And so today Tony Abbott has launched an attempt to reinvent himself, in an effort to convince voters he’s more than the extraordinarily successful wrecker he’s portrayed since becoming Opposition Leader in November 2009.
That means Abbott plans to dispel over three years of entrenched negativity in only seven to ten months*. Coalition spinmeisters are already hard at work, backgrounding senior journalists on the transition secure in the knowledge that if the media can be convinced about its effectiveness then so can the public.
Early results of this strategy are not particularly encouraging. Despite being quite comfortable telling the Prime Minister last year to resign, Michelle Grattan is currently more circumspect about Abbott. With an initial cursory nod to the likeliness that he will be in the PM’s office by the end of the year, Grattan then goes on to qualify this by questioning whether Abbott can successfully make the metamorphosis to Mr Positive:
He is obsessed with discipline though seemingly unable to avoid periodic lapses. He knows he can be his own biggest risk.
His deep personal unpopularity and his negative branding are problems to which he will apply his usual diligence. But can he change his image? And how much will it matter in the end?
The social researcher Hugh Mackay believes Abbott’s brand – being negative, destructive and dismissive – has been unchanged for so long that it has become ”indelible” and it’s hard to see him being able to break out of it.
But one of Abbott’s senior colleagues argues: ”He’s strong on the tangibles. He’s an Alpha male. Alpha males are runners, jumpers. They build things.” He believes Mr Positive will be convincing.
I heard a ghost of leaders past rattle its chains as I read those words: an echo of another Opposition Leader who successfully buried his past reputation as a thug and a bully, only to have it lurch from the grave at the election campaign deathknock and pull him back into electoral oblivion.
The moment we saw Mark Latham aggressively shake the hand of the smaller, frailer John Howard we knew Latham would not prevail at that election. The gesture pushed other memories to the surface of our consciousness: allegations of punch-ups at the Liverpool Council, images of a taxi driver’s broken arm, and echoes of pugnacious language such as arse-licker and conga-line of suckholes.
Those memories dispelled the positive views we’d developed about Latham’s suite of hokey but popular policies, and brought into sharp relief the doubts we’d already harboured about his economic credentials.
That’s all it took, just one handshake, to finally shatter the public’s faith in the strongest electoral alternative produced by Labor at that point against John Howard. Despite starting the election behind the Labor Opposition, and trailing them at various stages in the six-week campaign, the Government was then re-elected with an increased majority in the House of Representatives and a slim majority in the Senate (the first since 1981).
The Coalition’s current attempt to paper seven months of positivity over three years of Abbott negativity is a highly fraught endeavour. Recent political history suggests that Abbott’s Mr Positive will prove as brittle and short-lived as Latham’s Mr Congeniality. All it will take for the facade to be shattered will be an ill-considered remark or an unguarded moment.
Mark Latham’s despair will hover over Tony Abbott this election like the ghost of Banquo, providing an insubstantial but insistent reminder of past misdemeanours and their potential to bring ambitious leaders down. Whether Abbott heeds this salutary warning or dismisses it as the mere rattling of chains may well determine the outcome of the 2013 election.
*3 August 2013 is the earliest possible date to hold an election for both the Senate and the House of Representatives. An election for the House of Representatives only can be held at any time up to 30 November 2013.
To bell the cat: To undertake a dangerous action in the service of a group.
So that this does not become a pissing competition and miss the point altogether, this post is an attempt to capture all of the articles and posts that have challenged Tony Abbott’s merry dance with the truth. Posts from bloggers are marked in this colour. I’ve included those that I’ve noticed – let me know in the comments or on Twitter any other examples and I will include them:
- George Megalogenis, 29 Sept 2012: Abbott doesn’t want to look at the bigger picture
- Dennis Atkins, 15 Sept 2012: Abbott needs his old candour back
- Peter van Onselen: Is Tony a one-trick pony?
- Dennis Atkins, 25 August 2012: Rhetoric rides unbridled as Tony Abbott is obsessed with polls
- Lenore Taylor: Lack of carnage Abbott’s inconvenient fiscal truth
- Laurie Oakes, 25 August 2012: Have you heard the one about the politician who lies?
- Michelle Grattan, 24 August 2012: Is Abbott on thin ice? Absolutely
- Laura Tingle, 24 August 2012: Move forward – there’s no going back
- David Penberthy, 24 August 2012: Abbott mines a rich vein of rank opportunism
- Phillip Coorey: Abbott having it both ways on BHP
- Leigh Sales interview with Tony Abbott, 22 August 2012
- Mark Latham, 16 August 2012: Media double standard giving Abbott a free ride
- Jon Faine, 14 August 2012: Nauru processing ‘good policy’ says Tony Abbott
- Ad Astra, 13 August 2012: Journalists awake! You know Tony Abbott is conning you
- Dennis Atkins, 11 August 2012: It’s game on for Gillard holding the deck
- Tim Dunlop, 9 August 2012: If Tony Abbott didn’t exist, the media would have to invent him
- GrogsGamut / Greg Jericho, 1 Feb 2012: The analysis void in political journalism
- Paul Kelly, 9 November 2011: Super backflip breaks dam for Abbott
- Laurie Oakes, 5 November 2011: Mining tax has exposed Abbott
- Laura Tingle, 28 October 2011: Labor hopeless, Abbott a hollow man
- Drag0nista, 23 October 2011: Is the tide turning for Tony Abbott?
- Lenore Taylor, 21 October 2011: Ignore all facts and just run with the bluster
- Andrew Probyn, 21 October 2011: Future not so simple for Abbott
- Shaun Carney, 21 October 2011: Blood oath reality is taking Abbott out of comfort zone
- Annabel Crabb, 26 July 2011:Freed from facts Abbott goes ballooning
- Lainie Anderson: 17 July 2011: Lying is bad, distorting the truth is even worse
- Bernard Keane, 9 March 2011: Tony Abbott debates Tony Abbott on climate change
- GrogsGamut/Greg Jericho, 18 May 2010: Because his lips are moving
- GrogsGamut/Greg Jericho, 7 January 2010: Abbott makes life easy for Rudd
- GrogsGamut/Greg Jericho, 10 December 2009: Tony Abbott gets it wrong
The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.
These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.
Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.
The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.
While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.
During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.
Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.
Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.
Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.
Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”
The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”
Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.
Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)
An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”
This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.
The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”
This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.
This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed