Another Bold Step Towards Oblivion?

By Richard Laidlaw

Australian opposition leaders are not generally newsworthy beyond their own fatal shore, unless there is a risk that they might become prime minister. There are exceptions to this generally sensible rule: the last opposition leader but one, Brendan Nelson, had absolutely no hope of seeing the inside of The Lodge in Canberra (except if invited by the occupant for Christmas drinks). He went on his way and is now Australia’s ambassador to Belgium, his new job the gift of the man holding the office he himself would never attain.

The new opposition leader is another exception. Tony Abbott last week replaced Nelson’s successor, former merchant banker and serial self-promoter Malcolm Turnbull, in a party room coup fuelled by political distress over what to do about climate change; or rather, about what not to do about it.

Abbott is a curiosity. He once trained for the priesthood. He fathered a child out of wedlock (though this is no longer deemed a fault in Western society). He is a pugnacious and combative personality. He has no known skill in diplomacy, no evident appreciation of nuance, and apparently a bar-room joke approach to foreign sensitivity.

All this and more is illustrated by a dismissive aside made – at a book launch of all things – last week: Responding to a suggestion that he set out alternative policies on climate change in the context of his own and his party’s dismissal of the Australian government’s A$12 billion (US$11 billion) proposals, he said, “If you had $12 billion to spend, you could buy half of Indonesia.”

He is also, most people would say, on a hiding to nothing in his desire to differentiate his Liberal Party from the anodyne and frankly conservative Labor Party that, under Kevin Rudd, has anaesthetised the country, stolen most of the former (Liberal) government’s policies, and looks set – on the basis of opposition disarray if nothing else – to be in office if not for ever, at least for a long time.

In a round of appearances in the days after he was elected to non-office – being opposition leader in a Westminster-style parliamentary system is even worse than being vice president of the United States: they don’t even place you within range of that famous pitcher of warm spit – Abbott revealed his immediate policy ideas.

No climate-change policy; consideration of the nuclear option for electricity (foolishly, nuclear energy is anathema to Australian voters, who think it would mean a Chernobyl will be built in their backyard); total opposition to what is after all – at least on the verdict of the Australian people – predominantly a sensible government. He wants the difference to be clear; not to say stark. Different it might be. Electable, however? That’s doubtful. And since there is a national election next year, being a doubtful proposition from day one as opposition leader is surely a policy with several electorally fatal flaws.

At that book launch in Sydney at which he dismissed Indonesia with a fatuously self-serving quip, Abbott explained that his party was not poll-driven. He meant that it did not respond to the findings of the full field of public opinion sampling – conducted by the media, mainly for the media, which has to find things to write about – with which Australia, like every Western democracy today, is severely overburdened. Given the polls showed an immediate boost for the Greens following the Liberal leadership change, it’s in the new leader’s interest to dismiss them.

But Abbott is a refreshingly open character. He said this of the opinion polls: “Obviously if we had been (poll-driven), my colleagues would not have elected me. They would have either stuck with Malcolm [Turnbull] or they would have elected Joe [Hockey, a third candidate].

“That would have been the conventionally politically wise thing to do. I think the Liberal Party was desperate for a contest, sick of being in half-hearted agreement with the government. They would rather go down fighting than going down half-agreeing with a government they detest.”

Abbott may be right. His party might be in the mood to die needlessly in a ditch over nothing much at all. But he could well be wrong and most likely is: modern politics is much less about ideology than it is about securing office and staying in the comfort zone that this provides. Just ask Kevin Rudd.

Richard Laidlaw is a retired Australian journalist and political adviser who lives in Bali.

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