Thought bubbles and soundbites seem to comfortably suit post-prime ministerial life for Tony Abbott as he snipes from the sidelines like some all-knowing, all-seeing guru espousing unwanted and misguided advice.
Abbott’s utterances are only adding to estrangement within the Liberal Party and its supporters, and around the nation he once led, act as signs of further confirmation why he no longer resides in The Lodge.
For a leader who once spoke of building a nation, Abbott is now the wrecker – a modern-day version of World War One prime minister and member of many political parties Billy Hughes – unable to move on from his dumping as prime minister, always entertaining in the sub-conscious a return to the job he fought so tenaciously to win just a few years ago.
He saw off Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd from The Lodge and from the Parliament. Apart from occasional forays into public debate, not unexpected from former prime ministers, they have thankfully faded from the media spotlight.
But not Tony Abbott, for more than 20 years the honourable member for Warringah, these days a lingering backbencher who can make life uncomfortable for political nemesis Malcolm Turnbull the moment a microphone appears.
And now, like the equally tenacious but far more visionary Victorian premier in the 1990s Jeff Kennett, Abbott has added regional communities across Australia to his hit list for a dose of divisive and denigrating commentary.
His appearance on Sydney commercial radio station 2GB was nothing short of disaster for the standing of the Turnbull Government in country towns that have often been left stranded by the policies of successive governments since the 1970s and surely must irk conservative cousins in the National Party.
Abbott’s use of the phrase “white welfare villages” was insensitive, poorly informed and devoid of the compassion he exudes when raising money for charity on the annual Pollie Pedal bicycle ride or saving lives and property as a volunteer firefighter. It was outright insulting and not the language expected from one who wants to be considered an elder statesman of the Parliament and the nation.
That throw-away soundbite ranks up there with Kennett’s infamous “toenails of Victoria” reference to country communities ahead of him be ejected from office at the 1999 election. The Liberals in Victoria have struggled for acceptance and support in key regional areas since.
When Abbott lost the prime ministership to Turnbull, he had the still-handsome backbencher salary to fall back on. When industry or business closes in a country community, there is no fall back for those made redundant.
The economic and social ripple of a few more unemployed in Sydney or Melbourne becomes a tidal wave when experienced in small regional communities. The pool of possible new employment is small and shallow, job openings limited and spasmodic.
Such a living nightmare cannot be dismissed as a contributing factor to the degree of well-being in regional communities.
The Federal Government’s own State of Regional Australia report in 2015 states that “mental health is a key aspect of life quality. Mental health outcomes, as measured by the rate of suicide, are worse in regional and remote areas than in major cities.” Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the same year reveals age-specific suicide rates were highest among those aged 40-54.
This year’s Mission Australia Youth Survey found concern among young people aged 15 to 19 about mental health had doubled since 2011 with more than 20 per cent citing the well-being of others among their top national issues.
The policy agenda promoted by Tony Abbott is out of touch with reality and aspirations of society today. It further devalues to perceived worth of people who choose to live in the supportive environment that is intrinsic to life in country communities where bonds of friendship and support help people through tough times.
Abbott has errantly gone down the track of the abhorred “I’m from Canberra I know what’s best for you”. He and all politicians would do better considering how their policies over recent decades have impacted on rural and regional communities that now can be forced to rely on government for survival.
The human face of fall-out from those policies are the very people Abbott chose to take a swipe at this week – the generation who parents were Menzies forgotten people, the Howard battlers.
You’re doing it tough Tony? So are they!
Chris Earl is a rural and regional consultant
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