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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