My wife’s young nephew and niece visited during the Christmas school holidays and, as most children do when they’re from a different part of Australia, introduced some of their local vernacular. Coming from the conservative heartland of the Riverina, they demonstrated what the ‘outsider’ kids are doing: whenever mentioning Tony Abbott, they mutter behind one hand, in a softer secret whisper: ‘bad Prime Minister’. Sometimes, they’ll extend their repertoire: ‘Julia Gillard: OK Prime Minister’. Sometimes: ‘Kevin Rudd: OK Prime Minister’. And on the very odd occasion: ‘Paul Keating: Good Prime Minister.’ Now, there’s a Prime Minister worth respecting.
Of course, they are being inculcated by their families and their small peer group, but it’s amusing listening to nine- and 10-years-olds act out their subversive behaviour amongst the conservatives. I’m not sure about Julie Gillard: I’d say she was ‘so-so’, but I don’t believe she was anywhere near as bad as her critics made out, or as bad as her poll numbers suggest. I believe history will be kind to Gillard and behind the facade of the brutal politics during 2010–2013 is a list of policy programs of substance (which, of course, are just about to be destroyed by the Liberal–National government), delivered in a hostile hung Parliament, which very few Prime Ministers could have survived.
But, poll numbers are what politicians are judged on, so her ratings get the thumbs down. Kevin Rudd was a disaster as Prime Minister. A ten-year period of government awaited the Labor Party but Rudd, although he had great potential, couldn’t manage the party. And, therefore, the party couldn’t manage him. And the person who did the most damage, Bill Shorten, is now leading their party.
Tony Abbott? Is he ‘bad’? If so, how bad is he really as a Prime Minister?
My feeling is that this is going to be one hell of a bad Prime Minister. Of course, we don’t know what a Prime Minister will be like until they reach the position but looking at Abbott in the first four months of this term, his past and his background, suggests that he’s on track to being one of the worst and most divisive Prime Minister this country has seen. The most divisive? We’ll get to this later.
Abbott comes from a very privileged background, attending St Aloysius’ College in primary school and the prestigious St Ignatius’ College in secondary school. His father was an orthodontist, and established one of the largest practices in Australia. He has, pretty much, had everything laid out for him, even when the going gets tough. During his time at the University of Sydney, he was charged with the indecent assault of a female student. He was also caught by police vandalising a traffic sign. On both occasions, he was lawyered up and both charges were dismissed. And this has been symptomatic of most of his adult life: when difficult times arrive, he eschews personal responsibility and seeks protection, either through the law (for example, the defamation case against author Bob Ellis in 1998 for allegations made in the book Goodbye Jerusalem, or through powerful benefactors, such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
There is nothing in Tony Abbott’s public persona or history to suggest we have someone who brings gravitas to the office of Prime Minister, and few qualities of decency. His comments as Minister for Health about asbestos activist and campaigner Bernie Banton during the 2007 election campaign are probably the best indication of his persona and character: First, slurring a dying man suffering from mesothelioma (saying “just because a person is sick doesn’t mean that he [Banton] is necessarily pure of heart”) and refusing to meet with him to discuss a compensation plan for sufferers of asbestosis, but then blaming his own staff for a ‘mix-up’, saying it was their fault the meeting with Banton didn’t proceed. No responsibility.
Now comes that bad part. Democracy, of course, is about representation, and when a specific party comes to office, they represent their supporter base; in the case of the Liberal Party, small and large business. Tony Abbott used to be a journalist. He worked for News Limited. The chairman and CEO of News Limited, Rupert Murdoch supported the Liberal–National Party election campaign with some of the most one-sided and over-the-top journalism ever, through his mouthpieces, the Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, Courier Mail and The Australian.
Tony Abbott represents business people in Parliament, and his business philosophies are in tune with rabid right-wing economic orthodoxies of the worst kind. If it were not for the rule of law and the restraints of Parliament, liberal economic philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s dogma would be considered to be too weak, and we’d be all on the road to serfdom again. Just like a production line in a sausage factory, labour would be offered and paid as required: no holiday pay, no sick leave. If you’re not required for the following day, you are told so. You go back to work when the employer contacts you. If you don’t like what’s being offered, you go somewhere else.
Forget all the analysis about Abbott being a semi-Democratic Labor-ite, and wanting people to have at least some sort of safety net for the social good. If Abbott can go to a place where the labour market is totally de-regulated and de-unionised, he will go there. And, as if he is channeling the spirit of the National Civic Council’s B.A. Santamaria, he is now attacking the ABC for ‘not supporting the home team’ and lacking patriotism in its news reporting.
On workplace relations, the rhetoric coming from both Abbott and his Minister for Employment, Senator Eric Abetz, has been gratuitous, vile and incorrect. Australia is not on the verge of a ‘wages blowout’. Since The Accords from 1983 until 1991 (Marks 1–7), wages have been kept in check. Abbott’s criticism of the employment conditions at SPC Ardmona being ‘overly generous’ and needing to be cut back shows that his government is preparing for an assault on working environments across Australia. And this follows on from claiming that Holden workers losing their jobs in 2017 could be a ‘liberating experience’. No sympathy.
And, in-between the domestic political mishaps, there have been the international disasters with Indonesia, and the spat over the East China Sea with Chinese foreign minister Wang Li. These incidents have arisen through arrogance and incompetence. Diplomatic relationships can be smoothed over through time: countries are pragmatic and self-interested when it comes to trade but these are incidents that were unnecessary and poorly managed. Again, the mainstream media came to the rescue, ensuring that both incidents were glossed over for domestic audiences.
However, on another new level of arrogance was the speech Abbott made at the Word Economic Forum in Davos, where amongst the business intellectuals of the world, he announced platitudes such as: “you can’t spend what you haven’t got”; “a certain level of government spending is necessary and good”; “profit is not a dirty word—because success in business is something to be proud of”; and “no country has ever taxed or subsidised its way to prosperity”…
Just who was that speech aimed at? For a domestic audience? Surely, there aren’t enough naive people in Australia to be receptive to that type of economic simplicity. It was dreadful. It was woeful. The small business shopkeeper mentality came to the fore. And it would be no way to manage a country’s economy.
Yet, the mainstream media reported this as some kind of economic revelation, bravery, and setting the course for a brilliant economic future. A more critical and accurate assessment of Abbott’s performance comes from Mike Seccombe at The Global Mail.
Man of substance? Man of convenience, more likely. And, he’s not the family man that he would have you believe. A politician’s private life should remain private and, whenever I’ve come across any juicy gossip about any politician, I’ve ignored it. And I normally would but it’s about time Tony Abbott’s marital life was placed under the same scrutiny that Julia Gillard was placed under: The disgusting and relentless diatribes from the Pickering Post, her reputation besmirched, questions about her partner Tim Matheison’s sexuality and whether their relationship was a sham. It was relentless from the time she assumed the Prime Ministership in 2010. And we are yet to see any proposals for a Tony Abbott television sitcom akin to the ABC’s At Home With Julia, which lampooned the life of Julia Gillard and Tim Matheison at The Lodge in Canberra.
The mainstream media protects Abbott’s personal life. Where are the questions about his alleged 18-month relationship with his Chief-of-Staff, Peta Credlin? It’s an open secret amongst people ‘in the know’ in Canberra. Why was Julia Gillard’s personal life aggressively targeted and constantly trashed, whereas Tony Abbott remains immune?
Why has the rather odd situation of Abbott staying at the Australian Federal Police flats in Canberra not been scrutinised further? The Lodge is currently being renovated, but a leased family home which was meant to house Abbott and his family, costing over $156,000 until 31 August, remains empty. And why isn’t any radio host asking Tony Abbott directly about his rumoured separation from Margie Abbott, in the same way that Julia Gillard was blatantly asked about her relationship?
The protection of Tony Abbott has existed all of his life, and continues in high office. He has protection from powerful players in the media. And this, coupled with classic conservative divisiveness and opportunism means that the next three years before the next election, due in 2016, will deteriorate even further.
Progressive politics offers creative solutions to society’s problems. Conservative politics offers no creative solutions, and depends on reactionary divisiveness to maintain a grip on power. As John Howard showed in his time in office during 1996–2007, a vacuum bereft of ideas can always be quickly filled with nationalistic jingoism, casual racism, asylum seekers, class warfare and attacks on unions (usually blue collar workers or the lowly paid). We know what Abbott is against, but we don’t yet know what he is for. He will dismantle programs, but he won’t build. He’ll target vulnerable people, the ones that can’t fight back. His entire agenda is based on a pay-back mentality that hasn’t matured politically since his student days at the University of Sydney.
My wife’s nephew and niece cautioned against a conservative government, claiming that ‘they will make us go to school on Saturday’, quickly followed by a surreptitious swipe: ‘Tony Abbott: Bad Prime Minister’. Is Tony Abbott a ‘bad Prime Minister’? In my opinion, the answer is yes, I think he is. But the storm clouds are still brewing. This is the time before the rain and the worst is yet to come.