Tony Abbott’s recent threat to ‘give the Government the fright of its life’ is code for the new leader’s real metaphor – to give the Government the fight of its life.
Have you noticed how aggressive and combative Abbott has become since his election? He has always had a reputation as a pugilist – his boxing exploits during his Rhodes scholarship at Queen’s College, Oxford are legend. But he seems to have kept this tendency under control pretty well while in the Howard Government, except of course when Howard used him as his attack dog, and while relaxing comfortably with a less-than-arduous portfolio of Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs while in opposition. Then 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.
So what did he do? He reverted to what he knows best – pugilism. For some he may appear like a threatened animal trapped in the hunter’s spotlight, and that his ‘fight to the death’ approach is merely reactionary, merely a strategy for survival. That may be partly true, but it seems more likely that fighting is his natural response to any challenge.
His assertiveness came out in his Channel Nine interview with Laurie Oakes last Sunday, where, after a calm start, he bristled at being asked if he believed in creation, insisting that his religious views were private and not relevant to politics. Of course that statement is not consistent with his behaviour over the years when his religious beliefs have been on open display over several issue – abortion is just one. In that interview he went on to challenge Oakes to ask Kevin Rudd the same questions, asserting that Rudd has expressed religious views often enough, and has done doorstops in front of his church most Sundays. He was on the same theme on Lateline when he queried Tony Jones why Kevin Rudd was seldom on his program, and challenged Jones to invite him. Both interviewers seemed taken aback by Abbott’s demands and his foray into their programming.
In both interviews Abbott’s aggression lurked just under the surface until some provocation brought it out into the open. In Oakes interview, Abbott became angry when near the end Oakes accused him of spouting three or four policy ideas a day, (without reference to his colleagues but all the while claiming he would be a consultative leader). Abbott’s annoyance was obvious, and the look on his face as the interview concluded one of palpable displeasure. The Jones interview, the day he announced his Shadow Ministry, bordered on overt aggression throughout. The video is here.
Another sign of Abbott’s aggression and combative approach is his Shadow Ministry, resurrecting as it does several back-bench Howard ministers, and including the always combative Barnaby Joyce as Shadow Finance spokesman. It’s as if he is saying ‘I don’t give a fig for what you think of this lot, this is the group I want to fight the next election.’ In fact he made a point of saying that many were ‘good street fighters’. He demoted Sharman Stone from Shadow Immigration because she was not tough enough, despite looking pretty tough on the asylum seeker issue to most observers. So Abbott wants a fight on border protection. In fact he wants a fight on everything.
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, except his climate change policy which he promised by February when parliament resumes. He probably regrets this promise now; he will be severely criticized if he misses the deadline he has set himself, but expect something less well developed than the Government’s CPRS; expect fuzzy edges to a policy full of vague promises unsupported by hard evidence, accurate costing and definite timelines. He will rely on the line: ‘we can do it cheaper, at little cost to the voters, but achieve the same mitigation targets’, which will be hard to counter as the public is so disengaged from the detail. The Government may have to fall back on the well tried campaign of scare and uncertainty, painting Abbott’s policy as unworkable, untried, costly, full of holes, economically flawed and environmentally unsound.
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 only difference is that the other party to the fight, Kevin Rudd, is not there flexing his muscles, and even Abbott is conceding he may not win: "If we win the election I’ll be regarded as a genius, if we don’t win I’ll probably be political road-kill..." He’s even calling his team ‘Abbott’s warriors’. Like many a prize fighter he is signalling that he is throwing caution to the wind and will come out swinging in the first round.
So how should Rudd counter this? By doing what he’s now doing – ignoring him. Except for rejecting Abbott’s demand for a debate on the ETS on the grounds that the Coalition had no policy, Rudd has studiously paid little attention to him, something Opposition leaders loathe. Rudd has simply got on with the business of Prime Ministership, attending to domestic and international responsibilities while Abbott has been thrashing around seeking attention through provocation. Rudd has left it to a couple of ministers to make some remarks about Abbott’s team, one reincarnated from back-bench former ministers and radical conservatives.
But after the end-of-year break, the Rudd Government will need to marshal its forces and its publicity machine to counter the barrage of negativity that the Opposition will hurl at the public. It will need particularly to counter the scare campaign about the ETS, one that is already in motion. Although a clear majority of Australians want action on climate change, they might be conned into believing the Coalition can mitigate carbon pollution easily and without much cost – who is not attracted to a bargain! Simple, easy-to-understand material is needed, in many formats, via many media. And there needs to be blanket coverage of the entire population. Without this the Opposition will rely on the Goebbels truism – ‘tell the people a lie often enough and they will believe it’.
Until the election, which Rudd seems likely to postpone until at least August, 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!
What do you think?