Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott began this week under attack from his own political party. To try and assuage those Liberal members who wanted him removed, he presented himself as a “chastened” man: “I’ve listened, I’ve learned and I’ve changed”. As this week comes to an end, very few of his colleagues are likely to still believe him.
In his own words, Tony Abbott has been “through a difficult few days”. Well this is not strictly accurate. For man now promising to have learnt from his past mistakes, and who now has claimed to be a more introspective political animal, he ought to have said ‘I have had a difficult eighteen months, and it all came to a head in the past few days’. Regardless, after narrowly surviving a ‘spill motion’ from within his own party on Monday morning, Tony Abbott was seeking to relaunch his political brand: “this matter is behind us”, “good Government starts today”.
However, a successful requirement of any catharsis is that the bleeding stops. Yet for Abbott, the past week was punctuated by a fresh series of self-inflicted wounds:
The Prime Minister chose to begin his new era of “consultative and collegial government” with the hypocrisy of a unilateral declaration. The Liberal Party’s new political strategy was simplified to “If we focus on the ALP we will win the next election”. Perhaps the lack of nuance here is forgivable, yet Abbott’s colleagues must have been alarmed that a Prime Minister, who has been accused of failing to properly transition from opposition to government, has now decided that his best political option is the same one he employed from the opposition benches.
Still, this might be unfair, perhaps this new Abbott era ought be judged on substance rather political strategy.
Tony Abbott began the week by warning his own government against any further infighting, even going so far as to threaten to fire any staff member caught backgrounding against Members of Parliament. Almost immediately, Julia Bishop refused to stick to message. Perhaps she was upset at being used by Abbott (clearly against her better judgement) for a series of press events in the lead up to Monday’s vote, in order to give the impression of Cabinet solidarity. Regardless, Bishop seized upon the government’s failings as a chance to try to settle an old political score. She publicly attacked Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, for being ‘powerful’, ‘opinionated’, and ‘protective of the Prime Minister’; for Julia Bishop the government’s poor polling represented a “frank and blunt…assessment of the Prime Minister’s office”.
Similarly, a coalition of government and independent Senators have decided to defy Party processes, and have committed themselves to introducing legislation into Parliament that would change the Racial Discrimination Act. Tony Abbott had already dropped such legislation, in the process labelling it a “needless distraction”. It seems the Prime Minister’s current weakness is being seen as an opportunity for backbenchers to drive government policy and, in this case, bypass Tony Abbott altogether.
In order to try and secure his numbers prior to the spill monition, Abbott promised South Australian Senator Sean Edwards an “open tender” on building the next fleet of Australian submarines. After the vote the language had changed to a “competitive evaluation process”; although when pressed for its meaning, neither Abbott, Senator Edwards, nor Defence Minister Kevin Andrews could explain what it meant. Worse still, this is not merely a poorly fought battle; by all accounts it is also a false one. Indications are that the submarine license has already been promised to Shinzō Abe. Certainly Abbott’s performance in Parliament this week did little to alleviate this suspicion, as he sought to conflate industry concerns with “denigrating” the Japanese.
Apparently believing that such rhetorical aggression was a good idea, and seemingly trying to lead by example on his belief that the government ought to attack the opposition, Abbott was palpably emotional when he labelled the Human Rights Commission’s report into children in immigration detention as a “transparent stitch-up” and “a blatantly partisan politicised exercise”. As you might imagine, the worrisome content of the report has now been entirely overshadowed.
Moments later, and clearly still fizzing with adrenaline, Abbott described job losses under the previous Labor government as a “Holocaust”. As Abbott apologised and tried to backtrack on his language, he must have been aware that he had just inadvertently drawn greater scrutiny upon a national unemployment rate that had just increased to 6.4% – the highest rate since 2002. And similarly, his now impossible election promise to create two million new jobs.
After surviving the leadership spill, a self-described ‘near death experience’, Abbott styled himself as a softer, gentler, and humbled man. As part of this new image, Abbott said that his first budget was “too bold and ambitious”: “we did, with the wisdom of hindsight, bite off more than we could chew”. His new commitment was that his government would no longer “buy fights with the Senate that we can’t win”. His Treasurer Joe Hockey clearly did not get the memo. For Hockey the message was unchanged: he had “no choice” but to pursue the current budget, if not “then Australia will never get back to surplus”.
So, in the midst of an increasingly bad political week, and in desperate need of a win, Abbott pounced upon the news that the Australian Federal Police had arrested two would-be terrorists. After being customarily briefed by the Federal Commissioner, Abbott gave a lengthy and emotive account to Parliament of the evidence that had just been presented to him. Australian barrister, Robert Richter QC, describe the performance as a “political gambit” that, if uttered outside the House of Representatives without the protection of parliamentary privilege, would be considered as contempt of court. However, worse than using untried criminal evidence for political gain, Richter believes Abbott may have actually prejudiced the prosecution’s case, thereby damaging the chances of any future conviction.
Now with his back against the wall, and lashing out like a wounded animal, Abbott closed the week by firing the Liberal Party’s Chief Whip, Philip Ruddock. A Member of Parliament since 1973, Ruddock was apparently blamed for not being able to silence the almost forty percent disapproval that was voiced in Monday’s vote. Abbott almost certainly has picked the wrong target for recrimination. Not only is Ruddock seen to have done an amazingly good job in keeping Party discontent down to forty percent, but the message his dismissal sends contradicts the message Abbott has been professing all week. Instead of listening to backbench concerns and altering his leadership accordingly, he seems to have punished the man whose job it was to keep them disciplined and towing the Party line. Likewise, for a man who promised an end to Prime Ministerial ‘captain calls’, and who assured his colleagues that there would be no “retribution” after Monday’s vote, he has very quickly discarded both commitments.
This has been the first week of Tony Abbott 2.0: a week in which he was going to listen to the concerns of his colleagues, change his leadership style, and begin the process of ‘good governance’. And perhaps he was really trying to deliver this, or perhaps he saw such language as a necessary platitude, as a cover that would allow his current political direction the time it needs to bear fruit – either way, what he delivered was a political mess. Within the sixty percent of the Liberal Party who voted to keep Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, there must be a significant number that are now wishing they had their time again.