Could Tony Abbott be the Vladimir Putin of Australian politics? Of course, the two men come from wildly different national political contexts, and Abbott has no KGB history or alleged links to political violence and electoral fraud, but there are revealing similarities nonetheless.  Both are reactionary populists who speak to their public through overtly physical demonstrations of manly prowess.

Abbott’s calculatedly visceral “pledge in blood” to repeal the climate tax legislation is simply the latest expression — this time rhetorical — of the Liberal leader’s conspicuously masculine physicality. Abbott has fired rifles and cannons, cycled marathons, competes in iron man events and has appeared on the beach in racing bathers. Then there was the dalliance with monster trucks at the No Carbon Tax Convoy. In the last 36 hours before the 2010 federal election, Abbott refused sleep, as he chased every last voter contact through the night before the poll.

This morning, The Australian carries a photo of Abbott building a house:

“For two days, Cape York grandmother Doreen Hart has been making sandwiches and billy tea for Tony Abbott on a remote bush building site as he hammers away, helping her family build a home.”

… Mr Abbott is visiting Cape York this week and, at Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson’s urging, spent two days with Ms Hart’s family on site, hammering, sawing and building.

She, for one, was amazed he continued to work after the television cameras were turned off.”

Putin may not have been snapped building housing for citizens with his bare hands, but he’s known for his downhill skiing and black belt in judo, and has appeared in footage driving a truck and a train, been on a submarine and co-piloting a jet fighter.  He’s bigger on the wildlife than Abbott, or more specifically, shooting at it: he shot a whale with a crossbow, nailed a Siberian tiger with a tranquiliser dart, and then there are those infamous pics of him shirtless riding a horse.

Clearly Abbott’s got a way to go to catch up on what Pravda has described as Putin’s “image of machismo and manliness”, but it is only a matter of degree.

Abbott’s relentless physical exhibitionism is sometimes regarded as mere eccentricity. But the Liberal leader’s bodily exertions are critical to understanding his political persona. As with Putin, Abbott’s actions function as an expression of his opportunistic and populist approach to politics, providing a powerful form of mostly wordless communication direct to the electorate.

Principle and restraint are expendable in the pursuit of office for the man who reputedly said he would do anything but “sell his arse” to become prime minister.  Abbott’s lust for power is accompanied by haughty certainty in his own fundamental rectitude, which together means that the Opposition Leader appears to regard gross policy inconsistency as unworthy of worry; mere eggs to be cracked on the way to the prime ministerial omelet. You won’t get a credible policy platform from Abbott — but what you will get is ever-present physical energy.  For the Liberal Party under its current leader, action — and action laden rhetoric — is the new policy coherence.

Abbott’s muscular populism finds its clearest policy expression in the context of the climate change debate. While the government initiated inquiries and elaborated complex policy formulations, the political stunt man gave a nod and a wink to the “fine Australians” who turned up at the no carbon tax rallies, and offered up the Coalition’s  Direct Action Plan.  The Coalition’s plan may be scientifically and economically unpersuasive, but the nonsensical content doesn’t matter because the “direct action” framing is a perfect linguistic showcase for Abbott’s action-packed political character.

In the cases of  Abbott and Putin, their physicality is linked to a nostalgic and aggressively populist nationalism. In the Russian case, Putin’s literal strong-man image is perfectly attuned to the psychological needs of a population still adjusting to the loss of superpower status, imperial territory and the communist social safety net, but with international influence on the way back courtesy of the resources boom.  Putin is the personification of Russia’s return to strength — Moscow’s new brawniness incarnate.

Abbott’s rhetoric is clearly and deliberately calibrated to reach a certain constituency of Australians who are weary of cosmopolitan globalisation, and yearn for a return to a more predictable communitarian past. Flirting with demagoguery, the Liberal leader has used patriotism to excuse the belligerently irrational and anti-institutional attitudes of attendees at the no carbon tax rallies. And there seems little doubt that his strong-man flaunting appeals to those whom Abbott has dubbed “salt of the earth Aussies”.

In a hurried and anxious world, there is reassurance to be found in Abbott’s old-fashioned beefiness. The implicit message is that government is not as hard as the “elites” make out: all that is needed is some commonsense action from a bloke who’s prepared to get in there and get on with things, rather than worrying about namby pamby concerns such as evidence, economics, science, consistency, detail or coherence.  Strategy, ideology and temperament are fused in the conspicuous cavorting of Abbott the political stunt man.

But while opportunism and actioneering are currently making for politically effective opposition, they do not bode well for a principled prime minister.  As Australians will find out if Abbott one day gets the top job — and Russians have already experienced with Putin — muscular populism does not make for good government.

Peter Fray

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