28 September 2015
by Tim Dick
Tony Abbott should stop playing the sore loser and retreat gracefully
A post-spill surf: Tony Abbott.
When deposed as prime minister, Tony Abbott pledged: "There will be no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping." We all knew what he meant: he would be no Kevin Rudd.
His pledge lasted all of a week before the wrecking, undermining and sniping began. It's continued this weekend. L'esprit de Rudd is back in the air.
In two interviews with News Corp since his demise – the first brief, the next long and considered – Abbott has shown an embarrassing determination to play the sore loser in spite of his promise that he would not.
He first undermined Scott Morrison's reputation just as he took over as Treasurer by effectively calling him a traitor, telling the Daily Telegraph after the top job was already long lost: "I'm afraid Scott badly misled people. He badly misled people. I was doing all I could to save the government, that's what I was doing."
Then on Saturday, in another interview with News Corp, he doubled down, this time wrecking Malcolm Turnbull's pitch that his is a new administration – new people, new approach. As George Brandis went on to fashion it on Insiders on Sunday: "This is a very different government."
Except not really, according to the leader of the old one. "In a policy sense there is very little departure," Abbott said, referring to the differences between the Turnbull administration from his. "Border protection policy the same, national security policy the same, economic policy the same … even same-sex marriage policy the same, and climate-change policy the same.
"The policy hasn't changed and indeed the rhetoric hasn't changed. Again, it is not about me but obviously these are questions that people may ponder."
Yet, in giving those interviews, he has made it all about him. He seeks to salvage his trashed reputation, aiming for a long-term revision of it from a disastrous premiership into faithful service of the Australian people which was not given credit for the far-reaching, future-proofing measures he introduced.
His attempt to fashion himself as hero misunderstood is classic myth-making, glossing over the greatest failure of a prime ministership since, well, the last two.
Anyone so brutally kicked out of a job – even if he was not up to it – is entitled to be bitter and surly for a while, but only if kept to a small circle. You can whinge to your family, and to your mates at the pub, but being bitter in public helps no one but your opposition.
Abbott has now managed to kick his successor, his party's bid for re-election and only helped Labor in its attack lines.
In doing so, he has confirmed the correctness of the Liberal party room's decision to dump him, and increased the community's relief that he has gone.
For his sake, and for the prospects of the Turnbull government, he should finish off the business of his departure. Given an apparent inability to play the elder statesman with more grace than he led the nation, he should leave the Parliament and give his reputation a chance of some small recovery with time, service and silence.
He should read The President's Club, a 2012 account of how former US presidents have found their feet – or not – after leaving office. No one wins when former leaders carp about new ones or the manner of their demise. Reputations are built not by revisionism as to their time in office, but by later actions for the good of the country. Even Richard Nixon managed to recoup some of his lost reputation through service to subsequent presidents.
Abbott's inspiration should be more George Bush the elder, not Rudd the underminer.
Bush was a oncer, like Abbott, although he got four years in power rather than two. He was defeated by Bill Clinton in a bruising election.
Yet he wrote his successor a letter, left in the White House to be read after the inauguration, which read: "You will be our President when you read this note. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you."
Leaving the odd Americanism aside, the sentiment is astonishing, not that it should be. Bush was no longer his nation's leader; Clinton was. The patriotic duty of a patriotic American was to wish for the team leader to succeed.
If Abbott was serious about his team Australia rhetoric, he would see that the country would be better served by him leaving politics. He doesn't need to be Pope Benedict and disappear, but there's nothing as damaging to the country than the presence of a bitter ex who's outstayed his welcome.