Monday, February 14, 2011

Bad Week... Good Week...

Tony Abbott has known bad days in politics.

There was that time, on the campaign trail in 2007, where he abused a dying mesothelioma victim, rocked up late to a televised debate with his shadow ministry opposite and then swore at and abused said opposite for criticising him. Or there was the time, immediately after the Liberals 2007 election defeat, that he wanted to put his hand up to be leader, only to sound out his parliamentary colleagues and find out that none of them would support him. And, of course, there was the 2007 election defeat itself, which left Abbott staggering, Heathcliff like, across the cliff tops of Eastern Sydney, after his mentor John Howard was pitched out of office.

But all of these bad days had been in Abbott's past.

Since his unlikely and unexpected rise to the Liberal Party leadership in late 2009, he has had nothing but sunshine, lollipops and rainbows:

And a bit of good luck. Firstly, his seemingly entrenched and popular opponent, the robotic bloke from Queensland, conspired against himself and self destructed in a flash of bad polls and 'ratfucking' jokes. Secondly, the robotic blokes replacement, Julia from the Suburbs, almost immediately started acting just like the bloke she'd just replaced - flimsy, no policies, weasel word language - and so nullified any appeal she may have had. And finally, the ALP ran one of the worst and most inept election campaigns in the country's history and nearly threw away a comfortable electoral buffer.

Even the fact that Abbott ultimately led the conservatives to defeat at the 2010 election, normally the very bottom of the heap for a political leader, didn't seem to have quite the same effect on him. Somehow, he managed to convey the impression that he had actually won in some way, or that the new government was illegitimate or, at least, that being Opposition leader was better than leading a rag tag coalition of misfits, rebels and weirdos.

So perhaps his good luck was due to run out...

For last week contained a number of bad days for Tony Abbott.

Firstly, a recap.

Tony's week of misery started with the release of his proposed cuts to the Federal budget. The ones that will generate $2 billion worth of savings and so negate the need for a flood levy/tax to pay for disaster relief. As is the case with these types of things, even people who might be in favour of spending cuts in general, can become opposed once they see what, exactly, will be cut.

Which is what seemed to happen to Abbott's, previously loyal, deputy, shadow foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop. Bishop had strongly opposed Abbott's initial plan to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Africa and had succeeded in getting him to drop the idea... only to have him replace it with a plan to cut hundreds of millions of dollars to an AusAid scheme that funds secular schools in Indonesia. Bishop was angry enough to confront Abbott in his office about it, a meeting which leaked out into the press and fuelled already existing rumours that the pair don't get along and can't work together.

Although the proposed cuts are simply that, proposals, which are not going to be enacted in reality, Abbott's trenchant opposition to the Government's tax/levy had made them the focus of media attention and his ideas significant. A major public spat with his deputy over them was not a good look for the Opposition leader. As they say in politics, 'Disunity is death.'

Of course, later in the week, Abbott would look back on an argument about hypothetical budget cuts as a happy sort of time. A tea and scones in the garden with the newspaper and the family kind of Sunday morning. For later in the week, Abbott would find himself overtaken by 'Shithappensgate.'

This issue had been percolating for a few months, from late last year, when Abbott went to Afghanistan to visit Australian troops, in the wake of the killing of one of them, Jared Mackinney . The Australian Defence force took some video footage of Abbott while he was with them; joking with the troops, wearing a helmet, firing some weapons, the usual sort of macho idiot stuff that politicians can't resist around the army.

This footage was not released to the public and would not have been, if veteran Channel 7 reporter Mark Riley hadn't played a hunch and obtained it - after a three month legal stoush with Abbott's staff, who didn't want it out in public - via the 'Freedom of Information' act. The acquired tape contained footage of Abbott discussing the death of Mackinney with local commanders and then clearly stating the words, 'Well, it's obvious that... shit happens sometimes doesn't it?'

Now Abbott was quick to point out that his remarks needed to be taken in context (and it seems the whole political system would fall apart without the existence of that phrase). He had been on the public record as critical of the level of logistical support our troops received in Afghanistan and had implied this may have contributed to the death in question. The local commanders had told him that he felt the troops were well supported and so Abbott was trying to say, in a way, that he'd been wrong. But his remarks were pretty careless and would, undoubtedly, make some people seeing them think of him as a cold, heartless cunt.

Which may have been a better look than initially thought, after Abbott was confronted by the footage by Riley outside Parliament House. After watching it on Riley's laptop and answering a few questions in a hostile yet perfunctory way, Abbott suddenly lapsed into an angry silence, glaring at Riley as if he was about to explode. Or, at least, turn the clock back to his university days and flatten him with a few punches:

Later, Abbott's supporters would claim that their boy was maintaining a 'dignified silence' and choosing not to respond to 'gutter journalism' and a 'media ambush.' If this is true, then it's only true in the sense that the Black Knight from 'The Holy Grail' chose to surrender quietly:

The truth is that Abbott's 'dignified' response did much more damage than the 'Shit happens' video, which ultimately, no one seemed to give a shit about anyway. But by going on national TV and acting like a nutjob, Abbott confirmed all the worst suspicions that people (including some inside the Parliamentary Liberal party) have about him; that he's rash, unstable, prone to let his emotions get the better of him and incapable of thinking on his feet.

A tough week for Abbott, then, with one damaging issue after another and all of it covered with maximum hostility by the national press. So it must have come to some surprise to him, and us, to start the following week (this week) with polling showing the Liberal Party in a triumphant position in the polls. I mean, the conservatives are so far ahead that if the numbers from yesterday's poll were repeated in an election, Labor's representatives in Canberra would be reduced to the blokes that run the parliamentary canteen. And even their position might be shaky.

And it's difficult to know what to make of this. Either Abbott is better liked - and so more resilient in the polls - than we'd thought, or Julia Gillard is so on the nose that nothing Abbott could do could really affect the Liberals numbers much. Either way, this spells dire news for the ALP... and anyone who thought about moving to Canada if Abbott won the election last year.

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