Australia has lost its ability to have constructive, informed and ambitious national conversations. In this guest post David Frizzell wonders how much of our malaise can be traced back to four embarrassing minutes in the public life of our Prime Minister.
Tony Abbott’s lengthy press conference on Monday fell a long way short of achieving its purpose for the government. Far from drawing a line under the coalition’s growing list of woes, putting to bed their political demons before parliament rises for the Christmas break, it simply served to highlight the virulent disposition of this government that made such a desperate press conference necessary in the first place.
Some of the language we heard from the Prime Minister on Monday was reminiscent of his May 2010 interview with Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report. When Abbott this week uttered the words, ‘On the subject of broken promises, I accept that what we’re doing with the ABC is at odds with what I said immediately prior to the election,’ we were reminded of his mauling at the hands of O’Brien.
In that interview O’Brien was taking Abbott to task over his position reversal on the subject of paid parental leave. Abbott had made a complete about-face on the issue within a month and offered to the 7.30 audience, ‘it wasn’t absolutely consistent with what I’d said’.
‘It was the opposite,’ interjected O’Brien.
The interview then spiralled horribly out of control for Abbott who went on to stammer and bumble his way through, eventually uttering the now infamous ‘Gospel Truth’ defence.
If only someone with the spine and intellect of O’Brien were given a microphone and position next to Abbott on Monday to insert a level of truth and perspective into his Clayton’s attempt to come clean to the electorate. As if.
It’s worth reflecting on that interview from 2012 in light of Abbott’s subsequent behaviour. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps that interview was the turning point in Tony Abbott’s relationship with Australia.
After receiving such a public mauling in the O’Brien interview, Tony Abbott, the then PM aspirant, could have learned a number of valuable lessons. He might have learned that it’s important to take a clear and honest position on significant matters and pursue them loyally. He might have learned that some sections of the media will hold him to account for the things he says and the things he does – and the difference between the two. He might have learned of the importance of simply being honest, no matter how uncomfortable.
But no, not Tony Abbott. What he learned from that interview was the importance of being tricky and deceitful, the usefulness of inserting an object of plausible deniability – no matter how absurd – into every situation. It taught him to be reliant on obfuscation when confronted by uncomfortable questions. It made him determined to deny everything no matter the evidence to the contrary. But most of all, it steeled his already ideologically intrenched determination to dismantle the ABC at the earliest possibility.
Rather than reflect on that embarrassing lesson in a way that could help him become a man of integrity, Abbott took a step deeper into the dark side. And he took us with him. With Abbott as a prominent figure in Australian public life – as Opposition Leader and now as PM – we have lost the ability to have constructive national conversations that are informed by facts and context, pollinated with ideas and dreams.
Imagine an alternate universe. Imagine if Abbott came clean in that interview and had a conversation with O’Brien about the reason for his about-face. It may have sparked a wider conversation, supported by research, about the benefits of paid parental leave. We may have talked about findings into the relative merits of parental leave and child care support.
The subsequent national conversation may have drilled into the true motivation for Abbott’s new commitment. Was it really an effort to boost female participation in the workforce? If so, what do the experts say about the barriers to parents returning to work? Who should pay for it? Why was child care being ignored as a factor? Is there an element of conservative ideology flavouring the policy? If so, what is the competing ideology of the Labor party? What do the Greens and independents have to contribute to the conversation?
And what effect could a quality conversation about such an issues have on our country? Parental leave might have been the perfect place to start. Perhaps we’d develop a collective skill. Perhaps the Australian public would develop a little more interest in the substance of what is being discussed. Perhaps we’d get better at consulting professionals in relevant fields.
Then imagine the knock-on effect a deft ability to have comprehensive conversations might have on the other issues plaguing our national consciousness: asylum-seekers, mandatory detention, climate change, renewable energy, our response to the treat of terrorism at home and abroad, domestic violence, media ownership, privacy…
But that’s not what happened. We didn’t wake up the next morning discussing the merits of paid parental leave versus alternate ideas. We woke up the following morning aghast at the squirming dishonesty, chuckling at the mother of all ‘got ya’ interviews.
In response, Abbott made a pact with himself to never again be exposed in such a way.
Since August 2012 Abbott has limited himself, almost exclusively, to the on-air company of ideological allies such as Channel 10’s Andrew Bolt and 2GB’s Alan Jones. Apart from a couple of puff pieces – most notably Chris Uhlumann’s impotent matey catch-up on 7.30 in September this year – Abbott has hardly been sited on Australia’s most trusted source of information.
The reason for the Abbott government’s inherent dishonesty is obvious: when your true agenda would be so morally unpalatable to the vast majority of your constituents you have to either tone it down or lie pathologically.
We all know which way our current government and their allies have decided to go. The neo-conservative power players – the Abbott government, the IPA and the Murdoch press – have nothing to gain and everything to lose from informed national debate.
Abbott as PM has been a destructive embarrassment to himself, his party and our nation. He possesses not only a bitter determination to pursue a cruel ideology and to silence his critics, but a determination to deny everything – even when the evidence against him is comprehensive and tangible.
We now have a Prime Minister who is willing to deny the existence of the nose on his face. We’re left to wonder just how instrumental in the destruction of our national conversation was that four minutes of seat-shifting, stammering tomfoolery with Kerry O’Brien in 2012.