Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Tony Abbot: Dead in the water or alive and swimming?

The Prime Minister is in a fight for his political future. There are rumblings of leadership change. Crisis in the Government. Lowest polls in the PM's career.

No it's not 2007-13. No I'm not talking about the Gillard/Rudd fiasco. I am talking about Prime Minister Abbott and the current Coalition Government.

There is no doubt Abbott is in trouble. After stating he would hit the reset button in 2015 as well as claiming he is a "very good captain" of the Liberal "team", the knighting of Prince Philip, while hardly a political bungle that cost the nation, (or a bungle that cost lives in the case of the previous Government - remember those boats?), it seems to have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

Abbott is now in grave defense mode, desperately clinging to his position and justifying to anyone who will listen that he is the man to lead the Government. Meanwhile, the opposition and some of his peers are circling like hungry sharks. His speech at the National Press Club earlier this week spoke volumes of the defiance of a man not willing to be usurped. He is not going to go down without a fight.

However, did he lose the fight before he began?

Waleed Aly wrote an excellent article in The Age last week claiming that Abbot effectively lost the game when in opposition. To quote:
"Knights and Dames - even ones as bizarre as Sir Phil - don't topple Prime Ministers. That sort of thing only matters when your government has torched every last bit of its political capital. That happened around budget time last year, but in truth, the story goes back even further. This process was set in motion before Abbott was even Prime Minister, and was visible from his very first day in office.
Yet, in an election [2013] where Labor and the Greens together lost nearly 8 per cent of the vote, the Coalition - the only major alternative - gained a mere 2 per cent.  A win, sure. But more of the Steven Bradbury variety. The country never truly voted for an Abbott government, so much as against the debacle they'd been enduring...That matters because it makes the governing bit much harder. It means Abbott never had much capital to begin with.
Abbott's problems begin, then, with his impossible template for government. What he offered instead was a template for gut-driven rage. And hereabouts is the bigger concern: what if that's just the most effective approach? What if Abbott's opposition style worked, not just because it  played to his personal strengths, but because it was so perfectly suited to the age?
We're in an era of perpetual opposition, where everything from policies to celebrity sound bites no sooner appear than they are savaged in the most unreflective way. The anger is incoherent and fragmented. It comes from all directions and therefore follows no consistent vision or reason. In each moment there seems to be a majority against everything and for nothing. And that, in miniature, was Abbott's approach. He gleefully led the savaging, abandoning all consistency in the process. 
This week he was piercingly correct to describe social media as electronic graffiti.  What's unsaid is that it very much resembles the verbal graffiti of his opposition."
Aly could well be right on all of the above, but the one thing is certain; we are living in a political world of relentless opposition savagery amongst a merry-go-round of leaders. As Paul Sheehan wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:
"On January 18, 2005, Mark Latham announced his resignation both from the leadership of the Labor Party and the Parliament. He cited family pressures and attacked the media. Including that day, the two major parties have gone through 10 leaders in 10 years..."

As much as a left-leaning media would have us believe the Prime Minister is dead in the water, should he actually be in a fight for his position or should he be a man continuing to get the job done in an era that pleasures in tearing a leader from his mantle, regardless of how well he is doing? We are in an age of a revolving-door of leaders. An age where the opposition prefers to attack the Government at the expense of communicating its own alternate policies.

Rather than giving oxygen to his rivals by engaging in discussion about his leadership credentials, why isn't Prime Minister Abbot and his followers shouting from the rooftops the many achievements of this Government in the prior 16 months?

It has been largely lost in the noise of leadership speculation and triviality of Knights and Dames, but the Abbott Government has achieved plenty. Namely:

1. Driven the biggest fall in electricity prices on record following the abolition of the carbon tax;

2. Stopped the boats and saved $3b on border protection;

3. Finalised not one but three free trade agreements with South Korea, China and Japan;

4. Repaired the relationship with Indonesia;

5. Seen almost 120,000 new jobs created in 2014, treble the speed of 2013; and

6. Broke new ground with India.

These are in conjunction with smaller achievements like making a decision on Western Sydney Airport after 50 years of indecision, repealing the mining tax and cutting $2m in red tape to free up small businesses to grow.

So while the media and opposition delight in highlighting his faults, he has achieved a considerable amount in 16 months.

There is also an argument that regardless of what Abbott has achieved he has set himself up to be contradicted. To quote Aly again:

"Consider the rules he laid out as non-negotiable tests of government legitimacy: no broken promises, no leadership changes, no new or increased taxes, no budgetary blowouts, and no policies (like, say, a carbon price) that would increase the punters' cost of living. Oh, and no cuts to anything somebody likes - health, education, public broadcasting, defence. We'll cut government spending (which is wasteful), but when asked we'll quarantine just about everything from those cuts. This is a mass of populist contradictions."
After savaging the Gillard Government for a broken promise over the carbon tax, it's not a great look when you contradict yourself on a string of pre-election promises.

So where to from here for our PM? Is he getting the job done, swimming through the negative, murky waters that is the media and opposition, or has he cut cheques he simply can't bank?

I'd love to hear your views on this issue. Let me know via the comment section below.

It's a tumultuous time in Federal Politics and sadly, an era where nobody seems capable to grab the country by the horns and lead the way.

All the best,
Dom Meese

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