Well, hasn’t Tony Abbott belled the cat, to use the infuriating phrase that seems only to get trotted out during election campaigns like this one? For those who haven’t heard the incessant whirring of the media spin-dryer, he made what many seem to think is the mother of all gaffes yesterday night on the 7.30 Report, a show on which political leaders appear to fire rounds of live ammunition at their own feet. And the Government, whose apparently unassailable lead has been dropping faster than the euro, has been crowing about it.
First, a quick reminder of what he said:
KERRY O’BRIEN: Tony Abbott feels with conviction we will not have a new tax in any way, shape or form, we won’t have a new tax; a month later, you do.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, again Kerry, I know politicians are gonna 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 those carefully prepared scripted remarks.
To summarise this extraordinary revelation, then, a man who intends to convince the electorate to make him Prime Minister admitted that the only statements we should take as being entirely credible are the written ones he’s had a long time to think about, and run past a few other people first. Everything else he utters is, well, just plain unbelievable.
It’s well worth watching the video of O’Brien’s interview – a masterclass in twisting the knife from the ABC veteran. He simply won’t let Abbott off the hook, and as is so often the case, the Opposition Leader struggles to walk the line between refreshing candour and just plain shooting his mouth off.
The Government’s been on the ropes in the polls lately, but this incident is a miracle tonic that’s proving nearly as effective as whatever the Prime Minister pours onto his hair. They’ve been quick to dub him ‘Phoney Tony’, and send out their chief attack dog (their Howard-era Tony Abbott, perhaps?), Anthony “Albo” Albanese, to whack together a bunch of talking points and glib lines elegantly showcased at The Punch. And clearly smelling blood, they’ve also rushed out a rather lame attack ad.
Sure, their effort to send him over the boundary is more reminiscent of Michael Clarke in the Twenty20 final than Mike Hussey in the semi, but it’s fair to say that Abbott’s taken a bruising today. Labor’s strategy has been the same one that John Howard used so successfully against Mark Latham – sit back, and wait for the guy to implode. It’s proven more high-stakes than Labor was expecting, sure, but it was always sound to bet on Abbott’s fondness for verbal Russian roulette.
Rudd has taken Howard’s ultra-defensive interview technique to a new level of soporific stonewalling, to the point where even a slight moment of petulance in his own interview last week was hailed as though it was a massive dummy-spit. But to watch Abbott being interviewed is like watching a gutsy tail-ender who’s capable of whacking the ball out of the stadium, but is always in danger of knocking over his own stumps. Whereas Rudd’s interviews are as lifeless as a Gerard Henderson column criticising him, Abbott’s are usually fascinating highwire acts.
And he didn’t disappoint last night. After giving O’Brien what he must have realised was a coup, he tried to clarify his position, and like wrestling with a tar baby, only got himself into more trouble:
TONY ABBOTT: OK. This is an argument that we could well have had in March and we did have it in March and a lot of people pointed out back then that there was a bit of inconsistency and I accept that. There is a bit of inconsistency.
TONY ABBOTT: But I’m just – I mean, people will make their judgments of me, Kerry, and I accept that and I understand that, and some of them will say, “Ah ha, he said this in a radio interview in February and then a month later in March he made a commitment on paid parental leave which is not completely consistent with that former statement.”
TONY ABBOTT: And some people, Kerry, will judge me very harshly.
It was fascinating political theatre, quite the opposite of what you expect of someone who has decades of experience in the Federal Parliament, unless that someone is Bill Heffernan.
But is this the moment where Tony Abbott lost the election? Is it his Lathamesque handshake moment, where his inability to control himself turns off the electorate? I’m not so sure.
The Opposition’s attempt to spin themselves out of this latest instance of foot-in-mouth disease has been to cite it as another example of his authenticity. And as ridiculous as this initially seems, you know what, to borrow Kevin Rudd’s favorite verbal tic? I think they’ve got a point. Because despite the gaffe-o-matic tendencies that were so brilliantly highlighted on that day during the last campaign when he was late to a televised debate, swore and had to apologise for insulting a terminally ill man, no-one’s really in doubt about what Abbott stands for.
If anything, his tendency to speak without thinking means that we know too much to want to elect him, because it makes it hard for him to reassure us that he’s a reasonable, moderate guy. Despite the boost in the polls as Rudd has faltered, there are probably a few too many comments about the immorality of abortion and climate change being “absolute crap” in Abbott’s past for us to think he’s really changed his spots. And he himself alluded to this in the O’Brien interview:
TONY ABBOTT: I think the argument from the Labor Party much more often has been that I am so consistently on one side of the argument that I’m some kind of conservative ogre – I thought that was the argument that the Labor Party put more often.
If Kevin Rudd wins the election – and as the Centrebet odds demonstrate, you’d be brave to bet against it – it won’t be because people think Tony Abbott’s been exposed as a liar. It’ll be because they think that underneath it all, he’s still the same old Tony Abbott.
Labor’s rush to make hay out of the implication that the Opposition Leader is a habitual liar, and the willingness with which the media have taken this up, masks several interesting things about the O’Brien conversation.
The first is that he’s essentially right about the difference between conversational hyperbole (take Garrett’s infamous “short, jocular conversation”, for instance) and carefully considered policy statements. I would hope (although, to be honest, rather doubt) that voters pay for more attention to the detailed policy statements each party puts out than to the offhand comments their leaders make in passing, or even more superficially, on Sunrise.
Furthermore, we expect politicians – well, not to lie, but certainly to tell people what they want to hear a lot of the time. It’s par for the course, and we all do it to some degree. When I’m in a cab in Queensland, I pretend to care about rugby league far more than I actually do. And while Kerry O’Brien may be right, and a different standard is expected of would-be political leaders, the revelation that sometimes pollies like to gild the lily is hardly a shocking one.
And this, incidentally, is precisely Kevin Rudd’s problem at the moment – he has reformulated his message so many times that the electorate is left wondering what he stands for. Does he really care about climate change, refugees and health reform, or does he just say it because it’s what his focus groups tell him that the electorate wants to hear, without intending to follow through with any concrete action for fear of frightening the horses? Are these convictions or just demagoguery? We don’t know any more, and that, I would suggest, is why Labor has dropped in the polls, and why Julia Gillard is beginning to seem like an attractive alternative. Within the heart of Rudd Labor, there is now a conviction void, and that’s never true of Tony Abbott, even though what he happens to believe at any one time sometimes changes rapidly.
This Lathamesque policy-on-the-run habit is Abbott’s biggest problem, and it’s what Labor’s delight to turn Abbott’s Rudd-is-a-phony meme back on himself has missed. No wonder Abbott suggested focusing on those of his policies that have been thoroughly thought through, because it’s not an admission that he lies, but rather that he sometimes tends to make things up as he goes along. Take the parental leave policy, which is the contradiction on which O’Brien caught him out. To tax big business to pay for six months of leave is an extraordinarily left-wing policy, even though the tying the figures to existing wages is classic Howard. At a time when his main attack on the Rudd Government was to slam one “big fat new tax” after another, he introduced his own huge hit, to be paid for by the Liberals’ traditional core constituency. And now when he’s trying to criticise the mining tax for crippling business, he’s left having to defend his own slug on the corporate sector.
This abandoning of his Liberal economic-conservative friend-of-business credentials to try and gain short-term headlines reminds me of John McCain, who foolishly threw away his strongest suit – experience – by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. As much as I personally like the parental leave policy, I can only conclude that, since he said he changed his mind as a result of having three daughters of his own, Tony Abbott really, really wants to be a grandfather.
And let’s not forget that he’s got a very difficult job, Tony Abbott. He knows that if he’s labelled as nothing more than a return to Howard, he’ll lose – hence the awkwardness in that same interview of his call for industrial relations reform that isn’t WorkChoices:
TONY ABBOTT: I want it to be more flexible and more workable, but we’re talking about flexibility upwards here, not downwards. Labor’s safety net stays.
Abbott’s excellent at attacking the Government, and his authenticity and plain-speaking is like Kryptonite to Rudd’s bureaucratic, buzzwordy style. But when it comes to going onto the front foot, the Opposition simply isn’t providing a credible alternative. This confusion is clearest in Abbott’s approach to climate change. If I can summarise it, I think it’s as follows: “The climate science is sketchy, and let’s not have an ETS because that’s too expensive, but let’s do instead something more concrete that will do more to actually solve the problem, only which doesn’t cost anything.” What this “something more concrete” is is, of course, remains completely unknown.
While Tony Abbott’s always certain what he’s against, what he’s for is a movable feast. Which is why he changes policies almost as often as he enters triathlons. And yet, one can’t help but suspect that beneath all the reinvention, he’d be delighted to return to almost the exact policies of the Howard era.
Unlike Kevin Rudd and John Howard, Tony Abbott answers questions instead of stonewalling with his tepid talking points, which means that unlike Kevin Rudd and John Howard, Tony Abbott gives interesting interviews, where he takes risks – and gets into trouble. And the upshot of that is, of course, that unlike Kevin Rudd and John Howard, Tony Abbott is unlikely to be elected Prime Minister. Yesterday, he exposed himself not as a habitual liar, as someone who makes policy on the run, and as a result, contradicts himself. It’s the latter of these qualities which is the more likely to cause the electorate to doubt him.