After its comprehensive defeat in 2007, Abbott talked about the Coalition needing a period of soul-searching in the wilderness while it redefined itself. But the Brendan Nelson era, apparently, was wilderness enough even for a man who managed to literally disappear in the desert for six hours earlier this year. So, he’s abandoned the whole “let’s reinvent ourselves” thing, and now seems to be basing his election campaign around the yearning for the glory days of the Howard Government that lingers within his own manly breast, if not anyone else’s.
And so, with the exception of the bizarrely progressive stance on parental leave which has so divided his party room, all of Tony Abbott’s policies are all just a little bit of history repeating. And I mean ‘repeating’ in the sense of a meal that makes an unpleasant, involuntary return to your throat.
Abbott isn’t John Howard, though, he ventures to stress. And this is true, although only because that’s impossible under the physical laws of the universe as they’re presently understood.
The electorate could be forgiven for thinking the Opposition Leader represented the resurrection of the Grey Giant of Wollstonecraft, because whenever he comes out to tell us about his exciting new policy directions, he ends up sounding like this period in Opposition is just a long nightmare from which we’re all desperate to awaken to find that Janette Howard is still holding tea-parties in Kirribilli House.
Take his position on industrial relations, for example. We can’t go back to WorkChoices, he says. Well, no; but only because the brand is tainted. But his reformist zeal to smash unfair dismissal remains, notwithstanding that the laws aren’t ever used except in circumstances that are, well, “unfair”. To Abbott, the workforce remains a rabble crying out for the Liberal lash, and even though the global financial crisis made the vast majority of the electorate put a premium on job security, he’s determined to keep proposing reforms that virtually nobody appears to want.
Last week, the man who would be Prime Minister strode forth to reclaim the ground that won the 2001 election so convincingly. The boats are back, in his view because the dastardly people-smugglers of Indonesia view Kevin Rudd as a soft touch. But Tough Tony will turn the boats around, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if, during the campaign, he dons the Speedos and swims out into the Pacific to grab the tiller of a leaky asylum boat.
Ironically, Kevin Rudd ran this exact line before the last election. Way back before we realised that his promises meant approximately nothing, he promised to turn the boats back. But it turns out asylum seeker policy’s just a little more complicated than slogans. As the Minister responsible, Chris Evans, pointed out, dealing with the problem is a little more complicated than sloganeering and posturing. Boats get blown up, endangering military personnel, not to mention the asylum-seekers. Would Abbott, for instance, really be so heartless as to turn a sinking boat back?
And really, how can you possibly keep out people so desperate that they’ll clamber aboard leaky boats and pay their life savings to charlatans? The US Government hasn’t managed to get rid of the Cuban rafters, or the Mexican border crossers, so how can we staunch the flow of equally desperate people? They’re not exactly boarding Fairstar The Funship, and it’s naive to think they pay any attention to the vicissitudes of Canberra politics before they make their last-ditch bid for a better life.
For someone who’s always happy to bang on about family values, Abbott is very light on the notion that even the darkies on the boats are part of God’s great big family of creation. And what’s constantly forgotten in this debate is why people go to all this effort to come to Australia. It’s not because they desperately want our jobs, really dig beaches or the chance of appearing on MasterChef. It’s because they’re worried about being killed, or physically harmed if they stay in their own countries – which is, funnily enough, the UN’s definition of a refugee.
You might remember the irony that resulted from the biggest refugee crisis of the Rudd Government – the Oceanic Viking incident. How many of the 78 Tamils we spent all those weeks fussing about were ultimately determined by the UNHCR to be genuine refugees? All. That’s right, all.
Sure, they jumped the queue. Sure, we don’t want to encourage the practice to the point where we’re inundated by a constant flotilla of boats – not least because it’s dangerous for the asylum-seekers. But please, please, can’t the electorate – because after all, it’s our collective fault that this grotesque dog-whistle politics works – find a little empathy for people who are escaping war zones? Surely a nation of ex-convicts might believe in the possibility of redemption?
Well, we know the answer to that. There are no votes in appealing to Australia’s kind-heartedness, even though nearly all of us or our ancestors came here, by boat or plane, in the hope of a better life. Perhaps if we asked potential refugees to showcase their cooking skills on television in front of a panel of three eccentric judges, we might take an interest. The best could be deemed MasterRefos, and given not only permanent residency, but a chance to release their own cookbook.
But unless we do something like that which lets us actually meet these people are and discover why they want to escape their countries to live here, the majority of Australians can be expected to simply hope that they go away. And our leaders will keep promising to make that happen.