Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword – Matthew 26:52
History is littered with examples of warrior kings who could lead their forces to great and famous victories in battle but could not navigate the tricky business of governing and maintaining the peace once the war was over. Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Daenerys Targaryen. For the past two years, many in the public and in the cabinet have wondered when the waring would end and the governing would begin. For Tony Abbott, the war never ended.
In many respects, Tony Abbott is a victim of his own brutal efficiency. No one in Australian history has transformed the role of the opposition into such a prolonged siege of the government, and painted the choice between his party and ‘the other mob’ as such a zero-sum game. His mastery of steering the political conversation and obliterating any chance of genuine dialogue on the complex issues facing our country is epitomised by the three word slogans Turnbull has referred to: “Axe the Tax”, “Labor’s Budget Emergency”, “Stop the Boats”. His greatest achievement still remains the campaign that brought down Kevin Rudd.
But the tools of opposition are not the tools of government. Spin and rhetoric can only take you so far; policy and results ultimately keep you in power. And Abbott has shown a steadfast, almost suicidal commitment to remaining the man who destroyed Labor, rather than developing an identity as a leader. Examine the first words out of Abbott’s mouth tonight at the press conference addressing the gallery after Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership challenge.
“I have been heartened by the messages of support flooding into Liberal MPs’ offices this evening saying most emphatically, ‘we are not the Labor Party’.”
Two years in power, and Abbott still insists on defining himself as ‘not the Labor party’. And once they succeeded in removing the ‘failures of Labor’ in removing the mining and carbon tax, stopping the boats, and fixing the non-existent budget emergency by ceasing to mention it, there was a glaring lack of new ideas, or strong policy development.
Poorly thought out policy after policy – from the Medicare Co-Payment, to Higher Education Deregulation, to his signature Paid Parental Leave, along with a series of ‘Captain’s Calls’. One of these, the announcement of a knighthood for Prince Phillip, was a catalyst for the initial spill against him in January.
The Abbott government has even managed to squander its perceived core strength of economic management. In the face of the worst economic data Australia has seen in 25 years, it still insists on assigning the blame to Labor instead of proposing new solutions. This farcical situation is exemplified by Andrew Robb’s appearance on ABC’s Insiders on Sunday 6th September, in which he could not name one single thing about the economy that had improved since the Coalition took power two years ago:
BARRIE CASSIDY: But I asked to you give an economic indicator that has improved.
ANDREW ROBB: Well that’s indicator: new jobs.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Unemployment was 5.7 per cent. It’s now 6.3. That’s not an improvement.
ANDREW ROBB: Yeah, but if – well, you see, it’s statistics and statistics.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Yes. And this is a key one.
ANDREW ROBB: Well, the participation rate of women has never been higher, right. The participation rate, if it was the same as it was under Labor, our unemployment rate would be 5.8. What the high participation rate shows, that there is confidence. People feel they will get a job, so they’re out there trying to get a job. Previously, they they would not even be registered. Four years ago, three years ago, they would not even be registered. Now they’re registering for – to get a job, so the participation rate is much higher than it was under Labor, and if you allow for that, the unemployment rate is at 5.8. Now, people said this economy’s going to absolutely …
BARRIE CASSIDY: That’s still worse than it was.
Stories emerging from inside the party about Abbott’s increasingly isolated leadership style in recent months, as well as incidents like Abbott’s outburst at Robb last week over the failure of the government to ‘sell’ the China Free Trade Agreement, paint a picture of a leader that has learned nothing since the severe and unambiguous warning given to Abbott by his colleagues in January’s leadership ballot – a ballot he barely won 61-39, despite running against an empty chair.
The chair has now been filled by Malcolm Turnbull, the man Abbott defeated by a single vote in a 2009 spill. Whatever happens tonight in the party room, Tony Abbott has brought himself to the place he now finds himself in.
Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Words by Wade McCagh