Shit happens: What should Abbott have done?

I’m not one to jump to the defence of Tony Abbott. Regular visitors to this blog know I’m more likely to criticise him and offer gratuitous advice.

But last night I found myself defending Abbott’s non-response to an offensive line of questioning from a journalist.

Early reports of the incident suggested that Abbott was gobsmacked by the footage of him using a ribald colloquialism in a clumsy attempt to show blokeish empathy with his defence force hosts. It was said that he could do nothing more than stare silently at the journalist.

In reality, Tony Abbott responded to the journalist several times and, when the reporter tried to mimic an old Kerry O’Brien tactic by asking the same question over and over, Abbott chose to say nothing rather than dignify it with an answer. Which is in fact what he said once the hack finished his poor imitation of O’Brien.

In retrospect, what gratuitous advice would I give the Oppostion Leader? Absolutely none.

As a former media adviser with a communications background rather than a journalistic one, I believe Abbott did the best he could.

What were his options?

1. Keep answering the question? If he had done so the journalist would have taken the next line of questioning – will you apologise, is this the type of behaviour befitting an alternative PM, will you resign? Acknowledging any of these questions with an answer, even if it is merely a repetition of your own message, will send you down the slippery slide of indefensible questions.

2. Walk away? Abbott found out during the recent federal election campaign that refusing to answer questions and walking away from a media event, even if it is merely a photo op, is deemed equivalent to running away and will be portrayed as such.

3. Hit back – either orally or physically? As much as Abbott would have liked to, this clearly was not an option.

Which leaves us with Option 4: say your piece, wait out the journalist’s attempt to further Shanghai you, then say your piece again. If the journalist persists, stay silent again until he/she gives up.

In choosing to meet this line of questioning with silence, Abbott used the aural equivalent of a simple tactic used by celebrities to ruin paparazzi photos by closing their eyes and rendering the shot unpublishable. On rare occasions such as this one, the closed eyes or deliberate silence become the story due to the determination of the media outlet to have a story, and nothing more.

In reality, Abbott was on a hiding to nothing no matter what he did, and he chose the option that would minimise the damage to him. I believe this will be borne out in the hours and days ahead.

Post script: This article by Crikey reports that the “shit happens” comment was found by accident after Channel 7 FOIed the Defence Department footage to obtain vision of Abbott shooting a variety of guns. It was this that the Opposition Leader’s office was resisting being released to the public. However, Crikey also reports that Abbott was given a couple of hours notice about the line of questioning that Riley intended to use.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

13 thoughts on “Shit happens: What should Abbott have done?”

  1. For me too, it is very rare I find myself defending Tony Abbott. But I agree with you entirely. This is pointless and overblown and really, shit does happen.

  2. Firstly As an alternative PM he shouldn’t have said it knowing there were cameras there. He’s one of the longest serving Parliamentarians and should know better. The Lib’s have known about this tape and have blocked it till FOI ran out. No real surprise to them. Then to cry ambush and being gobsmacked? All too clumsy. I agree this is not a phrase we are shocked by, but why say it? It’s un statesman like and when confronted showed lack of experience by freezing? clumsy! We can all be generous and make excuses for Abbott saying it was a dignified response and I heard others calling the Journalist a maggot etc. At the end of the day it just shows he lacks what ever it takes to represent us as leader of our Nation. This is but one out of many. The man has form.

  3. A number of people who were close to me have died: my father died when I was a teenager, my brother and my mother-in-law died fairly recently. When people ask what happened or try and console you, they are usually sympathetic. Sometimes they can be banal or even clumsy, but almost always they mean well.

    Never, never in my experience do people say “shit happens”. If some guy had said that to me I would have made it a mission to impact the muscles in his face to ensure he was no longer capable of speaking. It just isn’t an appropriate response. It follows on from the rain falling on the just and unjust in the Brisbane floods, or refusing to see Bernie Banton because he wasn’t pure. To give the man more courtesy than he shows others, this is part of a pattern that shows Abbott to be an oaf.

    It is beside the point to make Abbott the focus of a post like this. In a way, it’s heartening that he does not have the power to scrub the public record clean. He’s a brute with the emotions of those he doesn’t know well (and those who know a public figure well are always a tiny minority), he must not govern us again. It’s good that he’s on “a hiding to nothing” – nobody has the power to misrepresent him as better than he actually is. Your advice to those responsible for representing this man as a potential PM is: uh, can’t help you.

    Yes, it’s a small point, and the media are making more of it than they need to because they lack perspective. Small points can be telling and the challenge on the media (and on his spinners to help them find it) is to find a bigger canvas, on which Abbott will display either the kind of pettiness we have come to expect or else the lion-hearted greatness that his followers would have you believe is the real Tony Abbott.

    Supporters of Howard or Whitlam will recount with much bitterness that their man was not brought down by a mighty blow, but by a series of petty events that slowed them down eventually to a standstill. Politics: it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you’re seeing the kind of little twinge that will eventually see Abbott fall short of the prize. Shit happens, and there’s nothing you can do.

    Abbott looked pathetic with that bobble-headed routine. He didn’t look determined or like he was above media circuses, which I think is what you’re trying to claim. He looked like a school bully warning a kid not to dob him in. He looked like a guy who can dish it out but can’t cop it – which, however real, isn’t flattering.

    And there we have the dilemma of spin: do you let Tony be Tony, or do you buff the rough edges off him so that he can make it through the doors to the Lodge?

    1. A very fine comment, Andrew, and one that I can barely disagree with at any point.

      I worked with Tony in the 90s, I know that he is pretty much the man he comes across as on television. He is part of the reason why I don’t vote any more.

      Which is why I challenged myself in this post to look past the dislike to see if there is any communications advice that I could give.

  4. Abbott looked pathetic with that bobble-headed routine. He didn’t look determined or like he was above media circuses, which I think is what you’re trying to claim. He looked like a school bully warning a kid not to dob him in. He looked like a guy who can dish it out but can’t cop it – which, however real, isn’t flattering.

    That about sums it up for me. Very Latham-esque.

    1. Thanks for your point of view, Dragonista. I also appreciated Andrew Elder’s remarks. I, for one, would like to see the return of the statesman/woman to Australian politics. Anyone’s death is no casual matter. A throw-away line like “shit happens” is totally inappropriate under any circumstances.

      I am not a supporter of John Howard but I have seen him dodge difficult interviewers on many occasions and he usually succeeded in making the journo look like a bully. Tony Abbot should give him a call … or maybe take your advice, Dragonista.

  5. I am tired of politicians who get away with dodging questions they are asked, and of journalists who cannot get an answer to a question. It’s incredibly rude to not answer the question asked.
    I am not a Riley fan, but I cannot fault him in this matter. Can you?
    Riley asked Abbott about his comment, and Abbott said he was being taken out of context. So Riley asked Abbott to expand on what was the context. That’s when we got Abbott’s silent rage.
    Within a few hours, Laurie Oakes was on TV saying what Abbott should have said to that question (that he should have explained the context) and that to have done so would have been the appropriate reply. And less than an hour after Laurie had said this on Channel Nine News, Abbott’s office put out a press release more or less following Laurie’s advice.
    Given that TA’s office had hours of notice, arguably had months of notice, to claim they were ambushed is juvenile. But to have failed to ready TA for the exact line of questioning he got (considering how obvious that line was) is incompetence.

  6. I was stunned by the footage of Abbott’s silence. When I first saw it I didn’t know what the story was about so I didn’t really know what the question related to. The thing that stunned me was that, no matter what the question, I couldn’t see any logic to a responding to any question with silence coupled with a frozen expression and “tic”-like nodding and blinking.

    I wanted to know more about the story but in particular about why Abbott went silent. I searched for articles which explained the story and watched the full interview and then came across your post which is the only one I’ve seen that explores the reasons behind his response.

    You have given a good logical/tactical reason for using silence as a response. But it doesn’t fit this scenario because he could have just said “I’ve already answered that question, I’m not going to answer it again. Do you have any other questions for me”. Even after re-watching the footage several times, I can’t arrive at the conclusion that this is the tactic he was using because if it was why would he use a frozen facial expression and the “tic”-like nodding and blinking during the silence. He’d could have at least preceded the silence with something like “Here’s my response”. I think you might be giving him too much credit.

    Consider Abbott’s history of making insensitive comments for a moment (“Died of shame” for example). Unless someone just spilled his drink or bumped into him, saying “Sh*t happen’s” during a discussion of the circumstances of the death of a soldier _is_ insensitive. Saying something that can easily be (mis)interpreted as offensive is showing a lack of sensitivity. Any rational person can see that it is not the smartest thing to say because there are people who will find it offensive (e.g. the soldier’s father). This is just another of the many examples of Tony Abbot’s inability to hold his tongue.

    No doubt, when his press secretary briefed him about the interview, Abbott would have been advised to be very careful about how he replied and to not say anything to make it worse. I think it’s fair to assume he took the advice a little too far and just didn’t realise that silence as a response should be delivered in a way that doesn’t leave you looking like you are having a stroke or that you’ve fallen into a semi-catatonic state or that you are exhibiting symptoms of some sort of mental illness.

    I haven’t watched channel 7, 9 nor 10 news for years because I find their “journalism” to be so abhorrent. So, it should mean a lot when I say that I think, Mark Riley’s approach was amazingly fair and reasonable during the interview as have his responses and further explanations to the questions and accusations about the interview since. The other TV and radio networks seem to have been trying to shift the focus from Abbott and toward Riley and have treated Riley, unfairly, with disdain and have accused him of poor/unethical journalism. It seems like a lot of the commenters here and elsewhere have done the same.

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