Crikey



Meglomaniacal Abbott finally comes out of the cabinet

Generally,  Tony Abbott does humility pretty well. But in a couple of questions at the Rooty Hill RSL on Wednesday night his guard slipped and we saw another side of his personality.

Normally he manages to pepper his answers with enough modesty so that we don’t suspect he is the power-hungry being that basically all people seeking high office need to be. But in the people’s forum he over-reached and for a moment we glimpsed something almost megalomaniacal.

He was doing so well too. When he walked out and confounded everyone with the populist masterstroke of mixing it with the swinging voters by going “down to be on the level with people”. Although for just a second this comment sounded condescending as he bounded down the steps to join the audience on the floor.

It happened in a response to a question by David Speers about why Abbott had not honoured a “rock-solid iron-clad guarantee” in 2004 about the Medicare safety net. Have a look at how he deals with this tricky question.

Ok and David, it’s reasonable for you to remind me of that. That was probably the worst moment of my political life because I had made that commitment as the Health Minister in good faith pre-election …”

This is a brilliant start. Abbott knows this tactic works. First, he concedes some territory in order to gain the credibility he needs to make up ground. Abbott is generally very good at making concession statements. He has had a fair bit of practice because his campaigning style is to go out hard and fast to grab headlines and then to retreat and, if necessary, say a sort of sorry the following day.

But then his answer took an interesting turn.

… and the truth is I was overridden by my colleagues in Cabinet …”

Blaming others, particularly your own colleagues, is normally a bad tactic because it can create an impression of petulance. It can also have the unintended consequence of creating conflict between allies. A very bad move. But Abbott gets away with it here by moving quickly to the rest of his answer.

… And I had the option of either resigning and causing a crisis or if you like swallowing the disappointment and the, I suppose, sense of if you like ethical inadequacy that I felt at that time and trying to continue to help the government and I guess the conclusion I came to and I hope you don’t think it’s too self-serving, but the conclusion I came to was that to resign would look like a dummy-spit and so on balance I thought that I shouldn’t do it …”

Here we see Abbott is straying from the script. He’s buying time when he repeats words such as “if you like” and “I suppose sense of if you like”. He often does this with plenty of ummhs and ahhs too, which tend to reinforce the perception that he is being cagey with his answer. However, here he is letting us in to his inner thoughts to see his sense of guilt, or “ethical inadequacy”.  The audience appreciates it when he puts aside the mantra of campaigning politics. Perhaps because it knows that when Abbott does this, there’s a reasonable chance he’ll come unstuck.

And then came this.

… But, you see, if I’m the Prime Minister I don’t get overridden by my Cabinet colleagues. So I wouldn’t be in that situation this time the way I was then.”

Wow. This takes some thinking about. It is startling for what it reveals about the nature of executive power and cabinet solidarity. It speaks volumes about the way Abbott’s mentor, John Howard, must have run his cabinet and it suggests that Abbott assumes that all the authority Howard once had will automatically be his on winning office. I doubt Abbott realised he was making such a candid statement.

Later, thanks to a perceptive questioner, he was asked about it again. Rather than retreat immediately to a reassuring line about the need to build consensus, he couldn’t resist telling us about all the power he’d be wielding.

… Ok, look, that’s a fair point. That’s a fair point. Even a Prime Minister has to be extremely conscious of the balance of opinion inside the Cabinet and, you know, Prime Ministers do get outvoted occasionally, I mean there are famous stories of Premiers and Prime Ministers announcing to their colleagues that that decision has been carried, one vote to 19 and so on, but you can’t do that very often.”

Is it just me or does this sound like the musings of a mild megalomaniac? When a prospective PM says “even a Prime Minister”, it’s hard not to conclude that he has a very high opinion of his own importance. When he said “but you can’t do that very often” he was grinning. I don’t think this was ironic. Was he saying that you can ride roughshod over the majority view in cabinet often, just so long as it isn’t very often? The answer suggests Abbott is assuming he will be able to carry a great many decisions regardless of the numbers in the cabinet room once he has won the election.

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