Analysing Abbott's failures

How quickly politics change. Earlier this year a prominent leftist editor brought some of us together to plan a special issue about the ways in which Tony Abbott was fundamentally reshaping Australia. Perhaps luckily, the project never eventuated, and the current Prime Minister is consistently winding back the rhetoric of the past two years.

With what is effectively a new government in Canberra, do we need a quickie analysing Tony Abbott's failures? Yes, if only because they illuminate one of the striking failures of the past two decades, namely the inability of party rooms to choose their leaders wisely. The qualities that made Abbott so effective an opposition leader were to prove disastrous once he took over government.

Like John Howard, Abbott came from the more conservative wing of his party. Unlike Howard he failed to find ways of moving beyond his base to unite his party. But as Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen stress, he had no firm base even among those who were his ideological peers; the first challenge to his leadership in February came from a group of backbenchers, many of whom were on the right of the party.

It is striking that the putsch against Abbott, like those against both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, were essentially managed by backbenchers, all men. Even Turnbull's natural allies, such as Marise Payne, seem to have been uninvolved. Julie Bishop's support for changing the leadership was crucial, but she remained loyal to Abbott until the last days, despite considerable provocation to move against him.

Probably only a minority of the parliamentary party were Turnbull enthusiasts, but clearly a majority had lost faith in Abbott: "the broken promises, the zealotry, the unconscious bias, the shouting, the failure to listen and the misguided loyalty" . . . the authors could be describing Kevin Rudd, who also was brought down in his first term.

The difference is that the case against Abbott was clearly established in the public mind, and Malcolm Turnbull was far more willing than Gillard to make a case for challenging him. Battle Ground is an exhaustive study of the mistakes, both in policy and management, that led Abbott's colleagues to overthrow him two years after one of Australia's most decisive electoral victories.

Here is a survey of virtually all the key decisions and stumbles of the government between September 2013 and September 2015, although Abbott might feel his successes are underplayed. Bronwyn Bishop's fall from grace and the Gilbertian award of a knighthood to Prince Philip receive far more attention than do the repeal of the mining and carbon taxes.

The authors acknowledge that asylum-seeker boats were stopped, and are clearly uncomfortable with aspects of the government's treatment of asylum seekers.

The other figure in this book is Abbott's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, whose influence is discussed as much as that of all the cabinet combined. By contrast, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss receives two mentions in passing, which suggests either insignificance or an ability to operate under the radar of the press gallery.

The real strength of Battle Ground is its insights into Abbott's character, which differ to some degree from those of David Marr's Quarterly Essay Political Animal (2012), a work largely ignored by Errington and van Onselen.

They stress Abbott's authoritarian streak, his loyalty but also, most significantly, his lack of confidence beneath the macho bluster.

I wonder, though, at the claim that Abbott "lacked the confidence to govern as his authentic self", a claim reminiscent of those made about Gillard. Is it not more likely the case that Abbott lacked the skills to manage the complexities of government, and no amount of "self-authenticity" would have resolved this?

Inevitably a book such as this will depend on inside gossip and loose tongues, and the authors provide sufficient detail and name sufficient names to satisfy most political junkies, including conversations with Abbott himself. Like most gossip, the interest in this is ephemeral, but there is sufficient reflection on the underlying problems of Abbott's government to make this book worth reading.

This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Dennis Altman is a professorial fellow in the Institute for Human Security and Social Change, La Trobe University.