The Abbott government is in deep, deep trouble. With just two weeks remaining in the parliamentary year, it faces ending 2014 on an even lower note than last year, when its poor start to government was put down to early nerves. As the year draws to a close, the talk will be of a turnaround in 2015, just as 12 months ago we were hearing how the new year was going to bring a better performance. “Mid-term blues” will be cited. A reshuffle will again be speculated upon, with the hope it can spark a turnaround. But whether this outfit is good enough to deliver a turnaround is unclear.
The problem is, there are no longer easy options for a political recovery. The government has played the national security card already, without great success, and as a result has now embarked on a seemingly futile, endless military campaign abroad and a debate at home to convince Australians to let it tax them in order to spy on them.
Last week was intended to showcase what is supposed to be Abbott’s other strong suit, foreign policy. But the denialist corner Abbott has painted himself into on climate change and his self-inflicted defeat in trying to keep it off the G20 agenda left the government embarrassed. Its pain over Barack Obama’s speech was palpable — some state and federal Coalition MPs ran to the in-house newsletter The Australian to whine about how mean the President had been to them. Thus, the side of politics that even more cravenly kowtows to the United States than Labor was suddenly grumpy that our feudal overlord had mistreated them. What a pity none of that scepticism applied to the US invitation to return to Iraq.
And there was that bizarre opening speech Abbott delivered to the leader’s retreat last Saturday, in which someone appeared to have given him the notes for an LNP fundraiser speech over prawn cocktails and XXXX at a Sunshine Coast RSL. Boasting of how he had repealed the carbon tax and stopped the “illegal boats”, Abbott spoke of how he was “building roads in particular” and had got the budget “back under control” — about 72 hours after his Treasurer had admitted the deficit was blowing out again — before complaining about being unable to get his GP co-payment through the Senate.
Abbott at that point was nearing the McMahon Moment — the point in Australian politics when someone becomes a figure of open ridicule, their unfitness for the job exposed, their pretensions to leadership mocked. It is a moment from which few ever recover. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett did — “Boofhead”, universally mocked after his first stint as opposition leader, returned as a kind of conservative Keating, hellbent on delivering major reform as both good policy and good politics. John Howard sort of did; “why on earth does this man bother?” The Bulletin mocked in 1988, and we got the answer eight years later, in spades. Such periods of derision, followed by a spell in the wilderness, can be seen as Churchill-style preludes to greatness, if only for those willing to stick it out.
“Effective leaders — a Hawke, a Keating, a Howard — turn adversity into opportunity. But at the moment Abbott’s prime ministerial precedent appears drawn from a little earlier than those men.”
But not so if you’re already prime minister.
This week, at least there were no Billy McMahon moments: instead, three international visitors, all handled competently by Abbott, and a free trade agreement with China that impressed the press gallery despite the dearth of detail or evidence of its economic benefits. But this foreign policy idyll was ruined by a rude eruption of domestic politics, via a truly dire Newspoll and a major body blow on Wednesday over FOFA, delivered by Senators Jacqui Lambie and Ricky Muir. That coincided with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull being sent out to announce punitive cuts to the ABC and SBS and explain away a blatant lie by the Coalition as something taken out of “context”. Labor will be suitably grateful to Turnbull — the word “context” will be heard a lot at the next election campaign.
The week also saw a noticeable adjustment in language on climate change, as if his APEC-G20 mugging had prompted a re-evaluation of how Abbott — a point-blank denialist using the figleaf of “Direct Action” as electoral protection on the issue — should play the politics of climate action. After his meeting with French President Francois Hollande, he declared a wish for next year’s Paris conference to produce binding agreements and claimed that “Australia has a very good story to tell on climate change”, a claim true up until this year. He even boasted about the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which it is still government policy to abolish.
But Abbott has nowhere to go on climate action. His entire path to the prime ministership, first in destroying Malcolm Turnbull over an emissions trading scheme, then destroying Julia Gillard over a carbon price, has been shaped around a rejection of the existence of climate change or the need to do anything serious about it. He is Australian climate denialism’s standard-bearer, and the reason Obama’s speech so infuriated Liberals is because the President shone a spotlight on Abbott, mid-stride, flag of irrationality held high, as he sought to prevent the G20 from discussing climate change (it’s not an economic issue, apparently). Even a determined effort by Abbott to play catch-up on the issue is unlikely to get traction with voters — he has devoted too much energy previously to explaining how opposed he is to climate action to now successfully pretend he gives a damn.
So where does Abbott go from here? The budget, long since a political albatross around his neck, is deteriorating — this week, the iron ore price fell to $70 a tonne, half its level at the start of the year and, like thermal coal, back to its 2009 price, meaning the government’s two favourite industries are likely to further exacerbate Joe “surpluses are in our DNA” Hockey’s deficit blowout. Voters seem either unhappy with Abbott’s international performance or, more likely, simply not interested in it — on the list of issues that voters rank as important to them, foreign policy barely features. And the knack the government has recently acquired of securing legislative deals with PUP leader Clive Palmer now counts for nought with Jacqui Lambie on the loose.
Effective leaders — a Hawke, a Keating, a Howard — turn adversity into opportunity. But at the moment Abbott’s prime ministerial precedent appears drawn from a little earlier than those men. 1971-72, to be specific. At some point, all that jockeying to replace Hockey as Abbott’s heir apparent might take on a much more immediate significance.