Never accepted and never going to be
Rightly or wrongly, the public never warmed to Tony Abbott and were never going to. His unpopularity was simply terminal. Even his own party never really accepted him as leader. There is even the famous rumour that senior Liberals told an ambitious Abbott during the Howard years, ‘sorry Tony, we just don’t see you as Prime Minister material’. With that, politics was never going to end up being kind to Abbott as Prime Minister – and it wasn’t.
It should all come as no surprise. Abbott spent a lot of political capital as the government’s attack dog in the Howard years and there was really no way back. For a current example, try to imagine Christopher Pyne as a future Prime Minister… exactly.
When Abbott became opposition leader in December 2009, in a shaky 42-41 vote over Turnbull, he wasn’t remotely considered as a contender to win the next election or even to be around for the next one after that. After all, the Liberals were in the gutter and Rudd was dominating Turnbull (56%-44% two party preferred and 65%-14% preferred PM according to Newspoll).
Think about that for a moment: the Liberals were getting creamed by Labor and Rudd was annihilating Turnbull, yet Abbott was still only begrudgingly shovelled in as leader by his own party. How much worse would the Liberals have had to have been before they endorsed Abbott more fulsomely? And there lies the issue: if Abbott’s own party could not convincingly endorse him, then what hope for the public at large?
Abbott was merely seen by the Liberals as a place holder to stop the bleeding created by Nelson and Turnbull: until someone else better and more marketable came along. This probably says something about the available talent pool at the time.
Something funny then happened: with good doses of conviction and luck, Abbott began to succeed beyond anyone’s expectations. He started by bucking the trend and opposing Rudd’s carbon trading scheme (previously supported by Turnbull as opposition leader). From there:
- Abbott saw off Kevin Rudd within six months on the back of the mining tax disaster and some good old fashioned Labor backstabbing*.
*Seriously, you could not script this stuff. At the time (June 2010), Labor was hardly terminal in the polls (Newspoll had them ahead 52-48) and Rudd was still comfortably more popular than Abbott (46%-37%) and was probably always going to be so. Yes, Rudd was a megalomaniac and an incompetent, cringe worthy Prime Minister, but there was really no sane reason to bring in Gillard when you look at those numbers.
- Abbott nearly won the next election against Gillard. Again, you have to stop and think about this. Within one year, the Liberals had gone from being landslide losers with Turnbull to almost winning the next election but for a handful of cross benchers (the less that’s said about them the better).
- Abbott took full advantage of Gillard’s carbon tax disaster and incompetence as arguably the worst Prime Minister in Australia’s history and saw her off before comfortably dealing with the recycled Rudd at the next election in 2013.
Out of luck
Labor’s sheer incompetence in government and internal dysfunction were absolute gifts for Abbott. As Rudd and Gillard kept bungling project after project, fighting each other and destroying the federal budget, Abbott and the Liberals grew stronger as the least despicable alternative. It took Abbott all the way to the Lodge, which is about the time Abbott’s luck ran out.
Firstly, the ‘preference whisperer‘ helped give Abbott a very difficult Senate to deal with. Until Clive Palmer predictably lost control over his party, Abbott had to effectively get Clive’s approval to anything he wanted passed. Once Clive’s show was over, it then effectively became a matter of dealing with the likes of Lambie, Lazarus, Wang (i.e. Clive) and some motoring enthusiast who knew very little about politics.
In all honesty though, there should be little sympathy for Abbott here as he could and should have negotiated better. Yes, the Senate cross-bench were largely a bunch of populist buffoons, but aren’t pretty much all politicians? A few promised upgrades to Bathurst here, some big mining projects there and some good old fashioned Tasmanian pork barrelling could have worked wonders. Some begrudging compromises might not have gone astray either. After all, if Howard could get the Democrats to support the GST, anything is possible. We may never know how reasonable Abbott was here or how hard he really tried. Whatever the case, the result wasn’t there and the buck stops with Abbott.
Next, Labor changed their internal rules to make it harder to engage in as much of the internal backstabbing that comes so naturally to them. Coupled with the lower profile of being in opposition, this turned the focus squarely on Abbott and his weaknesses which were previously not as big a deal in the face of the Rudd-Gillard catastrophe.
Lastly, the Liberals saw the fun Labor had in backstabbing Prime Ministers and decided to join in themselves. For at least 6-12 months (and possibly more) there was a Liberal cabal working to undermine and remove Abbott. By 15 September 2015, they had succeeded (54-45). Just like Rudd had done to Gillard, the bitten Turnbull finally had his revenge, fracturing his party along the way.
Some of the good and the bad
- Stopped country shoppers illegally arriving by boat, so that we could use our annual refugee quota to take in legitimate refugees.
- Removed the carbon tax and mining tax.
- Opened a Royal Commission into union corruption.
- Stopped the federal budget bleeding to death (caveat below).
- Committed to a plebiscite on gay marriage after Labor refused to do so when in government.
- Needlessly brought back the Knights and Dames honours and made Prince Philip a Knight (harmless stuff, but still).
- Refused to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
- Increased the top marginal tax rate by 2% (you may argue this is right in principle, but it was a net vote killer for Abbott).
- Couldn’t find a way to negotiate successfully with the Senate cross bench.
- Backed Arthur Sinidinos, Bronwyn Bishop and Peta Credilin against a tidal wave of opinion to the contrary – only for the first two to end up stabbing him in the back.
- Hung on to his unaffordable paid parental leave scheme for too long.
- Didn’t communicate in a way that resonated with the public.
- Didn’t credibly bring the federal budget back towards surplus.
- Didn’t reign in and balance out the ABC’s political coverage.
- Didn’t keep his party united.
Some will try to say that Abbott was the worst PM in history. Given the existence of Gillard, Whitlam and Rudd, let’s put that kind of foolish thinking to one side. Abbott can rest assured that he hasn’t made it on to the podium as worst PM ever. If you want to be cynical about it, you can say that Abbott was never given the chance to cause anywhere near as much damage as those three.
However, the fact is that Abbott won’t be remembered as a very good Prime Minister. He’s not exactly competing with Howard and Hawke and comes in somewhere ahead of Keating (given the crippling recession and financial catastrophe that Keating left).
In the end, Abbott was handicapped by his unpopularity, couldn’t implement an agenda that resonated with the public and made too many vote crunching mistakes. The sad thing is, many people will tell you that Abbott is a decent, sincere and compassionate person in private with an overarching sense of community duty: probably more reasons why there wasn’t enough room for him at the top of politics.