Back at the start of Tony Abbott’s truncated term the prediction was that it would end it tears. And so it has. It is apposite, like Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral, to make some remarks on his political life and passing.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tony Abbott was active in student politics at the University of Sydney in the 1970s in a pro-Santamaria group. He trashed around a bit finding himself, thus those three years in St Patricks Seminary in Manly. Abbott entered the seminary in 1984 at the age of 26 and left in 1987. Then came journalism, marriage and one year in the real world as manager of a concrete batching plant. Like someone else we know, he developed friendships with senior members of the NSW Labor Party and considered joining them. This was followed, in 1990, by a staffer’s job with John Hewson.
Abbott entered parliament four years later and was promoted to cabinet in 2000. As Minister for Health he was a centralist, wanting ever greater control by Canberra. His proclivity for simple-minded enthusiasms quickly became evident. But the first sign that Abbott would ultimately prove to be a disappointment came soon after the 2007 election. He complained publicly that he couldn’t adjust to living on a backbencher’s salary after having been a minister. That was the first sign that the present Liberal government wouldn’t have the intestinal fortitude to balance the budget, pay off debt or exercise any other type of financial probity.
In public the Howard government went along with the global warming fad, but in private considered it to be a great nonsense. Notwithstanding this, Howard pressed on with global warming legislation, to his cabinet’s great wonderment. The ‘why’ was that Howard wanted to force the Australian public to eventually accept nuclear power and he knew they wouldn’t do it if coal-fired power was cheaper. The last dark deed of the Howard government was an act called the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act of October, 2007. Howard’s plan was to bed down the auditing system and then start taxing. Liberal shadow ministers continued spouting anti-carbon nonsense after the election including the glib and inane: “We have decided to give the planet the benefit of the doubt.”
This view was at odds with the Liberal rank and file who had no-one in the leadership to embody amplify their voices and embody hopes. That changed on the night of September 30, 2009, in the Western Districts town of Beaufort, where Abbott was addressing a meeting of the local Liberal faithful. He was exhausted from a day of travel and let let it slip that the science of climate change was “crap”. Suddenly the rank and file had a champion, albeit an accidental one.
People have forgotten the real reason that Malcolm Turnbull lost the leadership in the party room ballot in 2009. It was because, after a previous party room meeting, Turnbull had gone out and told the press that the party room had voted for a position when it hadn’t. Shadow ministers started resigning and the spill was on. Abbott was happy to defer to Hockey for the leadership but ended up with it himself.
Then came the 2010 election. Labor and Liberal were 70 each and the balance of power was in the hands of a number of independents, including two lapsed conservatives in Windsor and Oakeshott. Abbott thought the prime ministership was rightfully his and did not pay sufficient homage to the lapsed ones. He could have, and should have, jumped in a car and very publicly driven to both their electorates. But he did nothing and — Surprise! Surprise! — Gillard won them to her camp. Thus the country endured another three years of Labor misery. For anyone who complains that Windsor and Oakeshott were slimy lefties, well that just speaks volumes about the quality of screening in the pre-selection process for conservative candidates.
Then came Abbott’s signature policy, the paid parental leave scheme. I have it on good authority that Abbott dreamed this up himself – it wasn’t forced on him by the sisterhood. Abbott had been painted as a woman-hater by the media and he was simple-minded enough to think he had to prove them wrong. He chose to announce it on International Women’s Day, this commitment to spend $5 billion a year done without consulting anyone. Surprised that his clever scheme was universally derided, he clung tenaciously to it for several years.
It is an eternal verity that oppositions don’t win elections on their merits; governments lose them on theirs, As Labor’s arome became ever riper through the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd (RGR) burlesque, a Liberal landslide in 2013 was inevitable. Yet Abbott still panicked, making rash, last-minute pledges that he would neither touch nor de-fund lefty nesting sites. The ABC, for one, went untouched, its defiance of balance and its chartered obligatoions even more outrageous.
Abbott took weeks to take over the reins of government after the election. There was not much fire-in-the-belly to right the wrongs perpetrated by Labor. Instead, while prosecuting with success the repeal of the carbon tax and other RGR-era inanities, the new government settled into comfortable torpor. Issues the Liberal base cared about and had a reasonable expectation to see addressed went begging. Solemn undertakings were jettisoned very casually. That Section 18C remains on the books testifies to that. To his discredit, Abbott dismissed the flap as “an unnecessary distraction”.
Could things have different? Yes indeed – upon his government’s election, Abbott might have said that, now he had inspected the nation’s books, he had come to recognise a full-blown emergency was at hand. It would have been true, plus conferring the additional bonus of an opportunity to renege on that promise not to touch the ABC and others. If you are going to break a pledge, why not to the detriment of your enemies? Instead, rather than note how much Kerry O’Brien is paid for a minute’s palaver at the start of 4 Corners, he told the servicemen and women that their pay increases were going to be less than the rate of inflation.
Enough of Mr Abbott, the wasted years of his government are now behind us. We still have an enormous amount of legislation on the books that needs repealing, including that National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act, and we need a Federal Liberal MP who will do it.
What can be said in predicting Turnbull’s tenure? This website provides man themes for speculation, not least that it has been put together by someone, presumably a conservative of some strain or stripe, who detests his party’s leader.
Turnbull apparently acquired an abiding abhorrence of conservatives with his mother’s milk. We conservatives are now like the children in Peter Pan. If we close our eyes and believe strongly enough, Turnbull will prove to be a conservative worthy of his blue tie.
Turnbull realises that his reign will be troubled and will likely try to include all potential contenders within the tent of ministerial positions. So, I recommend that any MP, who has the fire-in-the-belly to want to right all the wrongs that are still on our law books, follow the example of Paul Keating when he set about displacing Bob Hawke. Decline a ministry if offered and develop policy instead.
Martin Luther had 95 theses ready for nailing to the church door. The person who emerges to save the Liberal Party will have at least that many ideas for reform.
David Archibald’s next book is Australia’s Defence 2016 and Beyond (Connor Court).