Tony Abbott is rattled, and predictably is reacting by throwing punches in his ‘whirling dervisher’ fashion. Anyone who upsets him is a target, writes respected long-time blogger Ad astra.
Anyone who has been watching Tony Abbott since he entered parliament; any one who has read about his behaviour during his days in student politics; anyone who knows about his boxing escapades during his Rhodes scholarship days at Oxford, will not be at all surprised at his angry demeanour this past week.
He described his boxing technique as ‘the whirling dervisher’, an apt description. Flailing arms, resembling a whirling dervish, a ceremonial dance among some religious cults, were his line of attack, calculated to knock his opponent to the canvas, suitably bloodied. He continued this approach into his political life.
Political observers know how in his student days he resented losing and remember the story of him kicking in a glass door when he narrowly lost in a University Senate election, who punched the wall close to Barbara Ramjan when he lost an SRC election to her, an event he couldn’t at first ‘remember’, and then said ‘it never happened’, despite witnesses to the contrary.
Since his early days, Abbott seems to have been an angry man when things have not gone his way, when he has suffered a setback, when he has been defeated, when he has been censured.
Last week was that sort of calamity: things going badly, a setback, a virtual defeat, and multiple censures.
Our memory of last week, when there was a call for a leadership spill, is so vivid that there is no need for me to repeat the events in detail. You know them well.
Reflect then on Abbott’s reaction to the calling of the vote, the far too-close-for-comfort outcome that humiliated him, the comments of his backbenchers before and after the spill motion, the thinly veiled criticism of some ministers close to him, and the acerbic writings of a coterie of journalists.
After the 61/39 vote his first move was to airily dismiss the event, to insist it was all over. But as the denigratory chatter persisted, as colourful remarks and cartoons emerged mocking him and portraying him as a spent force on borrowed time who would be tipped out sometime later this year, his anger rose to explosive levels.
His reaction was just what we expected! After a brief period of astonishment at his ‘near death experience’, expressions of regret and of being ‘chastened’, after promises to consult more, and a surprise announcement that good government was about to begin, it wasn’t long before he reverted to anger, aggression and belligerence. The ‘whirling dervisher’ was soon on display.
The most direct reaction to the vote was for him to sack his long-standing Party Whip, Philip Ruddock, the highly respected and longest serving parliamentarian with over 40 years to his credit, replacing him with his deputy Scott Buchholz, and appointing a Tasmanian first-termer and Abbott sycophant Andrew Nikolic as Deputy Whip, who no doubt will tell Abbott what he wants to hear. This was yet another ‘captain’s choice’, seemingly made this time in anger.
Abbott insisted though that this was not an act of retribution; some of his colleagues, surprised and bewildered as they were, didn’t see it that way. Last night on Q&A Malcolm Turnbull expressed his great admiration for Ruddock and his distress at his removal, but avoided criticism of Abbott, whom he said had made a ‘captain’s pick’. ‘He’s the captain; there’s a bunch of decisions he can make! It’s up to him to explain it’. Andrew Laming thought it was a crazy act of wounding just when healing was needed. It is thought to be Abbott’s reaction to some of his colleagues who apparently criticised Ruddock for not warning Abbott about the extent of backbench discontent, and for not mustering more support for him.
Ruddock himself was mystified. He told Sky News: “My expectation is if the Prime Minister had concerns about the way in which I undertook the task he would put them to me”. Whatever Abbott’s reason, it will be regarded as him striking out in anger and trying to regain authority. The opposite will be the outcome. Even days later the ripples of comment and discontent continue, and are likely to reinforce not only Abbott’s unsuitability for high office, but also his vindictiveness when wounded, his propensity to strike out at any detractor, or even an imagined one.
Abbott’s anger reached explosive proportions when he was mocked in Question Time about his ‘promise’ to Senator Sean Edwards, given to secure the votes of South Australian MPs, that a ‘competitive evaluation process’ would be used to determine who should get the contract to build Australia’s next fleet of submarines, which to Edwards meant that the Australian Submarine Corporation in SA would be able to tender. The ‘promise’ soon turned out to be yet more weasel words; Abbott would not be using an open tender process.
Abbott returned the mocking by saying that an open tender process would allow Vladimir Putin to bid, even Kim Jong Il of North Korea, now deceased. He painted the image of Russian and North Korean class submarines defending Australia. Then, as his anger got out of control he launched into a vitriolic attack on Labor’s efforts at submarine building and declared: “Under members opposite Defence jobs in this country declined by 10 per cent…There was a holocaust of jobs in Defence industries under members opposite.” Realising he had gone too far, he withdrew the term ‘holocaust’, changing his words to a “decimation of jobs”, and later apologised. But it was too late. His ill temper and florid language drew criticism from members from both sides of the House, the Jewish Board of Deputies, community leaders, and journalists. He realised too late that he had overstepped the bounds of propriety in using the word ‘holocaust’; his anger had overwhelmed his commonsense, just as it has done in the past.
Abbott’s next exhibition of anger came after the government’s long-delayed release of the Human Rights Commission’s ‘Forgotten Children’ report that called for a royal commission into the detention of children under both Labor and Coalition governments. He labelled it ‘a blatantly partisan politicised exercise’. He went on to say that the Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself and called on the chair, Professor Gillian Triggs, to resign. He raved on about it being a ‘stitch up’, although the report covered periods in office of both Labor and the LNP, and was critical of both. Yet again, Abbott’s intense anger at having to deal with yet another criticism of his government, especially at this time, overwhelmed his political commonsense.
Malcolm Fraser was caustic about Abbott’s reaction. He said that Abbott had handled the report very badly, and had chosen to attack the commission as a body and to attack the chairperson in particular, which he said was outrageous. “I know Gillian Triggs. She’s a very good, distinguished lawyer”. Fraser denied suggestions Ms Triggs had a political agenda or that the commission had a case to answer. “Absolutely not. She is fulfilling the charter laid out in the legislation,” he said.
If we needed any more evidence that pugilist Abbott was once more in the boxing ring, he let the cat out of bag when he arrogantly declared: “I am a fighter. I know how to beat Labor Party leaders. I beat Kevin Rudd; I beat Julia Gillard; and I can beat Bill Shorten as well.”
To Abbott, politics has always been a fight, with winners and losers. He knows no other way. Bipartisanship, consensus, collaboration in pursuit of the common good, cooperation for the sake of the nation, are simply not in his DNA. He must always fight and fight to win. He seems unable to consider the alternative – making peace.
We can expect even more aggression from Angry Abbott whenever the pressure builds as it surely will in the months ahead, as the headwinds against his government intensify, as its performance deteriorates, as he makes more gaffes, takes more bad decisions, makes another silly ‘captain’s pick’, cops more criticism from colleagues and the media, suffers more terrible polling, and watches his stocks sink lower and lower toward the inevitable end.
Ad astra is a retired medical academic who despairs about the future of our nation under such leadership.
This article was first published by Ad astra on TPS Extra.