Tony Abbott is like Gaius Baltar – the anti-hero from Battlestar Galactica. Both are men motivated almost entirely by political expediency in pursuit of power, and seek to escape from the things they’ve said and done in the past.
Abbott, I think, must operate with the presumption that – if he eventually wins the Prime Ministership – history will not judge him on how he won. He must assume that the media narrative will extol his courage and determination, which would certainly be true, but to the exclusion of his almost pathological dishonesty and lack of vision. I imagine that there are elements of the media that would be eagerly complicit in this. Abbott may well be right in this assumption.
I don’t wish this to be seen as a plug for the Labor Party. Julia Gillard and her supporters in the Labor Party, in ousting Rudd and gutting some of their party’s core policies, have behaved in much the same way. However, I feel that Abbott has taken political deception to new depths. At least the Labor leadership and policy meltdown was plain for all to see. Consider Abbott’s own recent history.
In February, Abbott told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that “we will fund our promises without new taxes and without increased taxes”. Just over a month passed before he announced a “temporary” yet open-ended “levy” on business to pay for the Coalition’s paid maternity leave scheme. Now, that scheme may or may not be justifiable on its own merits (I don’t wish to argue that here), but then why say “no new taxes”? Either Abbott was grossly incompetent for not realising that he’d need extra tax revenue to fund his election promises, or grossly dishonest for trying to have his cake and eat it too.
In justifying his backflip to Kerry O’Brien (on May 17), Abbott made the following truly extraordinary admission:
I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say. But sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm considered prepared scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is [sic] those carefully prepared scripted remarks.
Abbott quite openly admitted to being loose with the truth, and not just on one occasion but in general. He admitted that he lacks self-control. The fact that he made this admission so flippantly further suggests that he really didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with this way of doing things. The Opposition then tried to pass off this casual admission of a pattern of dishonesty as Abbott being “fair dinkum”. Apparently, the act of admitting guilt is such a high virtue that it completely overshadows the offence itself. (Then again, it’s hard to imagine what else they could have said, while saving face.)
Of course, politicians in general are not beacons of honesty (for complex reasons), but we’re not talking just about evading questions, putting words in your opponents’ mouths or using logical fallacies to attack their policies. I would be surprised if any high-profile politician is not guilty of all these things, and this certainly reflects very poorly on our adversarial politics. Abbott’s admission went beyond this, and raised fundamental questions about his motives and what he stood for.
There was also something more subtle that a lot of people didn’t seem to pick up on. Abbott was often paraphrased as admitting that he didn’t always tell the gospel truth, but that isn’t quite the whole story. He actually said that his scripted remarks were gospel truth; “absolute” gospel truth no less. There’s just a little bit of arrogance in that, considering Abbott’s strong Catholicism. Are we really to believe the Coalition’s scripted messages carry the same weight as the inspired word of God? I don’t believe in God and you mightn’t either, but Abbott certainly does – he takes it very seriously indeed. It’s the only thing we know he believes in with any conviction.
All of that helps to frame Abbott’s later antics.
What, for example, are we to make of the Coalition’s election costings? Where was gospel truth when it emerged that the Coalition was claiming $11 billion in “savings” that didn’t really exist, after running an election campaign largely centred around fiscal and budgetary responsibility? Their refusal during the campaign to have their figures scrutinised by Treasury (as per their own Charter of Budget Honesty), and even afterwards for a time until they finally gave in to the independents, was not a good look. Once Treasury reported back, it looked like the Coalition had engaged in a political fraud of unprecedented magnitude; one that would have remained concealed except for the unique series of events precipitated by the hung parliament. How do you begin to explain that away? High profile journalists, including George Megalogenis and Laura Tingle (whose papers – The Australian and the Australian Financial Review – are hardly friends of the Labor Party), quickly and bluntly stated that Abbott and the Coalition were simply not fit to govern.
Finally, what are we to make of Abbott’s refusal to honour an agreement on pairing arrangements with the speaker that would effectively give the speaker a vote (included as a part of a package of parliamentary reforms proposed by the independents)? Abbott claimed, after the fact:
The Coalition cannot accept the proposed arrangement for the pairing of the Speaker, because after careful consideration of the matter, we believe that it is constitutionally unsound.
The pairing arrangement was intended to ensure government stability (i.e. one more vote for the government), which is precisely what Abbott is now fighting against. His point is arguable, but the problem is that the Coalition did accept the proposed arrangement at the time. If it’s unconstitutional now (and this is disputed), it surely must have been unconstitutional when Abbott agreed to it in the first place. If Abbott is exercising careful consideration now, why didn’t he do so before he signed off on it?
Citizen Wilson Tuckey’s excuse for this is that the agreement was negotiated “under duress”. The absurdity of the Coalition being under duress is delicious. Not getting your way (e.g. forming government) is not called “duress”, except by the most petulant of protagonists. Was Abbott tied up and prodded with a hot poker until he signed a confession? Not exactly. The only “duress” he suffered was the stark, horrific thought of not seizing the highest office in the land. However, follow this logic to its conclusion. If Abbott doesn’t need to honour this part of the agreement, then he doesn’t need to honour any part of the agreement, or indeed any agreement at all that helps him attain power. To claim duress, you would have to suppose that it was Abbott’s natural, inalienable right to be Prime Minister, as opposed to a privilege granted by the people, or at least their elected representatives.
What makes it particularly cynical is that either side would have relied on this agreement to help ensure a stable, working government. Abbott would have needed it just as much as Gillard does now. After Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie sided with Labor, Abbott needed all three remaining independents. Having a Coalition speaker would have reduced the Coalition’s margin in the House of Reps to just one vote – 75 to 74. Included in that fragile 75 would have been both Bob Katter and Tony Crook, neither of whom would want to be taken for granted, as well as Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor who both favour some of Labor’s policies (hence why they eventually did choose Labor). I can’t see the Coalition bemoaning the unconstitutionality of the agreement under those circumstances.
What do we make of Abbott after all this? What does he have to offer, as the alternative Prime Minister? His deceptions are manifold to the point that his word is essentially meaningless. He actively seeks to hide everything he truly believes in, and what remains of him in public view is pure noise. For a Coalition leader to hold to a socially conservative or free-market ideology is one thing. Tony Abbott, however, would probably tell us that he breeds unicorns if he thought he could squeeze a single extra vote out of it.
The danger with this strategy is that, left too long, enough people will see him for what he is, and his claim to be a man of action will start to ring a bit hollow.