Tuesday, February 15, 2011


So much has been going wrong for the government that there hasn't been much opportunity to focus on the Opposition. This column strives to redress the balance . . .


Shit happens -- but it's what happens next that really counts. It's not possible to imagine the sort of conflicting emotions Tony Abbott must have felt when confronted with the videotape of his chat with the commanders in Afghanistan. Perhaps he immediately realised the heinous sin in the court of public opinion that he'd committed. Nevertheless, apparently surprised and caught off-guard, it was as if he didn't know which one of a myriad of possible explanations he should choose to excuse his behaviour. He was left silently nodding, nodding, and nodding. Suddenly, the story wasn't about what Abbott had originally said: it was his response. Yet even this is only skating lightly over the top of the real issue. A bright shining light has suddenly illuminated an issue the coalition would far prefer remained dormant. Leadership.

Destabilisation stalks the land.

Wander the corridors of parliament house and the near-insufferable aroma of arrogance is beginning to pervade the opposition benches. It wafts through the offices, stoking the fires of ambition and turning tight-lipped parliamentarians into garrulous orators. It's the same fragrance that Labor thought it could sent in the wake of the 2008 election. It's the confidence born of the inevitability of victory. It feeds fertile imaginations, kindling hopes and desires that, in many cases, would be better off remaining smothered.

This is why the Seven news story took off. Everyone will make their own decision about the appropriateness (or otherwise) of Abbott's initial comment to a junior US officer who was briefing him about on a contact with the Taliban where an Australian lost his life. The point is of course that the minute we committed forces to Afghanistan we implicitly accepted there would be casualties. The question is, was enough done to minimise the danger. The coalition had earlier advocated sending tanks to Oruzgan to assist our forces -- Major General Cantwell (himself a former tank commander) has correctly asserted they are not needed. Perhaps, however, a howitzer offering direct fire-support might have saved an Australian life. So might other actions . . . but there is no way to proceed down this path without questioning the entire deployment.

Like most politicians nowadays Abbott slides into the mood of his surroundings. Kevin Rudd also was chastised for his gutter tongue (so different from his normal language) when he visited the troops. Mark Riley, a fair journalist, asked the Opposition Leader what he'd meant by the remark. Abbott couldn't find the words to reply. Instead, everyone else has jumped into that silence.

It doesn't so much matter what the government has insisted -- whether it be the condemnation from Anthony Albanese or the understanding from Stephen Smith. Even the public reaction can be largely discounted, although that's not to dismiss the feelings of either the dead soldier's mother (forgiving) or father (unforgiving). What really matters is how, after a minor stumble, Abbott's colleagues have rushed to the kitchen drawer to extract their can-openers. The worm turns.

Abbott was installed to save the furniture. Even then, his victory over Malcolm Turnbull depended on one person handing-in an incomplete paper (they just penned a derisory scribble dismissing both candidates) and one of Turnbull supporters being incapacitated in hospital. No one ever thought he would win, and yet he's brought the party to the brink of victory.

Now the expectation is heavy that within three years the coalition will again govern Australia. The parliamentarians know Abbott will face a reckoning before the next election. There are two aspects to this; policy and personality. In this race, ideas and policies will be subordinated until the particular people and personalities who will lead the party to the next election are worked out. It's a winner-take-all race where no one wants to come second.

Firstly, understand the fragility of Abbott's leadership. The narrow coalition of votes that pushed him to the fore is so delicate that he can't even risk reshuffling his front bench to incorporate talent. Nor can he risk genuine policy discussion, even if he was prepared to consider adopting policies that are needed for effective government. There are a lot of prizes in play and trying to shut-down debate about who should share in the rewards will not work any longer. The genie of ambition has been unleashed by a simple stumble on television.

The only thing holding further movement amongst restive contenders at the moment is the fact that there is no clear contender. The dinosaurs remain the ones attracting media attention. There was the widely publicised clash between Abbott and his deputy Julie Bishop attempting to find savings to pay for the flood damage. This is an example of the way a policy issue can immediately, destructively, deteriorate into a personal fight. The irony is that the clash weakened both members of the leadership "team" -- possibly irretrievably. Neither of them can afford the luxury of tackling the other, but Abbott in particular needs to understand that although Bishop can't possibly hope to replace him, she can bring him down.

Next comes Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb, both desperately ambitious and both with lingering question marks over their capacity. Neither can be discounted, nevertheless if both continue jostling with each other they will continue weakening their own claims to be treated seriously. Quietly in the background sits Turnbull, a brooding force that will need to be accommodated howsoever the opposition eventually resolves its leadership problem. And then there's the rampant ambition of others, not just to snatch one of the top jobs but also the heady opportunity of slipping their fingers onto the levers of power and implementing their own ideas about the way Australia should be governed.

Although the personalities are the biggest immediate threat to Abbott, the dispute over policy represents a far more significant challenge for the Liberals. The effect of allowing some backbench conservatives to expose their policies to the light might have a similar effect on the public as if voters suddenly glimpsed cockroaches scuttling away when the cupboard door is opened.

No comments:

Post a Comment