Tony Abbott may be a nice guy in person, but in a political context he is an effective destroyer of personalities and policies. His attacks sally forth from a deep sense of personal doubt in his own abilities and convictions. He is essentially a weak and reactive personality. He is the only Australian prime minister in living memory to lack both the confidence and skill required to effectively govern. In his private moments, Abbott would tacitly admit as much.
His recent unpriministerly attack on the ABC calling Q&A ‘a left lynch mob’ suggests a leader who is acutely sensitive of criticism, and suffers from something akin to irritable bowel syndrome of the mind when it comes to digesting the concept of democratic debate.
Never has a leader leaned so heavily on his chief of staff for direction. Peta Credlin, one might say, has broad shoulders. Abbott is essentially an inexperienced first term prime minister and does not seem to have grown comfortably into the role.
Needless to say, he recently came within hair’s breadth of losing control of his party. The vulgar saying ‘fake it until you make it’ characterises Abbott’s trajectory into the lodge. It’s remarkable that, collectively, the media, Labor and the Greens have not been able to highlight and/or exploit these personal deficits to their advantage.
A colleague recently made the astute observation that Obama’s election winning slogan ‘Yes We Can’ was positive, inclusive and enabling. It’s also memorable. He contrasted this with Abbott’s uninspiring, long-winded and negative mantra: ‘We’ll stand up for Australia. We’ll stand up for real action. We’ll end the waste, repay the debt, stop the new taxes and stop the boats.’
Labor’s support of Abbott’s border policy and it’s freshly minted positive and nationalistic slogan ’Advance Australia Fair’ at last week’s ALP National Conference, is a promising start to Shorten’s pitch for the lodge. By strategically adopting the boat turn-back policy, this shores up Labor’s flanks against the broadsides Abbott has fired upon previous Labor administrations unable to counter the impression that their humane policies were a sign of weakness.
But a positive demeanour and the fortifying of one’s defences against Abbott’s sorties is not enough. Labor has to tell a story not just about what it stands for, but what it’s passionate about.
There was a time when Rudd was our Moses. But the equivocation of his government on climate change action was a political disaster whose aftershocks continue to reverberate. Rudd completely misread or was incapable of regarding the faith voters had placed in him. His about-turn was akin to environmental blasphemy.
If Shorten is going to take the fight up to Abbott on the environment, then he has to convince Australians that nothing is more important to their collective destiny; that Labor, not the Greens, is the party that will oversee the greening of Australia. People of all walks of life will make the leap of faith if they believe in Labor’s message. Nothing short of making sustainability a secular religion will work. It ain’t gonna be easy.
Shorten has spooked Abbott. Abbott knows he’s dealing with a different entity to Rudd. Abbott has come out swinging calling the ETS an acronym for ‘electricity tax scam.’ And at the moment, Labor does not have an effective counter-punch.
The Liberals have also hastily reacted to Labor’s stated target of 50% female Labor members of parliament by 2025, by announcing in typically vague and non-committal terms that the LNP needs to make it easier to help women enter parliament. Little will change here on Tony’s watch. This is just a strategic attempt to neutralise Labor’s novel initiative.
Shorten lacks Abbott’s mongrel, but as mentioned earlier, behind Abbott’s pugilistic persona, is a shadow boxer, and Labor can exploit that if it wishes. But as I recently wrote, perhaps it would be more constructive to play the ball, rather than the man. Not only does Shorten have to convey a sense of genuine passion, he and his colleagues also need to be more imaginative and creative.
Leading up to the next federal election, it would be inexcusable, perhaps unforgivable, for the ALP not to craft and refine a suite of persuasive counter-discourses to Abbott’s confected but effective working-class lines such as ‘big new tax’.
I don’t have any suggestions for the opposition here, but I can confidently assert that Shorten’s moaning and groaning to the Australian public about Abbott’s negativity won’t find many sympathetic ears.
To conclude, the ALP needs to be mindful of Abbott’s Achilles heel – his inner confidence. It needs to have a passionate vision for the future that excites belief in the public mind. And it has to be imaginative and creative in how it responds to Abbott’s effective scare tactics pitched to the lowest common denominator.