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Jan 29, 2013

Deconstructing Tony: Abbott and the manufacture of authenticity

Tony Abbott's efforts to portray himself as an everyday bloke sit uneasily with his previous attempts to be a conservative intellectual.

“Isn’t it bizarre that this government thinks that somehow raising the price of electricity is going to clean up our environment, stop bushfires, stop floods, stop droughts? Just think of how much hotter it might have been the other day but for the carbon tax!”

Thus spoke Tony Abbott at the Liberals’ “federal campaign rally” on Sunday in Lidcombe, in Sydney’s west.

Some might quibble with the Leader of the Opposition about his take on the carbon price. Among them, perhaps most prominently, is Abbott himself. After all, in 2009, well before the putsch he led against Malcolm Turnbull, this was his observation:

“If Australia is greatly to reduce its carbon emissions, the price of carbon intensive products should rise.”

That was what Abbott himself termed “A Realist’s Approach to Climate Change“, in which he thoughtfully made the case for a carbon tax.That was around the same time as Abbott’s conservative think-piece, Battlelines.

The 2009-Abbott-as-policy-thinker, of course, was stating the bleeding obvious. The responsiveness of demand to price increases is a foundation of economics. As 2009-Abbott noted, the straightforward way to reduce the use of carbon-intensive products is to make them more expensive. And he was aware of the incongruity of a Liberal proposing a new tax:

“The Coalition has always been instinctively cautious about new or increased taxes. That’s one of the reasons why the former government opted for an emissions trading scheme over a straight-forward carbon tax. Still, a new tax would be the intelligent skeptic’s way to deal with minimising emissions because it would be much easier than a property right to reduce or to abolish should the justification for it change.”

As we’ve noted before, Abbott has little interest in consistency. That his Sunday address contained statements that contradicted not merely the most basic principles of economics, but his own clearly articulated views, is of no moment. And anyway, this was a campaign speech, and such speeches are the last place you want serious content and rigid adherence to fact. Such events are about geeing up the faithful, about creating energy, about generating positive imagery.

But that gives us some interesting opportunities for analysis, because as any novelist will tell you, it’s when we’re telling stories that we’re at our most truthful, and Abbott’s words make for some interesting unpacking.

The baking hot summer, and the subsequent floods, have made life difficult for climate denialists. Insistence that the planet is not getting warmer — or, as Abbott until recently insisted, is getting slightly cooler — has become more difficult to maintain publicly, despite the faulty logic of linking weather to climate. One alternative is to suggest a carbon price in Australia has demonstrably failed if it has not already stopped global climate change. Barnaby Joyce had been using this line for a while. “It’s very hot today so the carbon tax isn’t working very well,” he said at the beginning of December.

But Abbott’s intent isn’t to perform a dance of responsibility around climate change, beyond declaring that his own policy (involving underpaying farmers to bury carbon in soil by processes neither scientifically nor economically viable), will do the trick.

Rather, Abbott is about positioning himself as a regular bloke. Painfully aware that he shares with the Prime Minister the unenviable position of being widely disliked by the electorate — indeed, he is even more disliked than the Prime Minister — Abbott’s goal is to portray himself as a normal voter, one at ease in the Liberals’ western Sydney “heartland”.

Joe Hockey had been a great friend since they were both front rowers at uni, he declared at the start of his speech on Sunday, although within 24 hours MPs were wishing they’d had a scrum on the Coalition’s fiscal policy before finishing the day. “We are a pretty normal family, with a mortgage, with bills,” he went on to say. “We know what it is like not to be sure whether you’ve got enough money in your bank account at the end of the month.”

Abbott, educated at Riverview, Sydney University’s St John’s College and Oxford, who currently earns $350,000 plus MPs’ perks, ostensibly makes a poor simulacrum of your average western Sydney bloke, but this is a man with an unusually strong grasp of what narratives work with voters.

This explains the mockery of a carbon price. Aware of strong concerns about rising electricity prices, Abbott readily embraces the scepticism of ordinary voters about counter-intuitive economic mechanisms. How can increasing the price of anything possibly be good? How can paying more for electricity stop climate change? Surely it’s the sort of ridiculous, theoretical rubbish out-of-touch intellectuals come up with because they don’t live in the real world.

This is part of a political culture of manufacturing authenticity, one about repurposing the old line that once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. But trying to confect authenticity can take politicians to some peculiar places. Abbott’s efforts are more subtle than the “real Julia” of the 2010 election campaign, or Gillard’s early efforts as Prime Minister to portray herself as a sort of Stakhanovite advocate of ceaseless manual labour, or for that matter Kevin Rudd’s ludicrously over-the-top Queenslandisms.

But in this case, it’s led to Abbott, knockabout western Sydney bloke, laughing off the sort of ivory-tower silliness Abbott, conservative intellectual and Oxonian, once advocated.

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62 comments

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62 thoughts on “Deconstructing Tony: Abbott and the manufacture of authenticity

  1. klewso

    Fake sincerity and you’ve got it made.
    A leopard can’t change his spots and a cane toad can’t change his warts : while a chameleon can change it’s colours to suit the mood – he can’t change his diet.

  2. klewso

    “Pecu-liar places”? Look where “Honest John” ended up?

    “Cost : demand”? There’s only one reason I’m not buying that blue Lamborghini this year – besides the boot space of course.

    And “Oxonian”? Is that any relation to an “Oxy-moron”?

  3. مكينSouthPacificSpunk

    you can deconstruct the Abbotage all you like but he needs to do very little to win this election. he’s got the labor’s frenemies, the greens constantly attacking the alp. his new softly spoken tone will add immense attractiveness to the budgie smuggler and will woo the women the lnp’s side.

  4. Honest Johnny

    I agree with the statement “this is a man with an unusually strong grasp of what narratives work with voters”. Abbott honed this skill while opposing (for sport) lefties and intellectuals at Sydney Uni. His “ha ha ha”, back-slapping blokey persona, enhanced at RFS and SLS club houses is all a charade to build up the narrative. His media stunts, and over-the-top statements (later quietly retracted) are a skillful use of the MSM. Despite his unpopularity, if he gets the knockabout Western Sydney bloke vote, he’s in.

  5. Merve

    If Gillard is a liar, then what does that make Abbott?

  6. SusieQ

    I’m surprised he even knows where Western Sydney is!!! Has anyone taken him to task for calling Tim Mathieson ‘this person’ today? How would he feel if Julia called Margie ‘this person’.
    No, his new softly spoken tone will not add to his attractiveness at all – there is NOTHING that can.

  7. CML

    @ SusieQ – I agree with you. Trouble is there are all those “persons” (mostly male!) in western Sydney and other places, with half a brain. They apparently don’t have the capacity to work out what Bernard is saying, so will vote for the rAbbott anyway, because he sounds appealing, even though he is ly+ng through his teeth.
    May the gods help us all!!!

  8. Jimmy

    “The baking hot summer, and the subsequent floods, have made life difficult for climate denialists” SO you didn’t read “A blot” yesterday claiming the floods prove “warmists” are wrong?

    And as for Abbott, his inconsistencies can be lined up for miles but yet he get’s away with the claim that the libs don’t fib?

    He may not have to do muc to win this election buutif the media ever decided to actually do it’s job he may have to work that bit harder, for example maybe an investigative journalist could put some effort into the Ashby affair?

    Or maybe just maybe someone might start asking what an Abbott lead govt would look like, after all what policies did this new booklet outline?

    How does a surplus in a slowing economy while simultaneously reducing govt income and increasing govt expenditure occur and how does it effect the economy? What are his IR policies, why should we accept the roling back of varioous means tests? Why should the tax payer fork out $75k for someone to take maternity leave?

    The questions are easy, yet no one seems willing to ask them.

  9. klewso

    Why would the media (dominated as it is, by what) “do it’s job”? They’re boy is “ahead on points”.

  10. Hamis Hill

    As the Old Chinese adage says: “if you get something for nothing, it’s worth nothing”.
    Which is why, if Abbott becomes PM while doing nothing to earn it, he will make that office worth nothing.
    By so severely, diminishing the value of a vote, hard won through past struggle, perhaps Abbott and his cynical supporters will achieve an objective to humble democracy even more than already has achieved deliberately, by what Jana Wendt famously called, to the destruction of her career, the “Dumbing Down” of Australians by her fellow journalists.
    And Bernard highlights Abbott’s skills in this regard.
    Abbott was taught to apply propaganda by the “experts”?

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