I read on Twitter that Julie Bishop has been visiting flood-affected areas in Queensland as the Acting Opposition Leader. It took me a moment to realise the implications of this – it means that Tony Abbott is BACK ON HOLIDAY, having visited Queensland in the first week of January.
Abbott’s decision to return from Christmas leave to visit Queensland was the right thing to do, even if he squandered any political capital he earned by callously drawing a link between the cost of rescue efforts and the NBN.
However, the Opposition Leader’s decision to resume his holiday is an affront to the thousands of Australians who are struggling with the grief, loss and fear caused by the floods.
The political clumsiness of this decision is what strikes me the most. I understand the tactical reasoning for sending Bishop to Queensland. Clearly some politico saw the need to provide a conservative female counterweight to Labor’s Bligh and Gillard, both of whom have earned considerable kudos for the way they have conducted themselves during the crisis.
However, Bishop should have done so as the Deputy Liberal Leader and therefore not drawn attention to the fact that Abbott had resumed his Christmas leave.
Ideally, Abbott should have cut short his holiday altogether, even if it was considered politically prudent for him to keep a low profile.
People expect their leaders to show exemplary behaviour during times of high stress or crisis. They look to their leaders for affirmation of noble human qualities such as empathy, compassion and consolation. Most importantly, people seek reassurance from their leaders that they will not be abandoned or neglected during times of need.
While these expectations are by no means small, they can and should be met by our political leaders. While the benefits of not meeting them are variable, the cost of not doing so can be political suicide. This is the risk that Tony Abbott has brought on himself. I hope he enjoys the rest of his holiday.
Post script: Tony Abbott returned from holidays to visit Brisbane the morning after this post was written. The Opposition Leader conducted a number of electronic media interviews focussing on the adverse impact flood recovery costs would have on the Federal Budget returning to surplus. Here is an example:
The best possible [national disaster] fund is a strong Federal Government surplus. If you’ve got a strong surplus you’ve got the money available to deploy to meet any emergency and without being too political, one of the reasons why we have always urged a strong surplus and been deeply sceptical about some of this Government’s big spending programmes is because you never know when you are going to have a disaster like this that you need to cope with and there will be literally billions of dollars needed by all levels of government but especially the Federal Government in order to respond appropriately.
Tony Abbott interview with Karl Stefanovic, 13 Jan 2011 (Liberal.org.au)
And a fine complementary piece on leadership by Grog.