Thursday, 23 January 2014

Leading Abbott

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There are contradictions a-plenty in the new government. At the heart of them all are the contradictions within its leader.

Too much political thinking is about winning or holding government, rather than about what might be done once you’re there. If our current prime minster had spent more time thinking about how to govern before winning the next election he might have turned out to be as effective a prime minister as he was an opposition leader.

Tony Abbott on Kevin Rudd, May 2010

Tony Abbott is the first Australian Prime Minister to be elected with negative net approval ratings at the election. It’s an odd achievement, a reflection of his abilities as a wrecking ball rather than as a statesman. Whatever the reasons for his win though, he’s now defeated all but his most formidable opponent – himself.

Abbott’s entire public life has been a series of unresolved internal conflicts. The aspirational leader always in search of a mentor, the conviction politician who’d sell his arse to win, the mad monk described by John Howard as an “arch- pragmatist”, the political attack dog with strong family values, the physically awkward athlete, the inarticulate Rhodes Scholar, the student politics thug with a vocation for the priesthood, the journalist with a profound distrust of words. The only thing he’s ever sure of is that there’s something wrong with every stance he takes.

His ascension to the liberal party leadership was as much a surprise to him as it was to the rest of the country. Two days before the ballot Abbott was still expecting Joe Hockey would be the next leader and, again, he was conflicted:

Climbing into bed late on Sunday night, I couldn’t decide whether to be disappointed or relieved that the next leader would not be me

Tony Abbott, Battlelines

Abbott’s hat was thrown into the ring as Nick Minchin’s last ditch assault on Turnbull’s liberalism and Hockey’s vacillation. A man as intensely competitive as Abbott would certainly never refuse an opportunity to win, but he’s far more at ease being a trusted leader’s rock solid right-hand man than he is being a leader himself, and the pressure has resulted in a palpable discomfort. Every time he speaks in public his brain is playing Russian roulette with his mouth. This is nothing new for Abbott, but now it holds terrors that didn’t exist when John Howard was there to rescue him from the consequences of what Annabel Crabb described as “speech that was an Aero bar of unsupervised thought bubbles”.

Battlelines was an attempt to overcome his inability to articulate a position. As he said himself: “words can sometimes let you down” but his hope that time and consideration would perform magic didn’t quite come to fruition. The book is a drab series of non sequiturs and unnecessary quote marks. Occasional moments of lyrical prose or a glimpse of what could be a vision for the future are weakened by conflicting beliefs and uncertainties. More than anything else, it demonstrates Abbott’s intellectual insecurity.

It’s interesting that the issue to which Abbott nailed his colours is one on which he has no real conviction. He’s always been ambivalent about climate change, mostly because he has no experience, interest or expertise in science and, as a result, is deeply suspicious of its findings. He is determinedly, proudly conservative and, to him, science and conservatism are incompatible.

To a conservative, intuition is as important as reasoning, instinct as important as intellect. A way of life has far more demonstrative power to a conservative than a brilliant argument.

Tony Abbott, Battlelines

The conservatives in his party who share his fear of evidence over feelings took the ETS as their banner issue and Abbott trailed along in their wake. The issues that truly do move him – federalism, welfare reform, industrial relations – had little or no mention while he was in opposition or since he took government.

Great leaders don’t have to be great visionaries or stuffed full of reforming zeal. It’s easy to be dazzled by Keatingesque charisma into believing that a true leader has a blazing vision of the future towards which we are all dragged for our own betterment. John Howard’s vision of a relaxed and comfortable Australia falling asleep in front of the television wearing a brown cardigan and slippers, gave us ten years of proof that this is not case.

But a successful leader must inspire, by fear, respect or love, or a combination of the three, a willingness to follow. And an understanding that stepping outside the clearly delineated lines of control would not be tolerated. The Coalition under Howard maintained unity for so long only because Howard would have it no other way.

The Coalition in opposition was not being led by Tony Abbott. A mob rampaging towards a single goal is not under control of a leader, they just happen be charging in the same direction; but this only becomes apparent when they arrive at their destination, destroy the object of their hatred and then disperse into chaos.

Abbott’s leadership in opposition seemed strong, only because the then opposition were unrelenting in their hatred of Julia Gillard and the Labor government. Whatever doubts or divisions existed within were put aside in the interests of beating the enemy without. On the surface, that looked like Abbott showing strength in leadership, but it was a thin veneer.

The proof of that is explicit in Abbott’s first 100 days. His approval rating has dropped even further, his ministers are behaving like scattered cats and his government’s agenda has been constantly derailed by idiotic mishandling of issues like the national debt, MP’s entitlements, relationships with Indonesian and China, the GrainCorp take over, the Gonski row, undignified squabbles over Holden and Qantas and, now, their tentative reaching towards the Medicare third rail.

None of this is particularly surprising, and the negative perception has nothing to do with partisan differences; it’s a personal failing of the leader to lead, not a failing of ideology. Abbott has shown that he has dedication, discipline and a strong motivation for self-improvement, but that this has never been enough to overcome the internal conflicts and self-doubt that hold him back. And after three years of the entire party set to full howler monkey they are in desperate need of a strong pair of hands and a calm voice if they are to avoid the shame of a single term in government.

This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here

You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.

Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is the editor of The King's Tribune.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @JaneTribune