Suddenly it’s all gone bad for Tony Abbott, when he should have been using the flood levy as a springboard to further success against a listless Labor Government. He’s had a shocker of a week.

But none of the problems that are bedeviling Abbott are new. These wretched few days for Abbott is just the culmination of some long-apparent characteristics of his leadership.

As I noted earlier in the week, the constant focus on debt’n’deficits might have been an effective tactic against Labor for the Coalition, but it hasn’t been without problems for the opposition itself, which has found ways to trip over the issue ever since last year’s budget. Every time the Coalition has put together a fiscal set-piece, whether a formal part of the political cycle like its budget reply or its election commitments, or self-engineered event such as this week’s flood package, it has managed to trip over its own feet. And never was it more richly deserved than now when the crass, wholly illogical proposal to defer a successful Howard government program for Indonesian schools — or “Islamic schools” as Abbott was careful to say — has caused a huge row within his ranks.

It complements a broader theme of Abbott’s time in the leadership, that whenever he’s tried positive policy, it’s blown up in his face.

The decision to target Indonesian kids for the sake of fiscal hairy-chestedness has also exposed long-term tensions around Julie Bishop’s position as deputy, and the shape of the frontbench.

After the election and its aftermath was settled, Abbott conducted a minor reshuffle, the basic outcome of which was to punish some moderates — the well-regarded Steve Ciobo, most particularly, but also Michael Ronaldson and Tony Smith — while leaving intact the living dead such Phillip Ruddock, Bronwyn Bishop and the appalling Kevin Andrews.

The reshuffle coincided with one of the sadder leadership tilts of modern political history when two of the more substantial Liberal frontbenchers, Ian Macfarlane and Andrew Robb, tried to knock off Bishop in favour of Robb, so Robb could get Joe Hockey’s job. Bishop has been a perennial target for destabilisation ever since she succeeded Malcolm Turnbull as shadow Treasurer and botched it.

Abbott’s reshuffle, in preserving the likes of Bishop and Andrews, also kept out junior MPs such as Jamie Briggs, Kelly O’Dwyer and Paul Fletcher, all of whom loom large in intellect and policy smarts over many frontbenchers and who will form the next generation of Liberal leadership.

No wonder Briggs, who has more experience in government than many on the frontbench from his time in Howard’s PMO, didn’t hold back in expressing his support for the Indonesian schools program, especially given his Mayo predecessor Alexander Downer is said to be unhappy about it.

And the reason why “shit happens” got so much attention is because Abbott’s reaction played to the doubts most of us have about his temperament under pressure.  That long, quivering, rageful silence didn’t fall on stony ground, not from the man who admitted he makes stuff up when he’s under pressure, or gave a mad laugh and declared he was being a wimp when pressed by a shock jock.

It’s important to remember, by way of context for both the reaction and that entire interview, that there was no ambush of any kind. Abbott had more than two hours’ warning; his office proposed the time and venue of the interview — in short, it’s the only ambush in history where the victim had hours’ notice and picked the time and place.

Seven and Mark Riley have copped a lot of grief over the interview, and there were elements of it I didn’t like, such as the selection of funeral footage that appeared designed to make Abbott look bored and distracted, the failure to approach the family of the Lance Corporal MacKinney, and the initial description of the remark as “insensitive”, which it certainly wasn’t. But if we’d learnt Seven had obtained this footage and failed to air it, we would have been entitled to ask why. And the only reason Seven FOI’d the footage originally was because Abbott’s office didn’t want it released — a bad look for any politician, but particularly one in opposition, where the political rhetoric is always about the need for transparency.

Seven did exactly what we want our media to do — put politicians under pressure, ask them explain themselves, show to the public material they don’t want revealed. Yes, there were flaws in the story as aired, but the problem isn’t that there’s too much of that sort of journalism, it’s that there’s not enough.

Abbott ended his week with an attempt at a rousing speech on yesterday’s Matter of Public Importance debate. His effort would have been compared to Joe Hockey’s MPI effort on Wednesday on the flood levy. Hockey, effortlessly taunting Labor at length about its appointment of John Fahey to the “Reconstruction Inspectorate”, had the better of the comparison. And Hockey has so far gone through the flood recovery savings fight entirely unscathed, in decided contrast to his leader.

Julia Gillard, on the other hand, performed strongly throughout the week, and continued her run of form in Parliament that began in the last sittings of 2010. She’s across her brief, focused, thinks rapidly on her feet,  is aggressive, and funny. It’s the sort of performance she used to give as Rudd’s deputy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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