Both major parties officially brought out their most recent prime ministers on the campaign this week. One of them won the last election; one of them lost it. Draw your own conclusions. It may say something about the standard of leadership in both parties at the moment, because Abbott and Gillard are very effective deputy leaders who have not yet grown into their new roles.
The unspoken role of a deputy leader, in addition to being the heir apparent, is to be the headkicker, the shitstirrer, the one who lets rip at the other side, free of any semblance of the statesmanship that is expected of the actual leader.
Although Tony Abbott had never been deputy leader, he pretty much had the job by default. I think Julie Bishop is there for her looks, just as Jenny Macklin was for the ALP from 2001 to 2006. Macklin served unchallenged as deputy to Simon Crean, Mark Latham and Kim Beazley, but she was invisible in the job. Even during the times she was acting leader, policy statements would be given by either Mark Latham, Wayne Swan or Kevin Rudd. It wasn’t until Julia Gillard became deputy in the spill that elected Kevin Rudd, that Labor had a deputy leader who looked like one.
It’s the same situation with Julie Bishop and the Liberal party. She has been immune from the turmoil that saw them dump both Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull (both by the narrowest of margins) but despite being deputy, she was never considered for the leadership. She has made several appearances on Q and A, and been a good sport on The Chaser, but matters of substance have always fallen to Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey, depending on who was leader at the time.
As such, Tony Abbott has been a deputy leader for most of the time between the 2007 election and his successful stand for the leadership. He was the one who could be relied upon to come out with some outlandish hyperbole so that, when asked about it, the leader could say with plausible deniability, something along the lines of, “Tony’s opinion is his own, but he does raise an important point....”
When the deputy (or de facto deputy) makes the transition to leader, a certain amount of recalibration occurs. As an opposition frontbencher, Mark Latham used some colourful language to express criticism of the Bush administration and John Howard’s unquestioning support of it. As opposition leader, one of Latham’s first acts was to call a press conference to declare his admiration for the United States and his dedication to the American alliance. Did somebody say ‘arse licker’?
Now Tony Abbott is in a similar situation to the one Latham found himself in, being forced to recant some of the more extreme ideas he has expressed and struggling to make people believe it. There are several examples, but the most obvious one is WorkChoices. It’s almost universally accepted that WorkChoices brought down the Liberal government in 2007. Abbott says the people have spoken and that the policy is “dead, buried and cremated.” Yet, he was still defending the policy in his book Battlelines, which was published just over a year ago. What changed? If you believe Abbott, the difference is that now he is a party leader and alternative national leader and has to represent broader views. It’s a cute story, but does anyone believe it for a second? Does anyone believe that “dead, buried and cremated,” will not become Tony Abbott’s “never ever,” moment, should the Liberals win? He has already given himself an out, saying that they will not change industrial relations laws in their first term – after which, presumably, all bets are off. As late as last week, Abbott has defended Howards “never ever” statement as being defined as the space of one parliamentary term. And let’s not forget that the Liberals never took WorkChoices to the people in the first place. What happened was that they found themselves with control of the senate in 2004 and realised this was their chance to enact a policy that had been on their wish-list since 1996, but never dared to try. So having resurrected the GST in 1998, and having sat patiently on the policy that was to become WorkChoices for eight years, does anyone seriously expect us to believe that they have heard the people and will never try it again? Does anyone think they would be foolish enough to tell people first?
Tony Abbott is right to criticise Julia Gillard’s lack of leadership over her laughable “citizens’ assembly” proposal to respond to climate change and her Hawke-like desire for consensus. But it’s a criticism that rings hollow when he is claiming to have taken up a position of, “I am their leader, I must follow them.”
It highlights a paradox in Australian politics. We like a strong leader, but not too strong. We don’t respect someone who consults too much with polls and focus groups to find out what people want, but we can’t stand a know-it-all who decides they know best without consulting. Our democracy demands both leadership and representation, and the two aren’t always compatible. Both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard assumed their positions because their predecessors were perceived to be out of touch with the rest of the party, and leading them in a direction the party wasn’t comfortable with. Both new leaders then announced policies with barely any party consultation. With Gillard, it was the renegotiated mining tax, with Abbott, it was the paid parental leave policy, which his colleagues learnt about from television along with the rest of us.
Aside from that, both leaders are struggling to reinvent themselves. This was most evident in the leaders’ debate, where two people who have a long record of entertaining intellectual biffo with each other were trying so hard to soften their headkicking images that the whole thing came off as scripted and boring. It shows that neither has really found their feet as a leader.
Bernard Keane wrote an excellent piece on Crikey yesterday about Labor’s tendency to panic. He makes the point that John Howard’s numbers in 1998 were far worse than Rudd’s were this year, but Howard managed to pull through. This is because Howard responded to criticism by hardening his resolve. This pissed a lot of people off but his base respected him for it, and so did those who respond to strong leadership, if not good leadership. Kevin Rudd could have done that, but the party blinked. Labor’s problem since 1996 – and it continues to this day – is that they keep accepting the Liberal party narrative rather than shooting it down and creating their own. That’s what gave us everything from Kim Beazley’s “That’s what I stand for,” ads, all the way through to, “Kevin Rudd: economic conservative.” At the moment, Labor seems to be using the same strategy that lost them the 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections. If they did more to vindicate those who voted for them in 2007 instead of trying to impress those who didn’t and probably never would, then they would probably be in a better position.