It did not take long for the real Tony Abbott to re-emerge. Just a day after talking about a “kinder, gentler polity” and asserting that “a consultative and collegial culture” was in the Coalition’s DNA, there was the Commonwealth Parliament’s champion headkicker, fulminating about Julia Gillard “trashing the Westminster conventions” and her “desperate attempts to cling to power”.
All of this because she is indicating a pre-disposition to respond to the perfectly reasonable requests of the regional independents to be given access to the policies and costings of the policy portfolios of the two main political contenders for government.
Meanwhile, in support of Abbott’s position, his sidekick Andrew Robb was intoning about the importance of public servants being able to give free, frank and fearless advice. After the way the Howard Government cowed and bullied the public service, and the private sniggering that went on at the very notion of “free, frank and fearless”, that is more than somewhat rich.
I think several attributes of the real Tony Abbott are on display here:
(1) Apart from the combativeness, he is, like his political mentor and hero John Winston Howard, a very slippery and tricky fellow, able to say one thing one day and quite another the next, and believe each of them implicitly at the moment of utterance. As Groucho Marx once remarked, “Sincerity is the most important thing in life. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made”.
(2) The Howard Government traduced the reputation of Andrew Wilkie when he resigned from the Office of National Assessments, a fact which Tony Abbott has belatedly recognised by apologising to him. Scant regard was shown also for the reputation of Mohamed Haneef, who was treated in a manner that is unconscionable in any society that has a regard for the rule of law. Now the Coalition’s leading spokesmen are justifying withholding their costings on the grounds that “the process is corrupt” – code for “the Treasury is corrupt”, a phrase which they cannot quite bring themselves to utter.
(3) During his time as a Minister in the Howard Government, Tony Abbott had a reputation for submitting sloppy and poorly thought-through Cabinet Submissions, but being indulged by his mentor John Howard. I have no doubt that the costings he is so anxious to protect are dodgy in the extreme, cobbled together for the purposes of the election, but never intended to see the light of day or withstand any professional scrutiny. If he were defeated they would go into the shredder. If he won, they would likewise go into the shredder, and any blow-out would be based on a confected “budgetary black hole” left behind by the departing government.
(4) Tony Abbott has a short attention span and is bored by detail. He loves combat and needs constant excitement. In an op-ed piece in today’s edition of The Australian Financial Review, senior political columnist Laura Tingle says that Abbott’s behaviour reeks of the intent to force another election, and she is probably right. If Abbott does win government, it will be, like the Howard Government, a government of alarums and excursions, a government of constant confected crises. It will not be a period of the sort of stability the regional independents are looking for. If Abbott does not win government this time around, expect behaviour like that of the Coalition during the Whitlam Government – intent from day one on causing such disruption that the Government is forced back to an early election.
None of the above is to be taken as a statement of admiration for Julia Gillard and the creatures who hover around her, desiring political power as an end in itself. It ain’t; see A plague a’ both their houses.