Making Sense of the Inevitable: The Rise of Abbott

Tony Abbott has become the 28th Prime Minister of Australia. How did it come to this?

You knew it was coming. It’s been three years in the making. You’ve had time to prepare yourself for this moment but as much you tried to make sense of it, you never really could wrap your head around it, even as the inevitable came rushing towards you like a freight train. As much as you wanted to deny it, there was no escape from the grim reality as it embraced you with its cold, scaly hands. What was once so inconceivable that most Australians scoffed at the very suggestion has become a bitter reality. Tony Abbott has become the 28th Prime Minister of Australia.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Tony Abbott, the self proclaimed member of John Howard’s “Praetorian Guard.” The Tony Abbott who in February 2010 described the problem of Climate Change as “absolute crap” and that the most logical way of responding to it was by instructing Australian housewives to make sure they turn off their irons when they’ve done their allotted daily duties. Tony Abbott, the man who labelled abortion “as the easy way out” and homelessness as a personal choice.

It would be easy to keep recycling Abbott axioms but now it’s pointless; Abbott is Prime Minister. Most Australians would accept that Tony Abbott isn’t a particularly pleasant or likeable fellow as evidenced by the fact that his preferred PM rating consistently hovered around the mid 30s for the past four years. We know exactly what we’ve signed up for. Yet even so this bible thumping, xenophobic demagogue has cantered to a comfortable election triumph.

With Abbott now sworn in and  the Liberal Party now revelling in its greatest triumph since 1996, it’s worth considering how did it all come to this.

It’s hard to see the 2013 Election as anything other than a ballot the Labor Party lost rather than an election the Liberals won. Indeed while the Liberals have achieved a crushing majority in the lower house and conservatives across the country have no doubt been basking in their victory, the 2013 Federal Election will be remembered as the moment when Labor’s four years of horrifying self destruction reached its epic climax.

The left will grumble about Abbott’s reactionary ideology, they’ll guffaw when Abbott says something particularly loathsome (usually to do with the role of women in Australian life) but in the end as Abbott marches on, the left will stare with the same glazed eyes and  faraway expression that thousands of Australians had as they filed into the polling booth. Why? Because deep down the left will know. Cut away all the noise, the Abbott memes and the self-righteous fury and we’re faced with the grim realisation: What other choice did the Labor Party give the Australian people?

Although Labor’s six year reign brought many notable achievements that will have long term benefit to the nation, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Apology to Indigenous Australians and a deft handling of the global financial crisis that has seen Australia emerge from the turmoil in significantly stronger shape than nearly every other major economy, the Labor Government of 2007-2013 will be remembered for only one thing: chaos.

Disciplined Sloganeering has paid off for Tony Abbott.

You don’t knife a Prime Minister in the middle of the night, let alone two in three years and not expect repercussions from the electorate. As they repeatedly shot themselves in the foot and lurched from one self made crisis to another, Labor has been its own worst enemy and the best advertisement for a Liberal return. With the Labor Party disintegratinginto a pathetic hive of infighting and political power plays, Tony Abbott, a man whose temperament for leadership as been long questioned, has essentially been able to pick up the Prime Ministership by default while Labor squabbled amongst themselves.

Labor’s inability to effectively communicate a message destroyed its reelection chances. Instead of promoting their own accomplishments and plans for the future, Labor found itself in a never ending game of catch up as they helplessly chased their own tail and allowed Tony Abbott to define the political narrative. An election campaign that should have been fought on education reform, sound economic management and climate change, instead became a referendum on the alleged threat posed by refugees on the Australian way of life.

Perhaps what’s most galling about this election is that a new Prime Minister has been elected in large part due to the disciplined way in which he was able to repeatedly drone the same three word slogans and not ever have to elucidate these sound bytes into actual policy proposals. “Stop the Boats” “No more carbon tax.” “Cut the waste”

We have a vague idea about what Tony Abbott wants to do but we have absolutely no idea about how he’s actually going to do it. How exactly does he plan on stopping refugees from seeking refuge? What “waste” is he going to cut and how will it affect Australian jobs? It’s frightening to see someone gain power with such a minimal amount of policy details. Does this obvious information gap say more about the cynical approach of the Liberal Party, the poor effort of the media to do their job and hold politicians to account or the growing apathetic malaise that seems to have engulfed millions of Australians? Regardless of how you wish to interpret it, there’s no doubt that such information gaps and the lack of accountability is bad news for the state of our political discourse and without any kind of correction, we can all look forward to more sloganeering and less informed debate.

So where do we go now? Tony Abbott has become Prime Minister, his cabinet have been sworn in and the Liberal Party seem certain to enjoy the plush surrounds of government power for at least the next six years.

Even though this is undeniably a dark time for progressive minded Australians, there are still some things that can be taken out of this train wreck:

  • Despite winning the election comfortably with 90 seats in the House of Reps to 54, the Liberals only managed a 2% swing in their favour. Taking a glass half full approach (because right now we have no other choice) that tells us that even in an election where the chickens of Labor innumerable cock ups finally came home to roost, Abbott still could only persuade an extra 2% of the population to support him. That’s like Collingwood beating an under 10 footy side by a kick and claiming to be happy with the result. Sure, you’re glad you won but you know it should have been a lot more. Going forward, Abbott’s ability to develop any kind of warm rapport with the electorate will be a crucial factor in determining how long his reign in the top seat lasts.
  • This is Labor’s last chance to properly modernise itself for the 21st century and remain a viable political force. Labor has had an identity crisis for nearly 20 years. It claims to represent the working class and the protector of social justice, however the last two decades have seen a gradual drift away from those values towards the right. Occasionally, Labor would announce some kind of progressive policy, only to cave in to Liberal firebombing once it became too hot to handle (climate change, refugees etc). This has chipped away at Labor’s perception in the community. These days no one really knows what Labor stands for except that they will basically mimic whatever Liberal ideas seem to gain traction in opinion polls. With a brutal election defeat, Labor must reevaluate their direction and determine a set of policies that will reenergise their base. Most importantly Labor needs to draw a line through the Rudd/Gillard era by cutting out the public squabbling and establishing a credible and realistic alternative to the new Abbott Government based on Labor beliefs and values rather than a cheap facsimile of whatever the Liberals are doing. It’s time for Labor to rediscover their backbone for when things get tough and establish a distinct identity for the coming battles. Failure to do so will see Labor cast into the political wilderness for the next decade and beyond.
  • The Greens remain a credible third force in Australian politics. Adam Bandt’s triumph in Melbourne was all the more remarkable considering that both major parties were united in their quest to bury the Greens via preferences arrangements. As Bandt spoke at his headquarters on election night, the one thing that stood out was the sea of young, passionate supporters surrounding him. On such a depressing night when Australian politics took a sharp turn to the right, the sight of so many enthusiastic young people committed to something greater than themselves was cause for some hope that apathy has not completely overwhelmed all Australians.

Make no mistake about it- the next few years are going to be hard for progressive, socially conscious Australians. There will be cringe worthy moments a plenty as Abbott gradually unleashes a flurry of boneheaded comments about women, homosexuals and abortion. More importantly the battles ahead will be nasty and dirty as the Liberals seek to destroy climate change initiatives, dehumanise refugees, replace the National Broadband Network with tin cans, excommunicate the working class and bury any kind of initiative or policy that does not include tax breaks for big business. There will be setbacks and there will be disappointments but in this dark time there’s one thing worth remembering: The left always wins. It takes longer than what some of us would like but history is the tale of an ongoing progressive trend that always emerges triumphant. There are bumps along the way but the future is ours as long as people are willing to work for it.

This isn’t the end. The cycle is just restarting.