A political death


Kevin Andrews, Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop from pm.gov.auThe political death of Party leaders is a messy affair. It is often described as the politics of politics, but would be more aptly called the politics of the schoolyard.

Rumours, tale telling, gossip, unknown terrors and side eyes are the order of the day. These are the things that bring political life into disrepute and keep it there. The replacement of Mr Abbott by Mr Turnbull was characteristically messy.

It is hard to comment on Tony Abbott's demise without being splattered by the schoolyard mud. But we should begin by sparing a thought for the man himself in this time of humiliation. He has given his life to the Liberal Party, and to be disowned as leader by it is surely devastating.

Whatever of his political virtues and failings he never lacked courage and perseverance. And almost his last political decision was to welcome a large number of Syrian refugees into Australia. It was a generous gesture from a leader with whose policies many of us have frequently found fault for their narrowness. It was also generously endorsed by the Leader of the Opposition. This was a brief and welcome pause in many years of unrelentingly adversarial government.

With two major exceptions the Abbott Government was not effective in implementing its policies. Even the two exceptions — stopping the boats and abolishing the carbon tax — have left dangerous rents in Australian public life. In budgeting, education and many other areas the Government has not been able to get its legislation passed.

These failures cannot be put down to Mr Abbott alone. They have flowed out of the first Budget, which reflected the views of the Party as a whole. It embodied an economic ideology that rewarded economically successful individuals and penalised the vulnerable. Economic growth was prized for its own sake even when it further consolidated wealth in the hands of the very few. The Budget was reviled for its unfairness and blocked in the Senate. Perhaps the tragedy of Mr Abbott's Prime Ministership is that he adopted as his own a brutal economic ideology that ran counter to the Christian vision of his hero, Bob Santamaria.

It is by no means clear that we should expect better from Mr Turnbull. He has given priority to economic development based on the free market. He has not made it clear how far that growth will be shaped by fairness and attention to the common good rather than to individual economic success.

The major challenges that face Australia and its Governments of all stripes in the coming decade will be to reverse the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few and the consequent public alienation from politicians; to deal effectively and cooperatively with the effects of climate change; and to ensure that in responding to international crises the Australian community maintains a cohesion based on respect and on universal protection by the rule of law.

The Abbott Government exacerbated each of these challenges. It is not at all clear that a Labor Government will address them effectively. Nor was Mr Turnbull's first view of his role as Prime Minister reassuring. But his instinct is for cooperative rather than adversarial government, and we should hope that this elicits a corresponding openness from Mr Shorten and within his own Party. That would be a good beginning.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, federal politics, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Fr Andrew, firstly I commend you for your empathy for Tony Abbott. But to my main query. What is it about the free market that you find so threatening? The true free market is the voluntary exchange of goods and services between consenting parties. If someone accrues wealth by meeting the demands of consumers without engaging in force, fraud or monopoly, what is the issue? In a true free market it is the consumer who has control. If the disparity of wealth concerns you, then free market economies distribute wealth better than command economies do. If you don't like a free market then you must want some form of mixed economy where the state controls certain aspects of the economy. What makes you think that the state has either the wisdom or the integrity to bring about the changes that you want to see in society? What if your ideal version of society does not match with the state's? Milton Friedman once said that those who are against the free market were against freedom itself. I think he was correct. Instead of trying to persuade people to your way of thinking and acting, Fr Andrew, would you have the state force them?

Marg | 15 September 2015  

To me there did not seem a large amount of schoolyard behaviour during the recent leadership change in the Liberal Party. There were some rather simplistic statements made by some politicians but that is normal. They were geared to the 24/7 news cycle and to shore up their careers I ween. Janet Albrechtsen's article in today's 'Australian' summed up the situation well. The Liberals need to move on from this and quickly. The focus will now turn to the Leader of the Opposition. The odds on Shorten winning the next election have just lengthened considerably.

Edward Fido | 15 September 2015  

'Whatever of his political virtues and failings he never lacked courage and perseverance'? I beg to differ. Abbott was never interested in doing the hard yards, never capable of developing policy, never had a clue about working collaboratively, never accepted the need to negotiate. That's why he failed as PM, that's why he dropped out of the seminary, that's why he took up boxing rather than rowing at Oxford. All he ever wanted was to be PM, or Pope, or to win an Oxford Blue. And as for the 'generous gesture... to welcome a large number of Syrian refugees into Australia', that announcement was a smoke screen to cover his idiotic decision to contribute further to the mayhem in Syria without any strategy or plan as to how it might be effective.

Ginger Meggs | 15 September 2015  

I'd rather read compassion than vindictiveness. I hope Mr Abbott finds peace and fulfillment in his future endeavours.

Patricia Taylor | 16 September 2015  

De mortuis nil nisi bonum. You have done your best, Andrew, to find some bonum, but the pickings were slim. The best comment came from the Q&A audience on Monday night when Tony Jones announced the result of the ballot. That was not scripted applause: it was genuine relief.

Frank | 16 September 2015  

Forget that ghoulish post mortem Mr Meggs. A vocation to priesthood is a gift given some by God, Tony lacked it. He wrote “I couldn’t imagine being celibate for the rest of my life”[1] As for inability to develop policy or negotiate? His courageous stand on gay marriage was clearly developed policy as well as negotiation by plebiscite.

Father John George | 16 September 2015  

Spare a thought for the man himself. There is no sympathy for self inflicted wounds.

Kevin Vaughan | 16 September 2015  

As always I agree with Ginger Meggs. Bullies can appear courageous at first sight and pig-headedness can be misread as perseverance. Abbott's prime-ministership was a disaster that should never have happened. Whether we can expect much better from his successor remains to be seen. It's not conceivable that the political climate can be worse.

oldG | 16 September 2015  

Not so fast you guys Italian premier Amintore Fanfani, who remained in parliament for over 30 years after his first appointment as prime minister. He also served nine years in the cabinet after he first reached the premiership – and was returned to the prime minister’s office four more times.

Father John George | 16 September 2015  

Like his unimaginative, heartless mentor, Howard, Abbott simply had to go. The electorate would have done it if the party hadn't.

john frawley | 16 September 2015  

Marg, thank you for your defence of the free market. I am not against the freedom of the market in practice, but against particular ideologies which exempt that freedom from care for the common good, and which so see unrestricted individual freedom as trumping all other values. I don't think that your restricting legitimate controls on the individual in the market to ' force, fraud and monopoly' adequately protects society. Such limited restriiction would seem, for example, to outlaw punitive taxation of tobacco, allow uncontrolled advertising of pornography and restrict attempts to deal with climate change by limiting the mining and use of coal. In my understanding, commercial relationships are set within the broader relationships that serve the good of the whole community. That good both encourages the (relative) freedom of the market and dictates the boundaries within which it is exercised.

Andy Hamilton | 16 September 2015  

Hear hear Ginger Meggs. Abbott proved himself a divisive, slogan-brained knucklehead forever summoning our worst angels with throttling and corrosive words. A PM prepared to thwart any person, group or discourse that threatened his agenda. It is said that the most dangerous people in society are our leaders and in Abbot's case it's truism remains. Over his political grave the headstone will read ... a menace who polished and restored the armour of the privilaged, stalled those with a conscience and locke-up the helpless - he will not be missed.

A J Stewart | 16 September 2015  

Where to from here? Many commentators are concerned that Turnbull has indicated that he will abide by Liberal Party decisions taken under Abbott on Climate Change and Marriage Equality, but what of the vexed issue of Aboriginal recognition in the Constitution and the related hoped for improvement in Aboriginal engagment in the wider political process and specifically in decisions impacting on Aboriginal interests? Not a word that I have read in the hours since the spill. Where does Turnbul stand on this and how will he reach out to Dodson and Pearson from Wentworth? As you say Andrew we must hope that he can address fairness and compassion while pursuing economic growth. On the day of the spill we read that predictions are on the contrary that inequality in our community is set to widen over the next ten years. There must be huge scrutiny on Turnbull on this issue.

Mike Bowden | 16 September 2015  

Appraisal and analysis of Tony Abbott's leadership could well be premature: sacked leaders have been known to resurrect. What can be said is that in the past two years a policy towards asylum seekers was based on the principle of "the end justifies the means". Such a teleological principle easily led to the proud boast that "we said we'd stop the boats and we did!" That the means chosen was inhumane, and in fact downright cruel to those seeking asylum and protected by international law, seemed somehow to escape the Abbott Government and its supporters. Like many, I now live in hope that true statesmanship with a concern for our fellow human beings will characterise the Turnbull Government. As a start Malcolm could direct that all women and children be freed from Australian detention centres. Better he could persuade the Australian electorate that past demonisation of asylum seekers who attempted to "come by boat" was and is unjustifiable. Australians want to hold their heads up proudly in the international community. Only when our government supports the rule of law above vested self interest that has seen our policy rightly criticised will we be able to do so. I live in hope.

Ern Azzopardi | 16 September 2015  

Thanks old G and AJ Stewart. The Fairfax media carried an interesting article a few weeks' ago which suggested that Abbott had never really grown up and that he exhibited many of the characteristics of an immature teenage boy. His behaviour since being sacked - spitting the dummy, declining interviews, blaming others, absenting himself from parliament, faxing his resignation to the GG, etc - seem to confirm this view. For the article, see < www.smh.com.au/comment/tony-abbott-boy-or-man--or-maybe-just-wired-differently-20150819-gj2fyj.html >

Ginger Meggs | 16 September 2015  

Thanks for your reply, Fr Andrew. You seem to speak of the common good as if it is readily identified and agreed on by all. With respect, I think this is a fallacious premise. There would be as many understandings of what constitutes the common good as there are people. I prefer the path of individual liberty where no one initiates aggression against another and where private property rights are respected. The common good has been used by the state to justify the use of force to trample on the individual’s right to liberty and property. Most often ‘the common good’ is the ruling elite’s philosophy foisted on all. In addition, your example of punitive taxes on tobacco smacks of paternalism. By what right do you presume to alter another person’s habits, even if they are bad? It’s not the state’s business to save people from their own bad choices. I agree that we need to protect the young from exposure to pornography, alcohol and gambling, etc. Finally, the issue of climate change seeks to impose severe restrictions on others based on highly dubious and contentious science. It holds that those who know better must use force to save their less enlightened citizens from their incurable ignorance. Such attitudes have been used to justify tyrannies.

Marg | 16 September 2015  

Thank you Andrew. There is a great deal of wisdom in your essay. It was needed to be said because it helps us to remember that there are many things worse than politics - see Syria, for example.

Ian Weeks | 16 September 2015  

Love the comments...so glad he's gone!

GAJ | 16 September 2015  

The final straw for me with Abbott was his failure to engage in any intelligent debate about the China free trade agreement, refused to inform the public about the details and facts, and simply resorted to branding the Opposition as "racist". Surely it's a legitimate concern to want to know the legalities protecting local workers, and Abbott insulted the electorate's intelligence. This is what I presume Turnbull was referring to in his justification for the leadership challenge, and rightly so. This might be the first time in my life I might consider voting Liberal (or at least not be disappointed if the party I vote for loses)

AURELIUS | 17 September 2015  

If I can add a late addendum to this conversation: Listening to the radio this morning I heard Julie Bishop, being sympathetic to the trauma undergone by Tony and his family say: "of course, I knew them well". Past tense. Have they all been executed?

Vin Victory | 18 September 2015  

Freedom from Babylonian captivity. May Abbott and Hockey never hold public authority over any person ever again.

Mikie | 18 September 2015  

What an absurdity that Abbott should thank us for choosing to gift him with the Prime Ministership. The electorate gave the Coalition government simply because of disgust with Gillard /Rudd fiasco. Tony's coalition colleagues handed him the Prime Ministership and the people expressed their disapproval from day one.

john kersh | 19 September 2015  

Marg should look again at the origin of market economies with a foundation in self-interest. Self interest does not always run in harmony with social interest. The market is inherently incapable of bringing such conflict together. Who else but government through the use of power for the common good can create social and economic harmony? Democracy empowers our elected representatives in parliament to do just that or have I lived in Australia for some 70 odd years under some misapprehension?

petruss | 23 September 2015  

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