such an assertion. Of course, he is not the only one to do so. Many News Limited journalists have said the same thing in one way or another, from the pontifical Paul Kelly, down to the lesser lights in the Murdoch media and in the Fairfax media too.
What then constitutes success? Let’s leave politics for a moment.
For anything or anybody to be classed as a success, four elements come into play. First, the criteria for success need to be defined; second, a measurement scale needs to be constructed; third, a standard for ‘success’ on that scale needs to be established; and finally, the position occupied by the thing or the person on that scale needs to be measured and judged as having met, or not met, that standard of ‘success’. In educational endeavours, these steps are commonplace.
Let’s take a mundane example. What is a successful cricketer? The criteria of success might be the number of runs scored or wickets captured or catches taken or runs saved in bowling or fielding. For a captain, criteria might include the wisdom of decisions about batting and fielding, team structure, on-field strategy, team culture, and so on. As there is a multitude of measurement scales and expert opinion that capture the extent to which these criteria are being met, it is easy to ascertain how successful individuals are by setting their performance against these measures and the standards that cricket aficionados set.
Returning to politics, what are the criteria of success, and for the purposes of this piece, what are the criteria for success as an Opposition Leader?
It is at this basic level that disagreement begins. For people like David Marr and Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan and Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, and even lesser lights such as Graham Richardson and Graeme Morris, it seems that an essential criterion is the ability to oppose. It seems that under the Westminster system, those in opposition feel obliged to oppose. Says Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution: “It is said that England invented the phrase, 'Her Majesty's Opposition'; that it was the first government which made a criticism of administration as much a part of the polity as administration itself.”
Randolph Churchill, whom Tony Abbott quotes in his book Battlelines
, said: “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose”
, and “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out.”
This seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in the Westminster system. In an interview of Margaret Thatcher by schoolchildren after her retirement, she recalled that a down side of politics for her was that no matter what she tried to do there was always opposition.
As argued in an earlier piece, Is the job of the Opposition to oppose? NO.
, it is NOT the job of Opposition to just oppose, but to engage in the process of governance so that the public can benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of all parliamentarians. That piece argued: "They are all paid from the public purse. Why should all of them not contribute and be accountable?"
If simple opposition
is a criterion of success for an Opposition Leader, Abbott’s incessant opposition to virtually everything the Government says or does or proposes makes him ipso facto
a success, because he measures high on any scale of opposition and reaches the ‘standard’ of ultra-high level opposition. However, as his trenchant opposition has not prevented the Gillard Government from passing over 480 pieces of legislation, his success in thwarting
legislation is virtually zero.
But is unremitting opposition what oppositions ought to be about? Of course, where the political ideology of the opposition conflicts with that of the government of the day on a particular issue
, opposition is appropriate on that issue.
But there are many instances where ideological positions do not call for opposition. There are instances of collaboration, even close cooperation. Kim Beasley supported John Howard’s initiatives over the ‘Tampa affair’, and Howard supported several Hawke-Keating reforms. In these instances, both sides joined hands in the governance of the nation. That is what I believe should happen more often. Parliamentarians insist it often does, but all we electors see is opposition, obstruction and conflict. Not all of this is ideological. Much of Abbott’s opposition is purely and simply resistance to the Government itself, a Government whose legitimacy Abbott has never accepted. He is hell bent on discrediting and eventually destroying the Gillard Government.
So my question to Marr, and to all who laud Abbott for his success as Opposition Leader, is this: “Is opposition for reasons other than the ideological legitimate, acceptable, even praiseworthy? Is the destruction of an elected government, albeit a minority one, an acceptable function of this Opposition Leader, indeed any opposition leader?” Some commentators think so. They laud Abbott for having dispatched one Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and having eroded the status of his successor, Julia Gillard. They congratulate him on how difficult he has made governance for PM Gillard and her Government. Destruction of prime ministers and governments seems to be a criterion that commentators use to judge Abbott, and they rate him a ‘success’ on that criterion. What a wooly view they have of what constitutes legitimate opposition.
Is the repeated use of Question Time to berate the PM, her ministers and the Government a criterion of a good opposition? Is the asking of a tiny array of questions over and again (on carbon tax, minerals tax, budget surplus, asylum seekers) a criterion of a good opposition? Is it good opposition to scarcely ever ask a question about whole areas of government, Trade and Health being two examples? Is it good opposition on over sixty occasions to move the suspension of standing orders to castigate the Government, always unsuccessfully, thereby wasting hundreds of hours of parliamentary time and foregoing countless questions that could have been used to ‘hold the Government to account’, a rightful function for an opposition. Should opposition leaders be judged on the extent to which they use parliamentary time well or poorly? Does Marr consider Abbott should be measured and judged for such behaviour? If so, how does he rate him? Does Marr regard that behaviour as contributing to what he describes as Abbott’s ‘success’?
Does Marr consider contribution to the effective governance of the nation from opposition a rightful function? If so, how does he rate Abbott on that criterion? Does Abbott reach a standard that could be classed as ‘successful’? I doubt it. Marr’s criteria for success seem largely restricted to opposition and destructiveness.
What about parliamentary language and behaviour? Should opposition leaders be judged on how they conduct themselves in this the highest political forum in the nation? Should they be judged on their aggressiveness, the vituperativeness of their language? Did Marr rate Abbott’s ‘died of shame’ reference; did he rate his abusive demeanour and his offensive language directed to our PM? If he did, why does he still rate Abbott as “the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years
What about the criteria of honesty and integrity? Are these applicable to opposition leaders, to this Opposition Leader? If they are, how would Marr rate Abbott? Would he rate him as ‘successful’ on those counts?
How would Marr rate Abbott’s performance in interacting with the media? How would he judge Abbott’s avoidance of hard interviews, his predilection for ‘soft’ interviews by his favourite shock jocks, his poor performance when nailed down by insistent interviewers, the lies he has told on many occasions, and his obfuscation and deviousness in answering pointed questions? Is this part of Abbott’s ‘success’?
How do Abbott’s gimmicks rate: fish kissing, butchering, banana stacking, supermarket trawling, truck driving, ‘fire fighting’, bicycle pedaling, surfing, appearing with wife and daughters? Does Marr rate these as a factor in his success?
What about the criteria of messaging and consistency of message? On those, Abbott would score well. He and his staff have manufactured a set of catchy and memorable slogans that he repeats endlessly. We know them all by heart. The fact that they are crass, comprising as they do distortions of the truth or simplistic statements of aspiration without substance is of no concern to Abbott or the Coalition, so long as they stick in people’s minds, so long as they effectively discredit the Government, and advantage the Coalition.
Does Marr, and those who vest Abbott with ‘the most successful Opposition leader’ garland, do so because of these slogans, slogans that have been so mindlessly embraced by the unthinking that they have become part of the political lexicon? If so, is that something we ought to expect of a successful opposition leader? Is skill at conjuring and confidence trickery a laudable attribute for opposition leaders? Perhaps Marr gives Abbott credit for the discipline he has shown in staying on message.
How would Marr judge Abbott’s performance at rallies berating the carbon tax and the minerals tax, appearing in front of banners worded: ‘Juliar’, ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’? More Abbott success?
Does Abbott earn Marr’s mantle because of the depth of his vision for the nation, the richness and variety of his policy offerings, the cohesion and persuasiveness of his policies, the accuracy of his policy costings, and the verve and consistency with which he pursues them? Hardly. Even when Abbott does come out with a policy, it looks paltry – his NBN-lite and his Direct Action Plan to combat global warming are examples. Marr is not without insight. Perhaps he regards Abbott’s ability to keep his policies and costings largely under wraps as a measure of success.
In extolling Abbott success, Marr asserts that he is “turning a rabble into a government in four years.” If holding his party together and having it adhere to the party line are suitable criteria, Abbott has done well. There have been outbreaks of dissonance by Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Barnaby Joyce, Sophie Mirabella and Cory Bernardi, and most recently intemperate language by staffer Mark Roberts, but by and large Abbott has kept his troops under control. If this is a criterion of success for an opposition leader, let’s give him a modest tick for that.
What about poll ratings? Since commentators and politicians alike dwell on poll results and give credence to them, Abbott could be judged a ‘success’ if elevating the Coalition in the polls is a criterion, although he has been less successful in elevating his own level of popularity. How much weight has Marr given to polling? A lot, it would seem.
Let’s add up the sums. Using the criteria outlined above, how many successes has Abbott had, successes that would warrant ‘the most successful opposition leader’ mantle, and how many failures? Opposition to virtually everything the Government has done: A SUCCESS for some; a FAIL for many.
Contribution to effective governance: A FAIL by any account.
Damage to the Government and its leaders: A big SUCCESS for those who want to bring the Government down; a heavy FAIL for those who deplore such intent.
Prudent use of parliamentary time and resources: A FAIL by all accounts.
Parliamentary language and behaviour: A FAIL for all except his rusted on supporters.
Honesty and integrity: The evidence points to a big FAIL.
Interacting with the media: His minders would probably classify him as a SUCCESS; many observers would give him a FAIL.
Messaging and consistency of messages: His messages (crass and deceptive though his slogans might be) have met with SUCCESS, and his consistency has been a SUCCESS.
Use of gimmicks, publicity stunts and rally appearances: A SUCCESS for inventiveness, a FAIL for boorishness, tackiness and tastelessness.
Depth of vision, sound policies and costings: A very big FAIL by any assessment.
Keeping his party together and on message: A qualified SUCCESS.
Improving the Coalition’s position in the opinion polls: A big SUCCESS.
So there is my assessment of Abbott’s successes and failures. Of course such evaluation depends on the criteria selected, where Abbott is measured to be on the scale, and whether he has reached the set ‘standard’. Some judgements are subjective; others objective to some degree.
David Marr’s overall assessment of Tony Abbott, the pretender to prime ministership, is one of success. This piece explores what criteria he might have been using, challenges his attribution of ‘success’ to some criteria that I consider dubious or untenable, and ends with a challenge to him: “Detail your criteria to us, tell us how you measured Abbott against them, and then explain how your assessment of him against those criteria warrants the garland ‘the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years’.
What do you think? Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Cory Bernardi, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Michaelia Cash, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mathias Cormann, Peter Dutton, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Smith, Stephen Smith, Warren Truss, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong, and Nick Xenophon.