Last night, as news came through that former prime minister and Labor Party luminary Bob Hawke had died, another former PM took to Twitter to put out the absolute worst tribute you could imagine. Tony Abbott claimed a bit of Hawke’s legacy for his party — “you might say he had a Labor heart, but a Liberal head” — and a bit for himself: “[Hawke] changed our country for the better because he was always willing to argue his case, even if it meant persuading key people on his own side”.
This is why Abbott has been kept under wraps this campaign — his ratio of public statements to embarrassing distractions is not much better than one to one. Even by his standards, this was staggeringly graceless and tone-deaf. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, already facing the tricky prospect of having to praise a Labor PM on his last day of campaigning, has had to distance himself from the statement.
Meanwhile Abbott was on 2GB, talking to possibly his most loyal defender in the media (which is really saying something), Alan Jones. A woman called and said, tearfully, “I’m not religious but they did the same to Jesus. Keep going. We love you”.
These are the two realities that Abbott forever inhabits — the messianic protector of Western civilisation, and Australia’s great clanging embarrassment. If this is the last time he’s able to use the “Member for Warringah” letterhead, how utterly perfect an end it would be.
Early on in my stint in Warringah, a GetUp volunteer told me that she encountered “a sense of personal shock, of entitlement under threat” when door-knocking against Abbott. This was certainly the tone pervading the flurry of pro-Abbott op-eds during the campaign. See Maurice Newman’s legitimately bizarre piece this week, just furious at “Warringah’s SUV-driving voters” for toying with a vote for anyone but Abbott:
Such a green perspective ordinarily would be expected from inner-city trendies but, to quote Lenin, ‘capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them’.
Should Abbott lose his seat, the Left will be dancing in the streets… Post the election, the battle for hearts and minds will continue, but it may take an economic crisis for people to come to their senses.
Again, it’s that messianic martyr version of Abbott: he’s not just some backbencher, he’s the bulwark, and his presence alone is holding back disaster — so how could you do this to him?
Meanwhile, Andrew Bolt, Greg Sheridan et al were shocked, just shocked that the campaigning against Abbott had a personal edge to it. Never mind Abbott himself said Bernie Banton was not “pure of heart”, announced the Gillard government “should have died of shame” or that “Shorten is the Dr Goebbels of economic policy“.
It peaked with Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster penning an op-ed in the Nine papers, calling him “the greatest political campaigner of his generation”. This, during a campaign where he left an empty chair at event, after event, after event (at least any chair that might pose awkward questions); a campaign where his office was refusing to tell his constituents where he would be or what he was doing. Forster’s piece recasts the fact that Abbott skipped work rather than vote with his electorate on marriage equality as the noble sacrifice of not actively opposing it.
In the penultimate week of the election campaign, the odds on Sportsbet shifted to make his challenger, independent Zali Steggall, the marginal favourite, and Coalition sources were apparently telling Laura Tingle with bracing bluntness that “Abbott is gone in Warringah”. Meanwhile, The Australian reported the “diabolical internal polling” leaked to Nine papers early in the campaign had tightened to 50-50. This makes sense, particularly in seats like Warringah. A voting population is likely to get more conservative as the possibility of a huge change becomes less and less abstract. Still, there is no poll I’m aware of that puts Abbott in front.
Abbott’s eventual forced exit from the party seems inevitable, even if he wins this time.
Stephen Mayne, when reporting on Roger Corbett’s appointment as Abbott’s campaign manager, speculated that it was probably a compromise deal, with the party putting no one up against Abbott’s preselection, and in return Corbett overseeing Abbott’s peaceful exit down the track.
Even if that’s not the case, I think back to the school climate strikes that targeted his office. Most of those kids are going to be able to vote by the time the next election rolls around and the generation to which they belong will, on the whole, have grown up accepting that action is needed and that figures like Abbott have unforgivably failed them.
On so many fronts, Abbott has fought tirelessly to preserve those “orthodox notions of the right order of things” that exist in his head. But whether it’s the definition of marriage or action on the environment, Abbott and his ilk can only delay change, not prevent it. On some level, he must know that. He may just hold on this time. But at this point one can’t help but wonder: what exactly for?
Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here.