There are times when one wonders exactly what is going on inside the head of Tony Abbott, an intelligent, well-educated and highly politically experienced man who periodically says the most bizarre things.
It’s as if deep within him there’s a raging id that, despite the best efforts of his conscious mind, once in a while manages to break through. This week he turned a perfectly sensible reflection about how good it would be to have representatives of remote communities in the national parliament into an insult to one of his own MPs and the impression he was categorising Aboriginal people by “authenticity”.
He did, however, have sufficient political nous to get on the front foot on the child abuse royal commission issue on Monday, and since then has repeatedly rejected the idea that sanctity of the confessional should always be maintained. For a so-called “Captain Catholic”, Abbott looks a lot like the rest of us.
In spite of that, talk has now turned to the need for him to change his strategy, or indeed for the Liberals to change leaders. That may be tricky in the short-term. Next week is a weird Parliamentary half-session, when the Senate alone will be sitting, probably guaranteeing the best Press Gallery attendance at Senate Question Time for years but depriving us of the usual formal political theatre of House of Reps Question Time; that returns the following week, the final of the year. With no immediate prospects for the normal end-of-year political killings (three years in a row! ouch!), it’ll be Christmas parties and those cloying end-of-year speeches when everyone declares how fond they are of the people they’ve spent most of the year relentlessly attacking.
Abbott did use this week to launch a small business policy, although it was more a policy to have a policy, since the policy was to increase the rate of growth in the numbers of small business; this morning he launched a discussion paper on online protection of children, which at least avoided the temptation to purport to regulate the internet. It’s a start in reversing the “relentless negativity”.
The Prime Minister spent the week announcing the royal commission, catching up with Hillary Clinton, having a successful community cabinet meeting in Brisbane mainly devoted to using Campbell Newman as a piñata and explaining to the Business Council the government’s narrative around the Asian Century white paper. While a lot of the focus of Labor’s return in the polls has focused on Labor’s effective targeting of Abbott, Gillard has looked a lot more Prime Ministerial of late — less reactive, more like she has a clear agenda and is capable of implementing it. There are still the usual Labor tricks and spin — the Gonski reforms bill is a childish piece of stunt legislation — but it looks more like a government now than it has at any time since 2009.
That of course isn’t welcome in some quarters. The possibility — discounted by so many of us over the last eighteen months — that Gillard could actually win the next election is now being seriously entertained. It’s a nightmare scenario that may keep two individuals, in particular, awake at night — Chris Mitchell and Paul Whittaker. A Gillard victory would be disastrous for The Australian and The Daily Telegraph in particular, because it would demonstrate their lack of influence. The Australian is losing readers and revenue and has been sacking staff left and right (OK, right and right). All it has left is its status as an influential outlet, one that other journalists, producers and editors (particularly at the ABC) feel obliged to take seriously.
Without that, it is merely a right-wing blog, a Catallaxy Files with more pictures and less intellectual rigour.
Thus the increasingly desperate smear campaign against the Prime Minister, on the back of orders to journalists to always ask the Prime Minister about the AWU matter. It even follows her overseas: at a press conference in Bali last week, The Australian’s Jakarta correspondent actually appeared to apologise in advance for raising it — the conference transcript reads “my second question is — because I am from The Australian — with Slater & Gordon (inaudible) why didn’t you contact (inaudible)?”
A final point, possibly off-topic, possibly not. Malcolm Turnbull spoke in Melbourne earlier this week at the 30th anniversary of the Jewish Museum, and posted the speech online this morning. The speech, which has nothing to do with politics, is urbane, learned, witty and insightful. The contrast, not merely with Abbott and Gillard, but with pretty much everyone else in Australian politics, is enormous.