A few months ago, in the weeks that followed Tony Abbott’s near-death experience, a couple of prime ministerial tidbits stuck in my mind.
The first was a line in an article from, of all places, the Australian:
Insiders say that, these days, Abbott sits for much of the day in his office in Parliament House pondering national security, Islamic State and reading Winston Churchill
The second came through the grapevine, and it said that the real reason Abbott pleaded for another six months was not for the chance to win the people over, nor to hand down another budget, but to lead the nation through the centenary Anzac celebrations.
Ever since I’ve been waiting for Abbott to re-emerge as Winston, or at least a pale imitation thereof. It hasn’t happened.
Sure, he has tried, as was well charted by Geoff Kitney in the Australian Financial Review last week. But no one has really cared.
Despite his longing for an overseas conflict, all Abbott has managed to commit our troops to is training the Iraqi army, a relatively low-risk, low-reward assignment in which Australia joins a long list of nations including Romania, South Korea, Jordan and itself. It’s hardly an inspiring mission.
Abbott’s “Death Cult” parlance on Islamic State has not taken grip in the minds of the public. It’s a phrase people associate more with the Prime Minister’s desperation than the enemy he used it to describe. The public is not convinced that ISIS is a bigger threat than any of our other Middle Eastern adversaries of decades gone by, and is less convinced than ever that fighting wars thousands of miles from home is the best way to stop terrorist attacks on our shores. The public may be right, or the boy (and the father before him) may have cried wolf.
On metadata, Abbott won through the dangerous indifference of the Labor party and the general resignation of the public. But what was bad policy by the opposition was probably good politics: they avoided arming their detractors while giving their supporters no less than what their supporters have come to expect. Any votes they lose from their stance will only flow to the Greens, while Abbott lost a chance to position himself as the man of decision he longs to be.
His attempts to divide the public have, by and large, failed. While the Reclaim Australia movement has grown rapidly its supporters are vastly outnumbered – including at their own rallies – by normal, sensible Australians who see it as a shameful reflection on what our nation has been allowed to become. He has managed to pit opposing views against each other, but not to convert any more of the public to his own. Unable to bring Australians over to his side, he has searched for larger groups to side with: the anti-anti-vaccination-mothers-on-welfare crowd may be large, but it includes (and already included) almost the entire political spectrum. For a self-styled wartime leader, taking on such a small enemy shows weakness rather than strength.
For months now Abbott has refused to become sidetracked by things that matter, hoping that by the time he next sits down for a conversation (as he likes to say) on economics, health or industrial relations he’ll start from a position of trust. It’s now clear, on the eve of Anzac day, that’s not going to happen.
Abbott has stabilised but he has not won. He has not climbed back to parity, or near it, in the polls. He will not get a better chance.
On Monday it will once again be 2015, not 1915, and Abbott’s khaki shield will cease to offer the protection it has during this brief reprieve. The public will once again want to know his plans for the budget, for Medicare, public education, social services and foreign aid. They’ll want to know how he’ll tackle the “debt and deficit disaster” – a phrase coined back when people were listening – while passing the test of basic fairness. It’s a huge challenge for a man so deeply indebted to the rich and powerful.
Next week the future will be back on the agenda. That’s why I can’t wait for Anzac day.