Saturday, 3 October 2015

When disruption hits politics

In Malcolm we trust. 
This week, Tony Abbott emerged from the surf to chat to his good buddy Ray Hadley about the events that led to his demise as Prime Minister.  Fair enough. The man should be allowed to lick his wounds. Despite the gasps, it was a relatively benign interview – Abbott clearly had learnt to ‘button it’ after that throwaway and nonsensical line about Scott Morrison last week.

But what’s fascinating is that Tony Abbott still doesn’t get it, nor do those who love quoting the ‘four PMs in five years’ phenomenon. It’s not polls or the media spinning that revolving door. It’s incompetence. Tony Abbott will be remembered as the best Opposition leader we’ve ever had. He was fierce. He took the other side. He opposed things – something he once said was an Opposition leader’s duty. It’s one of the reasons why he snatched the leadership from Malcolm Turnbull in 2009. Turnbull is a barrister by trade – used to knowing which battles to pick, and which to compromise. He wanted to support Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme. Many in his party didn’t. He fell on his sword being principled about it and lost by one vote.  Abbott was handed the leadership on the basis of opposing something, and it’s been his modus operandi since. Oppose the carbon tax. End the mining tax. Stop the boats. Every policy framed in the negative.

In the run up to the 2010 election, someone in Abbott’s camp sensed that this devastatingly effective stance in Opposition needed to be refined for the position of leadership. Cue the blue ties – indicating loyalty, stability, and an air of conservative refinement. Sleeves that had been rolled up were cuffed and clamped down. And the language and tone of Opposition – fervent, attacking, and scaling up and down the octaves - became muted and slow.  

Abbott, like the insecure bride who hands the prettiest bridesmaid the ugliest dress to wear, didn’t ever let Turnbull shine. He handed him the Communications portfolio – hardly a marquee slot, forcing the man he credited with ‘inventing the internet’ to reverse all those trucks delivering the rolled gold NBN. Turnbull’s critics love to point out that even the pared-back NBN solution is over-budget. But c’mon, have you ever known of an IT project that isn’t?

Abbott, in latent and overt ways, is a man frozen in time. In smoothing out the traits that made him powerful in Opposition, he became a wax-like imitation of a leader – more comfortable dealing in one-syllable, three word slogans than drawing on his privileged education to articulate an expansive vision. The world was divided into villains and heroes. Baddies and goodies. The grey rinsed out of his hair – symbolic of a man who refuses to acknowledge time’s passing.

In contrast, Malcolm Turnbull embodies much of what the new century demands in a leader. Someone who can engage in a conversation, not merely recite key messages ad nauseum, hoping the minutes tick down on a hostile interview before you make a gaff. Compare Turnbull's first interview as PM on ABC's 7.30 with Leigh Sales with Tony Abbott's last, which by any measure, was a disgrace of 'Death Cult' proportions. 

He’s relaxed. Optimistic. Aware of the upside, not just the downside of risk. Disruption is coming. We need a leader at the helm who isn’t frightened of what he sees on the horizon. Someone who can keep a cool head out on the deck, and sail with the winds of change, not a captain that dives underneath, battens down the hatches and waits for it to pass.

Abbott’s lack of insight into his own failings will hopefully recede with time. It’s like watching taxi drivers on the steps of Parliament bleating about the rise of Uber. Or hotel owners wanting to shut down AirBnB. Or Abbott’s continual claim that the changing climate wasn’t going to get in the way of managing the economy, even as every major company in the land is incorporating the impact of climate change into their business plans.

While Abbott blames the media and hypersensitivity to polls as the reasons for his ousting, it was his own inability to remove the straightjacket that he’d been stitched into that did it. Lacking ability to seize opportunities in the new economy. Clutching coal when Blind Freddy could see the world was moving – if not us – to cleaner forms of energy. An obsession with building roads when overburdened cities are crying out for more public transport. Abbott was a man intent on staying still, in spite of the whirling winds of change around him. It was unsustainable.

Politics is about public service, but to be an effective leader of the country, you need more. Abbott, larger than life in Opposition, was like a greyhound at the end of a race once he won the Prime Ministership. The lure was on longer in sight – giving him something, anything to chase – and he flailed. That’s what lost him the leadership. 

Diana Elliott.

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