John Howard’s great gift was that he could appear to speak for Australia. The Australia he spoke for did not always exist. Sometimes it was a conspicuous relic of the past. It excluded many, and antagonised others. But somehow Howard – this small plain man, a kind of comforting family solicitor – managed to summons up a voice that appeared universal.
Watching Tony Abbott struggle through his first year as prime minister, it is hard not to think of Howard. It was under Howard that Abbott truly came of age, more so than under earlier mentors such as B. A. Santamaria. Howard showed him retail politics. He showed him populism. He showed him the many and strange things that go towards becoming a prime minister.
But Howard was a magician, the greatest politician Abbott’s generation will see. Those politicians who learnt their trade under him, including Abbott, seem not to properly understand this. The budget was a fine example – difficult policy, flawed in so many ways, that Howard might have been able to sell but which the current government thoroughly botched. Howard was a conjurer, and those who watched him did not learn his tricks.
Too often, when Abbott speaks he does not sound as if he speaks for Australia. The pitch is wrong. The timbre is uncertain. When he praises the bravery of the Japanese submariners who attacked Sydney Harbour, for instance, he misjudges his audience. These are not gaffes – winks or misspoken words or insensitive assessments – they are part of a more fundamental disconnect between Abbott and the Australia he represents.
But that changed a little this week. Abbott’s response to the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine was statesmanlike. He found a reserve of gravitas, a capacity to speak for a grieving nation, to make strong points without the pall of opportunism that has until now held back his attempts to capture situations. For once, he sounded like he might be talking for Australia. And Australia, for once, seemed happy to let him talk for it.
When Abbott sheeted home blame to the Kremlin, he did so with muscular precision. He was not complicated, but he was ahead of the baddies rhetoric that has nobbled previous attempts at hard diplomacy.
When Abbott demanded access to the crash site be guaranteed, he occupied a position of early foresight. When he criticised the Russian ambassador’s initial response as “deeply, deeply unsatisfactory” and called Russia “very substantially to blame”, he exerted commendable pressure. Australia’s part in the security council resolution that subsequently passed confirmed both these things.
It is too early to say if this represents a new confidence in Abbott’s leadership. Whether the space created by parliament’s winter break will let some of this statesmanship take root is yet to be seen. What can be said is that this represents a coherence not seen since the Coalition took office. When Abbott said the nation “bleeds” for the victims of this attack, he found for himself and his prime ministership a new voice.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Statesman caprice". Subscribe here.