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An Opposition With A Majority: The Legacy of Tony Abbott

Now that he has been successfully excised from Parliament, it seems fitting that we discuss the legacy of one Anthony John Abbott. The former member for Warringah in Sydney will cast a long shadow on Australian politics, and not all of it for the better. Indeed, his time in politics serves as a major game changer in the history of Australian politics. He rewrote the playbook on political strategy and governance, and we suffer as a result.

Leader of the Opposition vs Alternative Prime Minister

As Leader of the Opposition, Abbott’s ostensible role in the House of Representatives was two-fold. First, his job was to hold the government to account, make sure they do their job effectively. Second, as Opposition Leader, his job was to put forward alternatives to the policies of the incumbent government. Remember, the Leader of the Opposition is the person who would be the Prime Minister if their party had a majority. They must be a viable alternative to the government. Abbott did not do this.

Now, as much as I personally despise the man for what he did to Julia Gillard, I must praise him for one thing. Never, in the history of the Australian Parliament, was there a more effective Leader of the Opposition than Tony Abbott. His relentless campaign of negativity, partisan bashing and opposition for its own sake backed by a partisan media – worked. He was the best Leader of the Opposition that I had ever seen. Note that I said Leader of the Opposition and not Alternative Prime Minister. Abbott had no idea what he would do if he ever got into government. All he knew how to do was be an attack dog; and he was good at it.

Transition Problems: Opposition to Government

Abbott and his not-so-merry band of troops formed a government in 2013. As with many new governments, they blamed their predecessors for the situation they inherited. This was not unique to the Liberals of 2013. What was different was that they never stopped blaming Labor. Indeed, their entire governing mantra was that they were the adults coming in to clean up ‘Labor’s Mess’ – which of course was crap. The legislative agenda, if you can call it that, was almost entirely negative: Repeal the Carbon Tax, Repeal the Mining Tax and essentially cut everything that anyone who was not rich valued.

Governments are supposed to have a positive agenda for the nation, not one that consists of undoing everything the previous mob did. Abbott and his troops were perpetually in campaign mode, even a full year after coming to office. Recall Joe Hockey, treasurer at the time, saying that he would have a surplus in his first year and every year after that. When his words proved to be lies, Hockey blamed Labor and said that Labor had said that he would have a surplus. That was a lie, of course, but he said it anyway. Political victory at any price. Speaking of politics, they politicised anything and everything, they were responsible for nothing and everything was somehow Labor’s fault.

An Opposition with A Majority

Blaming your predecessors is standard practice – for a while. But it eventually wears off. The Liberals do not appear to have understood the transition from opposition to government. Such was the legacy of Tony Abbott. He was such an effective Leader of the Opposition that his tactics became the new norm. The Liberals learned that this approach to politics worked and, typically conservative, thought ‘if it is not broken, why fix it’? A relentlessly negative and fear-based approach to politics had worked. It had the ethics of Eichmann of course, but it had worked. The immediate result of this political approach was that the Liberals had the power of government with the accountability of the opposition: none.

They achieved this through their relentless blaming of Labor for all their ills, which often resulted from their own policies. The Liberals justified their draconian fiscal policies (for the non-rich) by, you guessed it, blaming Labor. This despite the fact that Labor had managed the economy to the top of the OECD rankings. But no; everything was still their fault. Abbott’s legacy of relentless negativity and blaming the other side was now the norm.

A Long Shadow: Abbott out of Power

Even after Abbott’s removal as Prime Minister, little changed. This despite Turnbull previously being quite the affable salesman. However, the flavour and demeanour of the Turnbull government hardly changed at all. The idea of Abbott and his wing of the LNP controlling Turnbull finds further support in Abbott’s claim that Turnbull was ‘in office, not in power’. But even with Turnbull in office, the campaign of blaming Labor and the culture of fear, loathing and division remained. The legacy of Tony Abbott.

Even in the 2019 election, the Liberals put forth not one single policy, but instead ran a campaign on why the electorate should not vote for the Labor party. The entire campaign was negative, fear-based crap and was the campaign, as I said in my last piece, not of a government, but an opposition. An opposition that now has a majority.

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15 comments

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  1. Michael Lohman

    Now he is excised, send the specimen to pathology to determine which particular form of cancer he was, lest he metastasized and recurs.

  2. Kerry

    Not sure I agree with your definition of a “good” opposition leader. Good for what and who? Its time we re-defined what is expected of the opposition in Government. personally I would prefer zero time wasting attacks for the sake of political theatre and much more constructive debate and co-operation. I cringe at question time in Parliament. It should shame us all that our expectations are so low for such responsibility and high salaries.
    I disagree that Tony Abbot was a good opposition leader. He was a time waster. Knighting the Duke was probably the best indication of the man’s intellectual capacity.
    How sad is Australia?

  3. helvityni

    Yes Kerry, well said, I never understood what was GOOD about Abbot’s negativity…

    What’s good about behaving like naughty toddlers in a sandpit, the country will stand still….

  4. Peter F

    I am pleased that he was not described as the leader of ‘Her majesty’s LOYAL opposition.’

    You say he may have been effective in negating the government, but he did nothing for the country.

    However, the Gillard government has the highest number of promises kept for decades (87%). How did she achieve that if Abbott was so ‘effective’?

  5. DrakeN

    Abbott was like a dog chasing a bus; when he caught up with it he had no idea what to do next.

  6. Jack Russell

    Abbott masterminded his own transition to leperhood and his rabid political legacy will end the same way.

  7. Kerri

    I disagree in your definition of Abbott as an opposition leader.
    An opposition is there to hold a government to account not to simply oppose everything in order to flex its own muscles.
    Abbott opposed for the sake of opposing and has admitted himself there were issues he should not have opposed.

    Abbott is a bully and always will be. His “style” is to bully his opponent to death.
    Morrison is not a whole lot different.

  8. totaram

    The Morrison government followed the same strategy to keep government. It seems to be the only strategy that works in Australia. Perhaps the Labor opposition needs to formulate their own version of it? I don’t see much alternative, given that it is quite permissible to lie outright during the election campaign. For example there were posters of Shorten with claims that he was coming with a death tax, a car tax, a property tax and a super tax, in Dutton’s electorate.

    I happen to know that if such a thing is done in a parliamentary election in India, and it can be proved that the winning candidate approved/financed a poster telling an outright lie, the election is set aside. The candidate that lied is barred from contesting another poll for 6 years, effectively ending his/her political career. Not so, it seems, in Australia, the “developed” country, which leads in various democratic rights!

  9. Jack

    For all Abbott’s flaws, he was at least a very good campaigner during elections. Compare him with Turnbull. Repeated the same(its Labour’s fault) dribble as Abbot, but he was so far up himself that he had no idea how to campaign for an election and just expected everyone to vote for him.

  10. New England Cocky

    @Jack: You appear to have very low standards when you claim RAbbott was a “good campaigner”. He may have been when protected by bouncers who excluded anybody capable of, or intent upon, asking difficult questions, but otherwise he will go down in Australian political history as the only Prim Monster from either major party to make Billy MacMahon (Liarbal) look half decent.

  11. Bill

    Hard to consider ‘Abbott’ a good campaigner based on this last election. His efforts were laughable, even sad to be honest. The 2019 Liberal coalition victory gave Abbott a get out of jail card. If the Liberal coalition had lost the election, history, if brutally honest, would not have been kind.

  12. corvus boreus

    Ex-Dep PM Tim Fischer believes that Ex-PM Tony Abbott should be sent as a special national ambassador to oversee our international relationship with the non-nation state of the Vatican.
    https://www.smh.com.au/federal-election-2019/post-tony-abbott-to-the-vatican-says-former-deputy-pm-tim-fischer-20190521-p51plf.html
    I’ll admit that I like the idea.
    Apart from thoroughly appreciating the absurdity inherent within the pointless appointment, I also enjoy the image of Abbott (loyal friend of convicted paedophile Cardinal George Pell) lecturing infallible Pope Francis about how Tones quit from priest-college because he reckoned that the Catholic church was getting too soft on sinners.

  13. Kaye Lee

    cb,

    To quote Tony…..

    “Looking back, it seems that I was seeking a spiritual and human excellence to which the Church is no longer sure she aspires. My feeble attempts to recall her to her duty — as I saw it — betrayed a fathomless disappointment at the collapse of a cherished ideal.

    In addition, a “cooperative” style of management ran counter to the Church’s age-old hierarchical structure.

    The more they played up lay ministry and ecumenism and played down the unique role of the priest in the one true Church, the more the struggle seemed pointless and the more I wanted to participate in worldly activities which were much more to my taste.

    l felt “had” by a seminary that so stressed ”empathy” with sinners and “dialogue” with the Church’s enemies that the priesthood seemed to have lost its point.”

    Pope Francis, on the other hand, called on the world’s priests to bring the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalized and to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

  14. corvus boreus

    KL,
    Alas, it is improbable that Abbott would accept any appointment as a special envoy to the Holy See.
    I reckon that Tones, freshly liberated from his duties representing Warringah, will more likely overcome the onset of relevance deprivation syndrome by jumping straight into a gig on dark-SKY, where he can provide both impartial political analysis and yet more resident expertise in climate science.

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