Features Australia

Better than those other bastards

Some Prime Ministers grow into the job - where others clearly did not

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

I’ve told Tony Abbott I always have this consolation when work seems grim: I may not be great, but the bastard who’d replace me would almost certainly be worse. So best keep going. For instance, if I didn’t fill this page the editor might give it to that idiot Latham.

I won’t say whether the Prime Minister has had the same feeling about himself in his often surprising rise, and I don’t know whether what I said to gee him up struck him as altogether too grudging. But as Abbott marks his first difficult year in office I’ll say it again – with feeling. If you think Abbott as Prime Minister has fallen short of your hopes, imagine what someone else would have done in his place.

Can you imagine a re-elected Kevin Rudd? Do you even dare imagine still having as Prime Minister the man whose   former colleagues   describe in a new forest of books as dysfunctional or even, insists Julia Gillard, at times not quite right in the head? Do you really think we could have survived another spell under a man so desperate to please that nothing was too much expense as long it brought a smile to our face in time for the next poll?

Or can you imagine Gillard returned full of vengeful wrath against those who nearly brought her down – the mining bosses, the Murdoch newspapers, the “deniers”, the “nut jobs”, the “rich”, or, frankly, anyone remotely critical? Or imagine how gladly Gillard’s gang of haters would again have brought out the muzzle and the whip, feeling this time they must not fail to apply both until the few remaining protests at their misrule became whimpers. Under Gillard two journalists lost their jobs after questioning her propriety. How many more would have been silenced now?

And think of what incompetence we’d still suffer. The sheer waste of Labor’s last two terms brought the country to its knees. Could we have handled another three years of a Treasurer Wayne Swan, bopping to Bruce Springsteen as he rhymed his budgets with nothing resembling reality? “The four years of surpluses I announce tonight,” he once boasted, and to this day he cannot explain in which universe those four years exist.

Of course, it is not flattering to tell   Abbott that at least he’s not Gillard, any more than it would be to tell the Pope he’s least not Osama bin Laden. Yet this is the fate of so many conservatives, since their distinguishing characteristic is to at least have a brake as well as the accelerator so freely pumped by the heedless Left. John Howard also served best when saying no to what the Left would have shouted yes: no to the republic, no to the “stolen generations” myth, no to the creeping jurisdiction of the UN, and no (at least until the panicky end) to global warming alarmism.

Yet there is more to Abbott than an absence of Gillard or Rudd. After all, he’s as yet demonstrated none of that maladministration that was at first so startling under Labor and then so commonplace. His Government’s “scandals” have generally been about things said – about the poor not driving cars, say – and not about what it has actually done. The criticisms of performance have generally been about the government not doing more – about debt, workplace deregulation or free speech – rather than doing the very reverse of good. And those criticisms generally overlook the fact that Abbott faces a hostile – if not outright insane – Senate, stuffed with Clive Palmer’s mob, the Greens and a Labor bent on revenge.

Indeed, when it comes to governing rather than politicking, Abbott has shown the quiet competence so spectacularly absent under Labor. His handling of the MH17 disaster was masterly. He’s deftly repaired our relationship with Indonesia. Free trade deals have at long last been signed with Japan and South Korea. The NBN losses are being limited, if not staunched, and, of course, the boats have been stopped, saving hundreds of lives and billions of dollars.

Reason has also been to some extent   restored. The carbon tax, a fraud of a fix to a fraud of a problem, has been repealed. Abbott is speaking more frankly about the Islamist threat than ever did Labor, disgracefully beholden to seats with strong Muslim minorities. The nonsensical Renewable Energy Target will be wound back. Free speech is being defended in words, even if the promised section 18c reforms were dropped in a funk.

True, Abbott still clings to his divisive – and, I suspect, politically disastrous – proposal to change the constitution to “recognise” Aborigines, a purely symbolic gesture which is in fact the start of a wider campaign to retribalise the nation and redefine its citizens as representatives of “races” rather than as individuals.

But Abbott is changing. It is surprising how few commentators acknowledge that being Prime Minister is incredibly difficult. It doesn’t just involve mastering endless policy challenges while managing your colleagues and tuning your message. It also involves reshaping yourself, which is even harder. Howard had to grow from a suspicious warrior who almost expected to be hated into an almost serene chairman and fatherly hugger-in-chief, softened by the tragedies of Bali and September 11. Rudd never managed a similar change, becoming instead even more paranoid and chaotic, and Gillard visibly shrank in the job, becoming shrill rather than assured.

Abbott, though, has grown more serious and at first wore his new duties like a crown of thorns. The fun went out of him. Every interview seemed like an exam he was scared of failing. His speech slowed and those uh-um-aargh stutters returned as he bought himself time to think. But Abbott’s foreign affairs successes in particular have emboldened him. He is growing more assured and his recent speech to the South Australian Liberal conference was almost light-hearted. Abbott seemed to be having fun, and he’s taking pride in staying steady – a pride still this side of an arrogant refusal to adjust.

I think he’s growing, not shrinking. He’s not just saying to himself he’s at least better than the bastard who’d replace him. He’s thinking privately, I suspect, he might not be quite so shabby, after all. And if at the next election he gets a Senate not so shabby, too, he could be the Prime Minister he dreamed of.

And that conservatives might dream of as well.

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Show comments
  • EschersStairs

    Here, here. I think we only vaguely appreciate the quality and competence of the Prime Minister that we have.

  • Gordon Fraser

    I’ve never been surprised by Tony Abbott’s rise from the first time I took any notice of him during the adoption kerfuffle. I’m more surprised by those that are surprised.