In its planning, Tony Abbott’s week wouldn’t have looked too bad. There’d be a national security statement in which he would appear tough on terrorism, and bag the Muslim community as well. There’d be an announcement on discouraging foreigners from buying Aussie real estate. The inevitable pullback in Newspoll — there was no way it was going to stay at an absurd 57-43 in Labor’s favour — could be portrayed as the green shoots of an Abbott recovery. Then off across the Tasman to announce a joint Australian-New Zealand deployment back to Iraq to help the Iraqis take the fight to the Death Cult(c), just like the Anzacs fought Johnny Turk together a hundred years ago.
Even if it doesn’t get Abbott traction with swinging voters, this strategy is aimed at the Liberal heartland first. That’s where John Howard, facing a landslide loss, began his recovery in 2001 by bribing the Liberal party’s pensioner base. With his base shored up, Howard then moved to the mainstream, and on to victory. You don’t swing back to electoral favour in one big effort — you identify different segments and look to secure them in succession.
Alas, fate had other ideas. The tough guy act was derailed before the week even began with The Australian’s story about Abbott’s plans for military intervention in Ukraine and a 3500-strong unilateral invasion of Iraq, which made Abbott look less “tough” and more “unhinged”. He began the week fending off the Iraq invasion story as “fanciful”, but admitted, well, yes, he’d contemplated sending 1000 troops to Ukraine to help return the bodies of those killed in the MH17 massacre in case Russian-backed separatists — or as they’re sometimes known, the Russian Army — got in the way. His comments last week linking aid to Indonesia for the 2004 tsunami with the Chan and Sukumaran cases were still upsetting the Indonesians, which meant Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had to do her Victor the Cleaner act and sort out the mess, in the course of which she referred to Abbott’s comments as “unhelpful”. And Bishop more or less openly contradicted Abbott in his swipe at the Muslim community on Monday.
Meanwhile, a very long-simmering issue boiled over again. For years, Liberals have been complaining about the power wielded jointly by Peta Credlin and Brian Loughnane, Australia’s most powerful couple, in their respective positions as chief of staff to the parliamentary leader and federal director of the party, respectively. The federal party’s treasurer, Phil Higginson, blew up over Loughnane’s recalcitrance in sharing financial information, and his emails were promptly leaked (complete with Higginson’s snide comparison of Credlin to an executive assistant).
Abbott sought to portray all this as the effluvia of the political class, irrelevant to real Australians. Then Tuesday’s Estimates hearings breathed life into the Moraitis Affair. And from that point, for all that it tried, the government could do little other than to discuss Gillian Triggs, the job/role/position that was offered/not offered/formally put on the table if she resigned/accepted the Attorney-General had lost confidence in her and that resignation was “one option”/magically found a way to do two jobs at once. That, and how Gillian Triggs was partisan/had lost the confidence of the Australian people/a friend of murderers/a loathsome spotted reptile and so on. Julie Bishop, who had the misfortune to be Brandis’ counterpart in the House, was dragged into the mess, and didn’t handle it well.
By the week’s end the government was bravely, and anonymously, backgrounding journalists that it was Triggs who had demanded a position in exchange for resigning, in defiance of the hours of evidence from the only two people in the room for the discussion, Moraitis and Triggs, and the bloke who put Moraitis up to it, George Brandis.
Part of the reason why Abbott’s week was so bad was just luck. Moraitis was a poor performer; for all his faults, his predecessor Roger Wilkins would have handled the whole business far more successfully, and probably retained his notes as well. It wasn’t Abbott’s fault that John Key casually revealed the return to Iraq the day after Abbott was using words like “fanciful” to talk about Iraq deployments, albeit in a different context. The hepatitis A berry scandal came along and was a gift to the protectionists of the National Party, who used it to successfully mount a push for new labelling laws that will in effect punish food manufacturers using imported produce — and which forced Abbott to neatly backflip from a policy of laissez faire, “hey don’t poison your customers, guys” self-regulation for the food industry to a hardline labelling policy way beyond anything Labor ever pushed for. It was promptly welcomed by those economic hardheads the Greens.
Still, there was plenty that had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with how Abbott can now only function in one mode, of constant aggression, even to the extent of shouldering Bill Shorten during a division in Question Time. And his policy platform, apparently driven by western Sydney focus groups and economic illiterates in the Nationals, is increasingly an outright embarrassment for the Liberals.
The glum faces of Coalition backbenchers in Question Time — when you could see them, given so many of them had their heads down doing paperwork — spoke volumes. By yesterday afternoon the word was circulating that some backbenchers wanted the Abbott problem dealt with quick smart by senior ministers. Turnbull had the numbers, was the word, and a number of former Abbott supporters and ministers were among them, so palpably had Abbott failed to change direction or end the succession of stumbles that had marked his performance in the job leading up to the last spill.
And as if to illustrate the real stakes in all this, yesterday brought a terrible set of capital expenditure numbers, showing that not merely is nothing emerging to offset the collapse in mining investment, but parts of the non-mining sector are likely to face weakening, not strengthening, investment in the next year. Business simply isn’t keen to spend at the moment.
For the economy, a change in direction can’t come soon enough.