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Why the Abbott era came to an end

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 24 September 2015

In American football the rival teams have both ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ players. The offensive players are on the field when they have the ball; the defensive group take their places when the other side has the ball. It seemed to me, almost from the start of the Abbott Prime Ministership, that the new PM was uneasy in his new role. Temperamentally, he was still in Opposition, used to attacking, to punching, and to yelling out powerful slogans for his troops.

In the Prime Ministership, however, these tactics rather miss the point. The PM is looked up to as the nation’s political leader. Most of us want to get on with our lives, and it is useful to know that there is somebody competent running things, even if you didn’t vote for him/her. To achieve that happy state the PM has to be calm, inclusive and authoritative. Punching others is right out. The Opposition you will nod to benignly from time to time, but you take as little notice of it, and what it says, as you can.

You speak when you must (politics is not entertainment, as far as you are concerned), and when you speak it is to all Australians. You are measured in what you say and how you say it. You avoid slogans: like ads on television, their use-by-date comes very quickly. Within your party, you do your best not to have a kitchen cabinet, a group of cronies. You try to make yourself available to the backbenchers. And you make sure you have at least two obvious aspirants for your own job.


All this is hard to do, but those who last in the job learn to do it. They need luck, too, but politicians to some degree make their own luck. Tony Abbott never looked happy in the role of PM, and made no luck at all. He didn’t come across as authoritative, as calm, as inclusive or even as notably competent, and as time went on, and the opinion polls turned against him, he looked even less happy in the role.

Some of it was just personal style. He is not a fluent or articulate man, with the happy knack of speaking off the cuff and making good sense. He could not modulate his voice, and his verbal emphases were accompanied by sudden chops with both hands. Within the Ministry he seemed to make sudden decisions without trying them out on his colleagues first. His ‘Captain’s calls’ were not impressive, and he didn’t seem to understand one great truth about high office everywhere: whatever your position, you always need to persuade others. Once you begin to rely on the authority of the office (even in the military, I am told) that authority begins to wane, until there is little of it left.

Nothing I have said here is new, even for me, and it was being said again and again throughout his almost two years in office. Why didn’t he take notice? I don’t know. Every now and then his face had a puzzled look on it — ‘It’s not supposed to be like this’ seemed to be the inner sentiment. To return to my American football analogy, he was a brilliant Opposition leader, but he was not at all a brilliant Prime Minister. At the end he had lost the support of his party, whose members couldn’t see any likelihood of things improving while he stayed. He had lost also the respect of the electorate. No one much liked him, and some  passionately disliked him. My general sense of it all was that he was even more disliked than Julia Gillard at the height of her unpopularity. He could not find a way to rise above the cartooning and the quick smears.

Tony Abbott beat Malcolm Turnbull by one vote back in November 2009, over Turnbull’s attitude to ‘climate change’. The vote took place just before the fiasco of the Copenhagen climate conference. Malcolm Turnbull has had five years to think about all that. In that time it is likely that some of his belief in the menace of anthropogenic global warming will have waned, if only because there hasn’t been any discernible warming in that time, despite the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One of the satellite measures shows no warming now for 18 years and eight months. He will also have noted that governmental enthusiasm around the world for ‘combating climate change’ has greatly subsided.

In my view he must have given the more sceptical of the backbenchers (and Ministers) an assurance that he would not go down the carbon tax or ETS road again. In fact, earlier this year he seemed to have done just that, saying that the Government’s Direct Action scheme should be given a fair trial, and that Australia should wait and see what the international consensus was,  before doing something different. In his first press conference as Prime Minister he reiterated that the Abbott Government’s climate change policy would be retained.

On the other hand, his seat, Wentworth, is full of small-l Liberals, Greens and other sympathisers with tough action on the imagined climate crisis. He will have to find ways of soothing them, while not antagonising his own party. He will do this, as he suggested in his first media conference, by concentrating on economic policy. A new Treasurer, perhaps the return of Arthur Sinodinis to a related portfolio, and a collective focus on how to deal with uncertain and unhelpful economic times, will take the focus off the climate stuff. It will be some days, however, before we have much idea of his strategy.


And what of the displaced Tony Abbott? He has not said whether or not he will stay in Parliament, but he has said, though rather gracelessly, he will not be a destabilising force. I doubt that he would want a portfolio in the Turnbull Government, or that Malcolm Turnbull would offer him one. He has been in Parliament a long time, and will collect a decent pension if he leaves. But what would he do? He is a fighter, physically active and full of passion. I don’t see him as an adjunct professor somewhere, and his interests are Australian rather than international. Time will tell us, here, too.

The American football analogy took my fancy, as you have seen. Perhaps that could be the new style in our politics: a tough Opposition Leader to get the troops into office, when he is replaced by a smooth-talking, all-things-to-all-people facilitator who does his best not to upset the horses. It’s worth thinking about…

Endnote: Dr Jennifer Marohasy, who is a scientist, and has done major work not only on temperature adjustments (causing the setting-up of an inquiry into what the BoM actually does) but also on the use of artificial neural networks in weather forecasting, has had her adjunct status revoked at Central Queensland University, ostensibly because her work was ‘not well integrated into emerging research clusters’. See her website: g-at-rutherglen/

She thus follows Professor Bob Carter, who had his comparable status at James Cook University revoked some time ago.

The orthodoxy doesn’t like critics, especially from within science, and is not interested in debate.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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