Tips for a resurgent PM

Prime Minister Tony Abbott - himself at last.

An Australian Prime Minister is neither a national symbol nor a community counsellor.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

Miracles do happen. You can believe it. Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, certainly does.

His government has regained some traction and it’s starting to claw back in the polls. A second assault upon the PM’s leadership, widely predicted for earlier this week, evaporated. 

After the failed “spill motion” of 9 February – which Abbott survived 60 votes to 39, and in which many saw signs of an imminent and premature end to his prime ministerial career – this week’s no-show challenge demonstrated both the determination of Abbott as a political fighter and the weakness, hesitancy and misdirectedness of his many (but not unjustified) critics within the federal parliamentary Liberal Party. 

The last few days have demonstrated also the power of that unpredictable factor in life – especially in war and politics – Fortuna. 

The why and wherefore of Fortuna ultimately eludes explanation; but good fortune certainly turned its face toward Abbott on March 2 when Fairfax media published the results of its latest Ipsos poll.  However faint and uncertain its reported shift in the breeze, it was strong enough to scatter the anti-Abbott media whisperers and just substantial enough for the PM to exploit in the way that only bold and desperate leaders can. 

Today, Tony Abbott seems like a new man – as if a great weight has lifted from his shoulders.  It is as if, after a protracted and painful metamorphosis from Opposition Leader, a Prime Minister has finally emerged. 

The other day in Question Time (March 5), Abbott was actually happy: by which I mean that there was a jolly comfortableness with himself and his job – something we have not observed since before he became Leader of the Opposition in December 2009. 

Here are a couple of gratuitously offered tips for a Prime Minister who’s recovering his footing.

Abbott unvarnished 

First, be yourself.

Talk the way you want.  Laugh the way you do.  Even dress the way you choose. Loosen up.  Above all, tell us plainly how you see things and why we should want to go where you hope to take us.  Just be Tony Abbott unvarnished and give us “Yes for Yes and No for No.” 

Avoid, accordingly, the temptation of thinking that a Prime Minister is Mr. Australia. It is an impossible role to play.  There are too many and too deep contradictions within the range of so-called “Australian values” for any human being to contain within himself. Even if “Australian values” were coherent, an Australian Prime Minister is neither a national symbol nor a community counsellor.  He can only offer himself and his values as the compass by which he leads:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
(Polonius, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3). 

Kith and kin

Secondly, stay close to your own.

Since you can only be yourself, stick near to those who identify with you.  If you move too far from your own to embrace those who aren’t, you risk losing your own while failing to gain those who are not: the former think “betrayal”; the latter think “fake”. 

Which is why, with Paid Parental Leave, you jilted the single-income families of modest means – chief among those that “that brung ya” to the dance floor – without winning a compensating gratitude from those who stood to benefit most from PPL: the already well-to-do who, more often than not, mock your supposed conservatism. 

It’s not true, as Malcolm Turnbull recently claimed, that one should govern from the “sensible centre”.  The centre today is far from sensible.  It’s there that policy confusion has its source because it’s precisely there that the contradictions in “Australian values” are now most evident. 

The centre, for instance, wants governments to make Australia financially stable and prosperous, but wants both lower taxes and inviolable entitlements all at the same time. 

I could go on about the attempt at the Australian centre to reconcile moral opposites in family life.  But I won’t.  Suffice it to say that the wisest words near to this point were offered by your old friend Greg Sheridan when he wrote recently that 

“… the decline in religion is removing one of the bases of traditional centre-right political stability.” (The Australian, February 7, 2015) 

Too right about that. It certainly does make things a lot tougher for a conservative and religious Prime Minister. But that does not call for a manoeuvre into the increasingly irreligious centre. That would be “fake” and everyone would see it.  There is no alternative for Prime Minister Abbott: he can only do what is now harder than ever – to govern from the centre-right and to draw the centre, by persuasion, after him. 

Anyway, Abbo, the centre-right is not a lonely place: it’s where your political kith and kin are.  Sure, the band might be shrinking, but you can’t win another election without them. Even if you were to fail, to fail with your own rallied about you would be an honourable failure. 

So keep in contact.  You’ve a lot of friends outside the remote fastness of Parliament House. You need a way of reconnecting with them. 

Statesmanship 

You also need to cultivate the feel for statesmanship. You avoided it during the long hard slog of Opposition when your instinctive pragmatism ruled. Though there were exceptional moments: like your address to the National Press Club in January 2012 and your Address-in-Reply to the 2013 Budget. Unhappily, you did not build on these. You reduced things to a “mantra”: your term, not mine. 

Well, now you have no choice.  There is no alternative today to drawing the unsensible centre toward you on the issue of Budget repair.  This can only be done with a vision of things to come that people can latch onto – and that, in all likelihood, only by long and patient articulation and explanation. Given the gravity of our problems, this is a work that calls for a statesman. You need, for Australia’s sake, to make the transition. It will take all that remains of your present term in office to bring the people of the centre over to your side. 

Time out 

Finally, take some regular time off. Disappear for a few days. Leave the shop to Warren Truss and turn off the mobile. Read a book. I’ll even suggest one to start with: George Friedman, Flash Points: the emerging crisis in Europe (Doubleday, 2015). Very apropos. 

Prediction

OK. I’ve done advising. I’ll now look into my crystal ball. 

Hmm.  Interesting. It’s not plain sailing from here for Abbott, by any means.  If he makes it through the next Budget, however, without major errors – if there are any, expect that second “spill” motion to re-emerge around 15 June – then Tony Abbott will lead the Coalition into the next elections and will win them with a reduced but comfortable margin. 

By the way, I do not expect there to be any major Budget errors.  Abbott may be devilish hard to shake from his chosen course, but his recent “near death experience” has shaken him, indeed, and he has learned much about where he went wrong. 

There will come the day when Prime Minister Abbott will feel deeply grateful for the fearful drubbing he got, during the past several months, from his many friends and well-wishers in the News Limited stable. 

They’ve proved friends in need.

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