Thursday, 27 September 2012

Never mind the handbags, it's the economy, Tony

Given Tony Abbott gets blamed for everything disagreeable from Muslim riots to tinea, he should also shoulder responsibility for the emergence of duelling handbags as the latest Australian political phenomenon. 

As a spectacle - watching Labor women lining up at 30 paces to chuck their Orotons at Abbott, forcing Liberals to hurl themselves in front of their leader to swat them back - it has about as much subtlety and grace as dwarf-tossing.

As a strategy, it has had some success as Labor plays one of the few cards it has: to destroy Abbott politically and in a deeply personal way if necessary using its women in frontline combat roles. Kelly O'Dwyer rightly bagged the tactic, and if Abbott fails to counter it, and quickly, the image that will be cemented in voters' minds is the one Labor, admittedly with some help from him, has crafted. That can bring only more pain for Abbott and the Coalition.

It is a picture of an aggressive man who directs his anger towards workers in general and women in particular, and his destructive streak towards the environment and the economy - someone in conflict with everyone and everything that makes up modern, tolerant Australia. It is a shame because that is not the real Tony, and not only because in his personal and professional life he is surrounded by women, some of whom happen to be lesbians, who dote on him and work their guts out for him.

He is complex and interesting - with flaws, to be sure - however, scope existed for him on assuming the leadership to be cast as the compassionate conservative alternative. Instead he became the hard man of politics. It produced spectacular results, demolishing like skittles the emissions trading scheme, then Kevin Rudd, crippling Julia Gillard and threatening to wipe out Labor for a generation or more. The irony is that Abbott's toughness is being used to vilify him while Gillard has worked to turn hers into a virtue.

It is not too late for Abbott to recast. People who have heard him talk sensitively and knowledgeably about Aborigines or the disabled, or who have benefited from his many acts of kindness or through his volunteer work, know the substance is there and know he isn't faking it. While he should not be deterred from using his family - there is nothing wrong with it and everybody does it - to show his softer side, he must do the bulk of it himself. This does not mean easing up on the government, only that he modify his arguments to take account of changed circumstances and moderate elements of his presentation that distract people from his central messages.

Also, he and his office have to avoid slip-ups that add charges of sloppiness to oafishness. He has to keep his prime focus on the economy, then balance it with a Liberal (cap L, not small l) social agenda. One easy way he could show that is to free up the Coalition on the signature issue of same-sex marriage. His reason for not allowing a conscience vote in last week's debate is that the Coalition went to the 2010 election promising to oppose it.

Having fulfilled that obligation and having admitted he also wrestles with this issue, he is free to release himself and his MPs from that pledge in the next campaign for the next parliament. For too long Abbott has allowed Labor to frame him. As a branding exercised it converged most dangerously and destructively with David Marr's essay.

Not one single witness emerged to corroborate the story that Abbott as a 19-year-old punched the wall beside a woman's head, yet Labor used it mercilessly to brand him as a thug, ably assisted by media untroubled by the absence of evidence then or now. Journalists without the heart or the ticker to pursue allegations of professional misconduct in the Prime Minister's more recent past and eager to even up the political contest leapt on to Abbott. The flimsiest accounts were presented as corroboration. One supposed male witness said anonymously he saw Abbott throw a punch but did not see it land. We must assume embarrassment over his cowardice in not springing to defend the woman or remonstrate with Abbott explains his 35-year silence.

This was not the beginning of Abbott's problems, it exacerbated them. It began to go wrong for him when things started to go right for the Prime Minister, marked by her successful rope-a-dope tactic with the premiers on the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Abbott comprehensively mucked up when BHP Billiton announced the abandonment of its Olympic Dam project. This story was an absolute gift with more legs than a centipede but Abbott reduced it to two by crudely blaming it all on the carbon and mining taxes, then he amputated those when he said he hadn't read the statement.

Although the mining giant let him hang, it was nevertheless a perfect opportunity for Abbott to recast and marry his arguments. He could have put those two taxes into a much wider narrative to build the theme of a government reckless with the truth, reckless with people's money and reckless with the economy, and here was an example of the inevitable consequences when a government obsessed with politics went rogue on policy.

It was and should always be about the government's economic management, its reason for being and its integrity. Lindsay Tanner fleshed out that narrative, exposing Labor's wounds and vulnerabilities, and helped change, at least for now, the political dynamics. Reacting with real feeling to Tanner's friendly fire, Bob Carr said yesterday it was too easy to talk about Labor's failures rather than its accomplishments. Too true, Bob.
Tanner's intervention should help Abbott - and Rudd - check Gillard's momentum, depending on how smartly they react. Rudd should shut up and Abbott should never stop referring to it. Gillard's desperation to ward off the twin threats posed by Rudd and Abbott has spawned some deplorable measures, including Friday's proposal to quarantine the conditions of Queensland public servants forced out into the private sector.

Abbott has to prove he appreciates the economic challenges the government has neglected or created, has the solutions and will implement them conscientiously. He has to do it by talking about the economy, stupid, over and over and over, in complex terms to the experts and in simple terms to the punters, and not just in an economic headland speech he is planning.

One man who can help him do that is Arthur Sinodinos, whose belated elevation to the frontbench follows the belated, inevitable and justified dismissal of Cory Bernardi. Sinodinos should also travel with Abbott during the election campaign, a role filled by Nick Minchin last time, to provide the leader with constant sound political and policy counsel at the most critical time.

Abbott, in the firmest and nicest possible way, has to capitalise on Labor's day of reckoning, otherwise known as the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, by zeroing in on the mistakes without making any of his own and reassuring people he is capable of doing better.
                                       _________________  |  ________________

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