Latham’s ghost will hover over Abbott

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.

Gary Ramage, Daily Tele 6 Feb 2013
Photo: Gary Ramage, Daily Telegraph

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.

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.

21 thoughts on “Latham’s ghost will hover over Abbott”

  1. Clever comparison. Those who assume Abbott will walk into power forget their political history. I would think that support for both sides is weak. Both substance and style will be required for either side to prevail on election night. Both have plenty of room for improvemen

  2. Gratten being associated with Abbott this election year will be a poison pen for him, so stick with him old lady, you will do Julia and the Govt the power of good.

  3. Abbott IS Latham! He’s just wearing an LNP disguise. As mad as a cut snake, and twice as dangerous to the Australian economy.

  4. True, I had not thought about it like that. Even people who think that ‘maybe’ the Abbott is a thug mantra is a myth would still have that niggle in the back of their head if they see any overtly aggressive response from a la Latham. Wonder what the flipside is for Julia Gillard? As in what her tipping point would be to shoot herself in the foot?

  5. C’mon, just one handshake? That’s a pretty shallow analysis. Either way it appears the electorate got it right. Who can forget Latham’s monstering of Gillard in the lead up to 2010 and bizarre interview with Hanson.

    1. I think you mean it’s a shallow reaction? But sometimes it is a small thing like a handshake that crystallises one’s doubt and becomes the deciding factor. Voters have made their minds up over less substantial matters than a handshake.

  6. Latham was and is unstable in a way we haven’t seen from Abbott. But who knows, maybe Abbott will really punch a wall…

  7. Agree – in the end the ‘essential’ Latham came out and scared the voters. The handshake played a big part in this.

    It seems to me that the ‘facade’ you mentioned in your post has already begun to crack. Yesterday Abbott’s refused to answer questions about Corey Bernardi. He turned his back on the cameras, maintained a stony silence and walked away. This scenario has happened many times before. It completely undermined the ‘mini campaign’ event the had just attended. Mr Positive was immediatley seen very clearly as Mr Negative.

    Abbotts silences when questioned about difficult issues reveal starkly his negative and aggressive self. I think such scenes resonate strongly with voters. It is unlikely that image twiddling or re-invention will counter such scenes.

  8. Dragonista as always an insightful perspective. The punters wont not buy it, its fraught with danger. Besides Abbott is prone to bark & bite when the muzzle comes off and the leash is released. At some point he is bound to open his mouth and reveal precisely nothing as he changes feet.

    Abbott and Lathum were both attack dogs (as opposed to Pyne who is an attack cabbage), and aspirational PM’s. Latham failed lets hope Abbott keeps up the tradition 🙂

  9. I don’t agree that the handshake was particularly influential but it did neatly encapsulate the stigma which Latham carried and which rendered him implausible. I think the high approval ratings which reflected that as a person he was well liked are often assumed to mean he was poised for victory when a hazy skim of newspoll suggests that for most of 2004, particularly the latter half, 2pp averaged out at around 50:50 while Howard tended to lead comfortably on preferred pm polls.

    I agree that Abbott like Latham has a problem in that he is unskilled at containing his aggressive side with the results often being he behaves quite inappropriately (the infamous Mark Riley interview springs to mind.) There parralells are so great that Michael Duffy felt the need to write a whole book about them way back when Abbott was only Health Minister. But as much as anything I think Latham’s problem was how he contrasted to Howard. Howard was widely regarded as a measured and competent Prime Minister which made a Latham government appear to be a great risk. I don’t think the Gillard government enjoys such perceptions of competence and stability which mitigates the apparent risk of an Abbott government.

  10. There’s one significant difference between Latham and Abbott (or at least the Press Gallery’s responses to them) – Abbott’s lapses are far less likely to be reported than Latham’s were. His free ride will continue.

  11. I agree totally but with one exception : Mark Latham was wildly popular as Opp. Leader for a time. Abbott has never been popular or risen above the PM’s approval rates.

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