Hitting reset

There is a strange view in politics that giving a long press conference can reset an issue. This was Julia Gillard’s view when she filibustered on claims of impropriety when, decades earlier, she was a young lawyer. Having maintained a studied silence on the issue, she held a one-off “ask me anything” opportunity until, she thought, the issue was exhausted. And then, of course, she held another. And fronted a royal commission. And still it would not go away.

Tony Abbott took a turn this week. First thing Monday morning, he held perhaps the longest press conference of his prime ministership.

There were a number of issues he wanted to clear up: some cuts the government had made were “at odds” with what they had said before the election, but circumstances had changed; certain defence pay benefits would not be cut; compromises were coming on university reforms; despite falling commodity prices, there would be no new cuts announced after the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook due this fortnight.

Mostly, however, he wanted to take stock: “I’d be the first to admit that last week was a bit of a ragged week for the government.”

What Abbott was really addressing was a sense his government has lost its way. At the end of its first full sitting year, many of its policy objectives are in disarray. Its fiercest backer, The Australian, has issued scornful warnings for it to maintain its vision. Calls are everywhere for a cabinet reshuffle and a clearing out of Abbott’s office. Promises are scattered across the floors of the senate and house of representatives.

Something else was playing on Abbott’s conscience, too. Something more tangible. The day before, Victoria’s Liberal government was washed from office after a single term. Abbott’s own abysmal standing was blamed in some quarters.

Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt was, for the third time this year, genuinely alarmed. “If you’re a Liberal, be scared,” he wrote in his Monday column. “If you’re Prime Minister Tony Abbott, be alarmed. The Liberals should never have lost Victoria’s election.”

Bolt had his theories on what caused the loss. A lack of ideology was one. Banning fracking was another. And not endorsing the IPA’s John Roskam as a candidate. But the two big issues had federal implications: the economy and excessive timidity. Abbott should be more like Queensland premier Campbell Newman, Bolt wrote, who “always looks positive, even with an axe in his hands”.

As seems to be the case with this government, when their backers talk, they listen. It was not yet noon on Monday and Abbott was already giving Bolt reason to take heart.

“Tony Abbott has heard and is starting to change,” Bolt wrote. “His press conference today was probably his longest yet and arguably his best… Abbott needs to go harder on his strengths – the can-do man and community volunteer. Surround himself with more friends – the quiet doers. Fixing their problems. Lauding their virtues. Giving strength to their arm. Abbott’s Australia… After today I am feeling a lot more optimistic about the Abbott government than I have for a few weeks.”

Still, it will take much more than a long press conference to fix the mess in which this government finds itself. Among other things, iron ore prices show little interest in rhetoric.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Hitting reset".

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