Was Tony Abbott the most astonished person after last Tuesday’s ballot for Leader of the Opposition? If one can judge from his performance over the last few days, he was not only astonished but also seriously unprepared for such high office.
But if you look at what he’s said and done since his ascension to Opposition Leader, nothing should have caused surprise.
This is the man who from the time Kevin Rudd became leader of the Labor Party and started to show up well in the polls, insisted that the electorate was ‘sleepwalking’, unaware of how hollow Rudd was. This is the man who after the Coalition’s election defeat, repeated ad nauseam that the Howard Government was ‘such a good government’, and consistently implied it did not deserve to be replaced. This is the man who has done more than any other to defend the Howard legacy.
This is the man who was prominent in promoting Howard’s WorkChoices legislation, the only concession about which he is willing now to make is that ‘it went a little too far’! He says that the name ‘WorkChoices’ is dead (for obvious political reasons) but that the nation must have flexible workplace arrangements and that individuals ought to be able to make separate workplace agreements with employers – in other words have AWAs. He wants to re-introduce full exemptions from Labor’s unfair dismissal laws for small business with fewer than 20 employees.
This is the man who recently told a meeting that climate change was ’absolute crap’, so why should anyone be surprised that he desperately wanted to defeat Rudd’s CPRS legislation. He’s an acknowledged climate sceptic.
In the few days since his election this man, despite trenchantly criticizing Malcolm Turnbull for his unilateral policy declarations and his lack of consultation with colleagues, has been making his own unilateral declaration that he would bring down a policy to mitigate climate change without a tax being imposed. This despite being confused about his party’s emissions reductions targets. Already, CEO of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout, has expressed concern about Abbott’s quickly-announced proposals for climate mitigation and the uncertainty it has provoked; others will follow. Only the most outrageous rent-seeking polluters will applaud.
Abbott has also wandered into the nuclear power issue, saying he would welcome a debate on the use of nuclear energy in this country, and then ventured into the vexed question of selling uranium to India, a sticky diplomatic matter, by saying that he could not see why this was not already being done. Again, without consultation with colleagues! Paul Kelly rightly accused Abbott of what Abbott so delights in accusing the Rudd Government of, ‘making policy on the run’.
Somehow he got into a debate about oil and revealed that he had not heard the term ‘peak oil’! Where has he been? Such ignorance in a political leader is not just amazing, it is dangerous.
He is now saying that he will raid the unspent stimulus package money to fund his election promises; presumably some schools promised new or upgraded buildings would not get them. He says he would scrap the NBN to save money. He would stop the Rudd Government’s home insulation program and the social housing initiative. He is talking of a federal takeover of some functions of the states, particularly the hospitals. He accuses Rudd of mismanaging federal-state relations, which presumably he will fix with a unilateral takeover.
All these ideas have fallen from his lips in the first three days, even before he has selected his shadow cabinet, before there has been a chance for policy formulation. So much for his criticism of Turnbull’s lack of consultation! He says he will be consultative, yet announces policy initiatives every few hours, all in pursuit of differentiating the Abbott Coalition from the Rudd Government.
He has already announced he will include Barnaby Joyce on his front bench, and Joyce has indicated he wants finance. Although Joyce is more suited to vaudeville than serious politics, he looks like getting an influential position as reward for the support the Nationals have given him in defeating Rudd’s CPRS. Abbott has indicated that Kevin Andrews will be elevated to the front bench – the resurrection of a failed Howard politician. Don’t be surprised if more Howardites are elevated.
This is a return to the policies and the personnel of the old, tired, discredited and defeated Howard Government, which Abbott has always insisted was unjustly removed by an ignorant electorate. The revisionism though promises to be even more extreme than during the Howard years – Howard at least had an ETS, not all that different from Rudd’s – Abbott will not; he will have a no-tax scheme! Rudd has described his approach as ‘magic pudding’; we’re awaiting the details that Abbott promises will emerge by next February. What genius will create in just eight weeks what it has taken the Government three years to complete?
Abbott has a reputation for unpredictability and is seen as a maverick. His first few days do nothing to alter that reputation. Despite the Coalition cheerleaders such as Dennis Shanahan and Peter van Onselen predicting that Abbott will ‘take the fight up to Rudd’, and ‘provide a real contest’, who but the Coalition’s rusted-on supporters and fellow travellers will take him seriously?
His Rhodes scholarship is touted as a marker of his intelligence, but his inarticulateness makes one wonder. His umming, aahing and ahahing, and his hesitancy is painful enough, but not as serious an indictment as his willingness to turn turtle on policy, as he did on the ETS, saying only a short time ago that it should be passed into law and got off the agenda, but then saying it must be defeated.
Abbott comes with much baggage, about which no further elaboration is needed. He is a supremely combative political pugilist who believes an opposition must always oppose, must not help the Government with its legislation, and must make life as difficult as possible. It seems never to have occurred to him that the Opposition too has a responsibility in the governance of the nation. ‘Holding the Government to account’ is a phrase oppositions love to mouth, and of course they should, but that does not mean obstructing at every turn, opposing everything, holding up indefinitely legislation vital to the nation, and defeating it whenever possible. For all his faults, Malcolm Turnbull did collaborate with the Government to fashion a revised ETS, which his party agreed to pass, only to have the extremists force it to Welsh on the deal. Abbott sees no fault in this.
After just these few days, I predict a chaotic time ahead for Abbott and the Coalition, and a systematic dismembering by Rudd and his ministers of the adversarial and unsound policies Abbott promotes. Like all new leaders, he may enjoy the honeymoon period his cheerleaders anticipate, but if it does occur at all, it will be brief. It’s not as if this man is an untried politician who ‘should be given the benefit of the doubt’ and the traditional Aussie ‘fair go’ as some suggest. We all know Abbott well. We know he is unprepared for this new office, we know how much time he spends on bicycles, surfboards and swimming. If he had paid more attention to contemporary political issues he might have been better equipped.
We know he is a political thinker and has put in writing his philosophy more than most of his colleagues, but that is no substitute for depth of knowledge across the wide range of national and international issues about which his knowledge is dangerously deficient. That could be overcome by attention to detail, thoughtful reflection, wide ranging consultation, careful policy formulation and articulate exposition of policies to the public. If one can judge from the headlong, injudicious and aggressive way Abbott has thrown himself into the fray in the first few days, the prognosis for this occurring, and for resultant political success, seems extraordinarily poor. And even as he tries to make headway, he can expect no respite from Turnbull who will systematically repay him for his treachery in replacing him.
How the Coalition can again throw up what seems destined to be yet another dud defies comprehension.
What do you think?