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10 April 2015
by Chas Keys

Tony Abbott's gaffes and missteps: a recent history

All politicians say and do some things they later regret. But the problem of gaffes and missteps usually becomes a significant liability only when there are many of them in a short period, as has been the case with Tony Abbott over the past several weeks.

From late January to mid-March there was a steady stream of comments and decisions from Abbott that had people questioning his judgement. The trouble started on Australia Day, when he announced that the Duke of Edinburgh would be knighted. Some monarchists cheered, but the principal reactions around the nation were incredulity, consternation and annoyance. Abbott was ridiculed in the media and in the community. His decision a year before to bring back the titles of 'Sir' and 'Dame' on a limited basis had not been popular, but this year's reaction was much stronger and almost universally negative.

Even John Howard, Australians said, hadn't dared to bring back this quaint reminder of empire, abandoned 40 years before. Forced to back-track in face of the controversy Abbott had ignited, he quickly promised that he would leave future awards to the Order of Australia Council, but the Duke's knighthood stood. Damage had been done to Abbott himself and, some thought, to Australia. In Britain there was mocking amusement.

A few days later Abbott made a self-serving comment to the effect that his ministers were doing well because they had "a good captain", and then he suggested that Queensland had had a "fit of absent-mindedness" in electing a Labor government. This latter remark, some in his party suggested, was a little disrespectful of the electorate and breached the conventional public recognition by politicians that voters always get it right at election time.

Then, after the criticism about these gaffes and Abbott's failure to consult his party before announcing decisions (including the knighthood and the abandonment of his paid parental leave policy) came his statement that "Good government starts today". This was a strangely inept comment for someone who in 2010 had ridiculed Julia Gillard's promise that in future "the real Julia", not the one manufactured by her advisers, would be standing up. What had we had since September 2013?

By this time, into February and after a motion to spill the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party had been defeated more narrowly than many expected, Abbott was getting a regular media roasting. The unpopularity of the government was highlighted by the leader's negative net approval rating which had reached minus 38 according to an Ipsos Fairfax poll. His party had been having hitherto unheard of conversations about leadership change, and senior Liberal Arthur Sinodinos was quoted as saying that his support for Abbott was "ongoing" but "not unconditional". This, an un-named Liberal MP reportedly said, was an "extremely telling" remark. There were references in newspapers to Abbott being in a "death spiral", his leadership "terminal." Andrew Bolt, a strong supporter, implied that he was becoming a "laughing stock".

But things got worse. Abbott's sacking of Phil Ruddock from the position of Liberal Party Chief Whip following the vote on the spill motion was greeted with words like "vindictive", "recriminatory" and "a scapegoating". Some of the words came from his own MPs. Then the findings of Gillian Triggs, the Human Rights Commissioner, in 'The Forgotten Children' were angrily ridiculed as "a transparent political stitch-up". No matter that Triggs had criticised both the present government and its predecessor for their treatment of asylum-seekers' children in detention, or that Malcolm Turnbull praised her work.

Still Abbott kept going. In mid-February he reminded Indonesia of Australia's monetary and other generosity after the 2004 tsunami; he wanted Indonesia to "reciprocate" by sparing the lives of drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. An "unambiguous response" was threatened if the executions went ahead. This was represented in much of the Australian media as embarrassing bluster and bullying, and an undermining of the efforts of the Foreign Minister to achieve the same end that Abbott sought. Indonesia's people and government were dismissive, even contemptuous, of Abbott's intervention, one minister wondering what would happen if his country allowed 10,000 asylum seekers to leave for Australia.

Then came an attack on the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture who considered that Australia's treatment of asylum seekers violated the international anti-torture convention. Australians, Abbott responded angrily, were "sick of being lectured" by the UN. After what had happened to Triggs, it was starting to look as though any criticism of the government would be met with a petulant slap-down.

Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister angered Aboriginal leaders by suggesting that Aborigines' "lifestyle choices" were problematic in terms of the provision of government services. Noel Pearson called his choice of words "deranged", the implication being that Abbott had no concept of the connection of indigenous people to their lands and the difficulties that arose when they left them for distant towns or cities.

Next he called Bill Shorten "the Dr Goebbels of economic policy", a remark which some thought offensive. Abbott withdrew it immediately but Jon Faine, on ABC Radio in Melbourne, was motivated to ask him how he could "say so many stupid things". This was a real low: the gaffes had accumulated to the point that a commentator was able to ask the leader of the government a nakedly insulting question to which he could barely respond.

What do we conclude from all this? We appear to have a Prime Minister who loses his temper when his government is criticised (Triggs and the UN Rapporteur), who chooses inappropriate words to make what is basically a legitimate point (about services for Aborigines in remote areas), who promises to consult more frequently (but who according to members of his own party changes agreed policy without discussion) and who annoys various people (Republicans, Queensland voters, Indonesians and Aborigines) in turn.

The comments of Bolt and Faine are particularly instructive, as is the fact that many have concluded that Abbott's leadership cannot last. By March, the stage had been reached at which his every pronouncement seemed to be scrutinised nationally for the inevitable, expected gaffe it would contain. A certain momentum had developed, of a kind that can become self-perpetuating and lead to faith in leaders being lost.

Can Abbott turn matters around and survive? Yes, perhaps: the apparent re-appraisal in late March of the seriousness of the "debt and deficit disaster" left by Labor, and the indications that the next budget will be different from last year's one, suggest so. May's budget will be, in Abbott's own words, "above all, fair", suggesting it will not be harsh. This will be good for Abbott's popularity and the government politically, but if it also means a retreat from putting the budgetary situation to rights there will be the negative of departing from the narrative of the past eighteen months. Any inconsistency will bring risk.

And there have been no obvious gaffes and missteps for the last three weeks, which means that what happened between Australia Day and mid-March will have receded a little from the collective consciousness. Concerns about Abbott's pronouncements have not been reinforced, and the government has recovered somewhat in the polls.

Nevertheless the Prime Minister has shown himself to be accident-prone both in utterances and decisions. His errors have had a cumulative effect. Any more over the next few months could reactivate talk of a leadership spill and confirm that the Liberals, like Labor, can consider dumping a leader. And that, as Abbott rightly says, would play disastrously in the community.

Nobody wants a government beset by leadership strife. But equally nobody wants a prime minister who stumbles frequently in word and deed, begins to look foolish and loses respect both at home and abroad. It never happened with Menzies, Fraser or Howard.