Canny or blindly reactionary?  Crazy brave or plain stupid?  That’s the question about Tony Abbott and his front bench.

Are we missing something or is this bloke as politically clumsy as he seems to be?

It’s not that several people aren’t buying it.  Some commentators insist that Abbott’s “straight-talking” is a refreshing change, and after two years of Ruddspeak I understand where they’re coming from.  Yet I can’t see any evidence of “straight talking” from Abbott on climate change, an issue that may make or break his leadership.  He seems to say something different depending on whether he is talking to Alan Jones — where the planet is cooling and Copenhagen is like Munich — or the ABC, where he declares he believes in climate change and the issue is what to do about it.

Looks a lot like the “weather-vane” Abbott termed himself, not some straight-shooting anti-politician.

And he has defended his Night at the Museum frontbench line-up by saying they’re experienced and aggressive and it was time for the coalition to start being oppositional, not a government-in-exile.

Funny way to show you’re not a government-in-exile, by promoting a bunch of former government ministers, but that’s mere detail.

What no one has pointed out is that, far from being the tactical brains behind nearly 12 years of Howard rule, the dinosaurs promoted by Abbott were duds.  Philip Ruddock managed to make the government synonymous with lying, the incarceration of children, the demonisation of asylum seekers and, after it was punted from immigration, the debacle that became the David Hicks case.  Kevin Andrews screwed up Workchoices (admittedly a howling, flea-bitten dog of a policy anyway) and then, when sacked from that, presided over the Haneef outrage at immigration.  Bronwyn Bishop’s brief, and yet far too long, time in ministerial office will forever be associated with kerosene baths and, as Andrew Podger’s recent book showed, a difficulty working with either officials or colleagues.

Not to mention Eric Abetz, whose place in Australian political history is secure courtesy of his gulling by Godwin Grech.

Duds, the lot of them, and yet supposedly these are the types who will provide a killer instinct.

There’s also some convenient rewriting of history going on.  I don’t recall Malcolm Turnbull shying away from being oppositional enough.  In fact earlier this year the primary complaint was that he never said anything positive about anything.  He was, after all, the bloke who proudly declared he’d be voting against the second stimulus package, and suffered in the polls for it.

Not much in the way of “government-in-exile” politics there.

Abbott has got his strategy backwards.  There’s 11 months, tops, before an election.  Now is the time to start selling your policies, not the time to be ramping up the negativity.  And yet Abbott has deliberately picked a bunch of divisive, incompetent faces of yesteryear to go out and ceaselessly carp about a popular Prime Minister and his government.

And he’s appointed an ignorant, Sinophobic economic irrationalist as finance shadow, a decision that speaks volumes about his judgement.

Meantime, the cause of generational renewal on the Liberal frontbench has been seriously set back.  Talent such as Jamie Briggs and the high-quality newcomers Paul Fletcher and Kelly O’Dwyer should have at least been blooded with parliamentary secretaryships.

I can’t see this working but there are plenty, especially in the right-wing media, who seem to think it’s a clever strategy.

Funny, though, because I’ve thought for two years now that the Opposition needed to take the focus off itself and issues that hurt it — like climate change and industrial relations — and onto the government’s weak spots, if it could.  It needed the media to stop talking about it and start talking about Kevin Rudd.

And along comes Tony Abbott with a frontbench that will keep attention focused on the coalition and a strategy to fight the next election on climate change and another round of IR reform.

Plainly, I’m missing something.

Peter Fray

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