Nick Feik
Tony Abbott: an unserious man

Tony Abbott learnt a lot from his mentor, John Howard, but he certainly didn’t learn conviction. 

Eight months into government, on the eve of his first budget, Tony Abbott should be settling into his leadership. The public should be getting used to his beliefs and practices. His colleagues, most of all, should be accustomed by now to the Abbott Method. But all this would require something entirely lacking in the prime minister: Abbott has no discernible convictions. He’s a profoundly unserious politician.

The lead-up to the budget brought another of Abbott’s patented “captain’s picks”, the deficit levy. It was almost unsurprising that he would come out with an idea that seemed to have no party backing, was reached without broad consultation, had no public support, and was at odds with basic economic and commonsense. This was, after all, the author of a paid parental leave scheme that nobody asked for and the knights and dames honour scheme that even John Howard thought anachronistic.

But whereas the leave scheme had a kind of political logic – an attempt to counter his “woman problem”– and knights and dames could be seen as an expression of the man’s true values, the latest incident of Abbott freelancing had no explanation whatsoever. It was a moment that ironically united Australia, with Greens, Labor and independents joining Liberals for a moment. Economists and policy analysts agreed not only with wealthy business people, but also with all the mums and dads around the country. And together they chorused, in a unison broken only by commentators Greg Sheridan and Niki Savva: Is he serious?

Abbott’s idea wasn’t an accident. In fact, it wasn’t out of character at all.

Anyone paying moderate attention to his statements over the years has become familiar with Abbott’s odd slips of the tongue. It’s been thought they were versions of his core beliefs sneaking through, like rays of truthfulness through the slats of control he’d skilfully erected. But this is a misreading.

Tony Abbott’s relationship with language is a proper expression of his mind’s malleable regard for core political values. He throws words around like they have no fixed meaning, describing himself, for example, as a feminist, or calling loggers the “ultimate conservationists”. Everything in between is expressed in serial hyperbole. Sometimes it’s as if he rolls phrases around in his head and wonders, “Does the message sound good?” If he likes it, he repeats it.

The declaration about being a “grown-up, adult government” was closely followed by the hand-on-heart promise he wouldn’t do deals with independents and minor parties. Even if less than a parliamentary term ago he’d told Tony Windsor he would “sell his arse” to win crossbench support. There would be “no surprises, no excuses”.

Perhaps what Abbott learnt from Howard was the concept of core and non-core promises. Whether he believed, prior to the election, that he might lead a mature government is debatable. His long-cherished belief is that when he assumed the mantle of prime ministership it would become him, and he it. Perhaps this explains why he had never committed to a clear personal political platform. He’s neither a genuine liberal nor a conservative, neither an economic wet nor a dry.

As Rachel Nolan noted recently in The Monthly, “the immaturity of Abbott’s political philosophy has been revealed when he has confronted issues beyond the narrow platform he laid out pre-election: when hard choices – the questions on which populism offers no guide – have needed to be made.” The indecision around GrainCorp was but an early sign of this. Despite months of major manufacturing job losses – another example – his government is still yet to develop a substantial response or even an industry policy, preferring ongoing attacks on unionists instead. 

Critics from the left have long tried to portray Abbott as a fiercely old-school Christian conservative, pointing not just to his monarchist views but also previous statements about women, abortion and same-sex marriage, as if these are evidence of his dangerous convictions. But even on these social issues he’s shed any desire to actually fight for his beliefs. His anti-same sex marriage stance is expressed via a straw man defence of traditional marriage rather than a forceful argument against gay marriage. If he’s ever thought deeply about how to win these debates, he’s never shown any evidence of it.  

Ever since he skipped out of the seminary, he has lived like his true calling was to be a political dilettante. He worked as a journalist for a time, but not as a reporter doing rounds. Abbott was a commentator from the start. In politics he started as a press secretary, not a policy guy. He became minister for health, and was regarded as a basically effective one. But the great legacy of his time in the portfolio was the quixotic effort in the 2007 campaign to take control of a single hospital, the Mersey near Devonport, Tasmania, and free it from the yoke of state government control.

Then he fell into the leadership, not on the basis of his own ideas, but the failure of others to prosecute theirs. He spoke to Nick Minchin after a trip to the bush, became a climate sceptic, and rolled Malcolm Turnbull on the issue that would most easily split the party.

At this point, Abbott apparently “came of age”. The old ill-discipline was buried deep, and he stuck to his lines about the boats, the debt and the carbon tax with a dogged determination. The force took everyone by surprise. 

But it was always an error to equate repetition with development. The immaturity of Abbott’s beliefs was still there, it was just hidden. In retrospect he spent his years in opposition laying traps for himself, making it virtually impossible for him to actually be the wise, unperturbed, effective leader he dreamt he would become.  

He promised to make no major changes to industrial relations, to introduce no new taxes, and now, famously, that there would be “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. Major reforms would have to wait until the next electoral term, even before he was elected for a first one. If this was to be a government that “says what it means and does what it says”, it would do very little indeed.

But serious cost-cutting work was assigned to the National Commission of Audit. Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey in effect planned from the beginning to break their election promises by giving the commission terms of reference that conflicted with their own statements. It was as if they didn’t trust themselves to do it, or have any firm ideas of their own. They effectively excused themselves from even attempting to mount serious arguments for economic reform, putting it off until the commission delivered its findings. There will be changes announced in the budget, of course, but Abbott and Hockey will have a hard time owning them.

The climate change issue is the clearest example of Abbott’s substantial lack of conviction. His belief in the science has never settled for a moment. It has always swung behind what’s politically salient at the time. The same goes for his policy responses to it. He supported an emissions trading scheme under Howard, then advocated for a carbon tax in 2009, but by 2011 was calling it “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. He now professes to believe in the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change but appointed a sceptic to review the renewable energy target and another as his top business adviser. More serious, of course, is the government’s overarching legislative response. Having spent three years deriding the market-based approach supported by most economists and environmentalists, it aims to replace it with a model far worse: Direct Action, a mechanism with no future, one that rather than collecting revenue from big polluters involves paying them cash from already constrained general revenues. 

Does his government believe in climate change or not? If  it does, what it has done is absurd. If it doesn’t, it’s cowardly and untruthful.

It is somehow fitting that Abbott’s long-run campaign against the carbon tax has built the rods for his back. Having berated the Gillard government for dishonesty on the issue, he performed a betrayal of voter trust of equal or greater proportion. The deficit levy, even the act of raising it, was hypocrisy that may come to permanently scar Abbott. It proved his talk about good governance and proper process, about being a government of no surprises, was empty rhetoric. Being an idea that no decent conservative could support, it also highlighted the inconsistency of his political values. Worse, it had no sound policy basis. 

And the basic slipperiness of his language was there again: it isn’t a real tax, it’s a levy, he said. It isn’t a broken promise because it would only be temporary. Sometimes in the heat of discussion you go a little bit further, as he said before the 2010 campaign. The “gospel truth” must be got in writing. Was this really his proposed solution to the budget woes? 

Abbott had years to prepare for government, during which he spent every day railing against the carbon tax and the budget. And he barely spared a moment to consider what he would do in response. Because he is not a prime minister, he is a dilettante.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "An unserious man".

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Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

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