For a seasoned parliamentarian, Tony Abbott makes an awful lot of gaffes. His recent stuff ups include describing the Copenhagen climate talks as “some latter-day environmental Munich agreement kind of thing” and, in September, referring to Julie Gillard as wearing a “shit-eating grin” during question time.
Even the heat of an election campaign isn’t enough to tame Abbott. In the 2007 election campaign Abbott was only a hair’s breadth separated Abbott from Peter Garrett in the gaffe stakes.
First there was his attempted character assassination of asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton. Then there was the exchange with Nicola Roxon after the debate at the Press Club in which Abbott said Roxon was talking “bullshit”. Abbott followed these up with a concession that the Howard government’s IR laws stripped workers of protection. It’s a remarkable series of stuff ups by anyone’s standards.
Or is it?
The longer Abbott’s list of gaffes grows, the more they begin to look like calculated attempts to present himself as the anti-politician politician who says it as he sees it.
This isn’t as mad as it might seem. It’s a response to the stage-managed nature of modern electoral politics. And, more particularly, it serves to distinguish Abbott’s brand of politics from the image of Labor as a bunch of control freaks lead by a Ruddbot.
Of course, the reality is that Abbott’s gaffes are as carefully stage-managed as a school hall opening funded from Labor’s education revolution.
Take Abbott’s own reaction to his gaffes. In his very first press conference after taking the leadership, for example, Abbott issued an apology for every gaffe he’s ever made — thereby highlighting his image as the tell-it-like-it-is politician.
The response of the conservative cheer squad in the press reinforces the point that this is more strategy than spontaneity. For example, a day after winning the Liberal leadership, the Daily Telegraph editorialised that although Abbott is a walking gaffe machine, “He’d be wise, though, not to rein in too much of the character Australia has come to know”.
The editorial continued: “While leadership will demand a certain restraint, Abbott arrived at his current prominence due in part to a blunt-talking, politically incorrect style. Broadly speaking, he should continue in the same way.”
The shock jocks have also chipped in to help cement Abbott’s image as the anti-politician politician. In a cringe-worthy performance, for example, 2UE’s Steve Price counselled listeners: “So we might not all of us agree with what Tony Abbott has to say — and you certainly have some attitudes that people grapple with — but no one is going to die wondering where you are coming from in the next 12 months when we get to an election, I don’t think?’
Abbott didn’t miss his cue to hammer home the point that he’s a conviction politician, telling Price’s listeners: “Well I think that’s true, Steve, and people expect a contest and they don’t like white-bread politicians, they don’t like people who … look as though they have had the life squeezed out of them and that is something that I hope, a trap I hope I never fall into.”
Of course, the strategy doesn’t always work, as Abbott’s comments about Banton illustrate. In other ways, though, Abbott’s stage-managed gaffes work a treat. For example, many voters would have regarded Abbott’s 2007 gaffe about the IR laws as a rare instance of a politician leaving the Land of Spin for the real world.
Similarly, in July 2007 Abbott caused a minor stir after responding “shit happens” when asked about John Howard’s broken promise to hand over the leadership to Peter Costello. Asked afterwards if he regretted making the remark, Abbott replied “shit happens” again.
Once might have been a slip, but twice suggests it was calculated from the outset to grab media attention away from the Liberal’s damaging leadership fight.
The Liberals seems to have given up hope that voters might warm to Abbott over time. Abbott’s gambit seems, instead, to portray himself as the conviction politicians who you go to when you’re tired of Labor’s control freaks.
This is a risky strategy. First, its success rest on voters tiring of the government, rather than actually developing policies that might appeal to the electorate. Secondly, it’s based on the hope that voters won’t notice that the gaffes as just another form of stage-managed politics. Thirdly, and more damagingly, Abbott’s strategic gaffes are being overshadowed by authentic masters of the political gaffe, such as Barnaby Joyce.
The tell-it-like-it-is politician is a cute idea that’s good for a few runs through the media cycle, but it’s no substitute for actually leading or coming up with some policies.
Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University and is a co-founder of www.upstart.net.au