It was December 2003, and new Labor leader and serial Bush Administration critic Mark Latham had just met with the US Ambassador. To reassure voters that the leadership version of Mark Latham was different from the Latham who called George W. Bush “the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory”, he called a press conference in Parliament House, with his little-known foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd.
Just to make sure voters got the message, an enthusiastic staffer placed an American flag alongside an Australian flag behind Latham without consulting him Afterward, Latham spent as much time defending the placement of the flag as he did discussing his views on the US alliance.
Whether you believe what your opponents are saying about you or not, it’s rarely wise to act as if they’re right. And it rarely convinces people anyway. Simon Crean devoted the first part of his leadership to trying to shrug off the Howard Government’s line that he was a trade union stooge by setting up a brawl with unions over ALP representation, which only served to make Labor look like it was self-obsessed. Weighed down by brawling over party machinery issues, Crean’s leadership never got off the ground.
Tony Abbott appears to have decided that his critics are right and he really does have a problem with women. And he’s over-compensated, like Latham and Crean did.
Worse, his over-compensation comes with a multi-billion dollar price tag to be paid by the Liberal Party’s core supporters.
There’s another failed Opposition Leader to throw into the comparison, as well. Malcolm Turnbull was attacked by colleagues and lost support among the party’s base for, it was said, moving too far away from Liberal philosophy in a progressive direction. But that was on climate change. Abbott has walked away from a more central component of Liberal philosophy in backing higher taxes and bigger government.
What happened to the Liberal Party of keeping government small and taxes low? Is there anyone left who believes in that? We know you had to keep a low profile during the Howard years, but where are you now?
Abbott has also cruelled what chance the Coalition might have had of successfully running a scare campaign on taxes. It’s only a matter of weeks since Abbott was promising no new taxes. The bloke is developing a serious reputational problem for reversing himself. It’s fair enough to reverse yourself over a number of years, as he’s done on the whole parental leave issue — it’s shows Abbott maturing both as a person and as a politician — but not over a number of weeks, especially not if your reversals have direct consequences for business.
Abbott has been doing well with a relentlessly negative posture toward the Government. The first time he has moved into positive policy territory, he has stumbled.