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Article courtesy of The Australian Financial Review.
Tony Abbott is a prime minister-in-waiting, if you believe the polls and your gut, and contemplate Labor’s disasters, the latest being the hash it is making of the superannuation debate.
Julia Gillard is in Beijing to see China’s new emperor, in search of a circuit-breaker for her beleaguered prime ministership. At home the Opposition Leader continues his relentless march towards The Lodge.
It’s reasonable, therefore, to ask more persistently what we might expect of an Abbott prime ministership, and what his various associations tell us about the man and his mission.
Abbott’s Catholicism and his Catholic connections are part of the story, dating from his school days at St Ignatius College, his brief period in a Sydney diocesan seminary, and his emergence as a socially conservative firebrand, now tempered.
Over several weeks, the AFR Weekend sought to flesh out a picture of an Abbott ascension by talking to those closest to him inside and outside the political bubble, and constructing as best we could a chart that describes those professional – and personal – associations.
Are we contemplating the second coming of the son-of-John (Howard), or something entirely different?
Is Abbott himself even sure how he might deploy new-found responsibilities, or ultimately what path he might follow?
He remains a work in progress. Judging by responses to our inquiries, it is expected that he will seek to govern as a cautious and compassionate conservative, drawing on his experiences as a Howard-era minister, but will operate somewhat differently from his political mentor.
For a start, John Howard was a micro-manager, Abbott is a delegator. Howard was treasurer (in the Malcolm Fraser government), Abbott has no such experience. Abbott has a wider and more eclectic circle of friends than Howard and is thus subject to a broader range of influences.
Perhaps most important, Abbott is of an entirely different generation.
What he shares with Howard is a social conservatism, and conservatism more generally, but this has not foreclosed interesting associations with those who are anything but socially conservative.
This includes former high court justice Michael Kirby or head of Melbourne University Publishing Louise Adler, who published his book, Battlelines.
Adler is publishing an updated version of Battlelines with a new Abbott introduction. What emerges from interviews with friends and associates is a picture of a driven individual who works prodigiously, and yet finds time for friends and recreational pursuits.
An Abbott political confidant describes him as an “alloy of personal ambition and selfless statecraft”.
“His starting assumption is that politics is more than purely a transactional business,’’ his friend says.
This is a charitable view.
What is unarguable is that throughout his political career Abbott has tended to gravitate towards those in public life, including the media, of like prejudices.
This has represented – and still does – his comfort zone.
Tony Abbott’s media friends may well be helping him shift Australia’s political centre of gravity to the right, but there are risks involved in aligning oneself with those purveying a confrontational view of dealing with the country’s problems.
His days as an opinion writer on The Bulletin and The Australian have left their mark. He writes most of his own speeches, deconstructing and reconstructing the words of others who have provided speech notes.
His speech-writing reflects these formative influences. In contrast to Gillard, an Abbott speech actually sounds like he is speaking in his own voice.
What is perhaps most striking about his – now lengthy – tenure as Opposition Leader (he took over from Malcolm Turnbull in December 2009) is the relative stability of his frontbench and his personal office.
Either he is a benign manager who resists getting rid of people or, conversely, he is such an effective leader he gets the best out of his team.
The truth may well be in between. His frontbench has strengths and weaknesses which will be exposed in government.
One of his closest political allies observes that “he is a much more forgiving person than John Howard”.
“If he [Abbott] falls out with someone, he spends a lot of time trying to fall back in,’’ the ally says.
This raises the question of whether he might prove to be a soft touch in government.
His colleagues disavow this possibility.
What is the case, is that he has conducted a ruthless and effective campaign, as Opposition Leader, to destabilise a minority government.
In this he has been assisted principally by manager of Opposition business Christopher Pyne, described by one colleague as having a “ruthless political mind”.
Abbott and Pyne are close. It remains to be seen, however, how the partnership will stand up to the rigours of government, if the Coalition prevails.
The Pyne-Abbott connection draws attention to what is a Liberal Party phenomenon.
Of those listed among Abbott’s inner circle of Pyne, Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, George Brandis, Kevin Andrews, Warren Truss, Eric Abetz and Barnaby Joyce, six of the 10 are Catholics, and four of those six were, like Abbott, educated by Jesuits.
This is a good result for a Jesuit education.
His personal office, led by Peta Credlin – who combines a policy advisory function and executive responsibility – is regarded as effective by colleagues, although questions arise about Credlin’s own ability to combine both roles in government.
In the successful Howard years, responsibilities for policy and making the trains run on time were divided between chief of staff (now Senator) Arthur Sinodinos and political director Tony Nutt.
Apart from Credlin in his back room, Abbott also has the services of Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane (Credlin’s husband) and pollster Mark Textor.
Textor’s role can’t be overstated – based, as it is, on relentless qualitative analysis of polling trends.
Howard might have been accused of being poll-driven. Abbott is hardly less so.
Abbott’s tenure as Opposition Leader has been marked by a disciplined adherence to themes generated by Textor’s polling, including hammering away at the government’s perceived lack of competence.
Other significant figures in the Abbott back room include his press secretary, Andrew Hirst, and communications director, Tony O’Leary, a political warrior left over from the Howard years.
Hirst is close to Abbott. He is wellregarded by the media.
Completing Abbott’s various circles is an outreach to business. His announcement that former ASX chairman Maurice Newman would head a Business Advisory Council was designed to send a signal to business that an Abbott-led government was intent on making a virtue out of a consultative approach.
Labor’s relations with business have been strained, to say the least.
Newman will not announce the composition of his council until closer to the election, but he has let it be known it will be serviced by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, aligning it closely with the prime minister of the day.
Like the central character in John Bunyan’s allegorical 17th-century novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, Tony Abbott has embarked on a journey whose destination is uncertain.
What is less uncertain is that, like Bunyan’s anvil-humping central character, the journey won’t be trouble-free for Abbott, and that includes in the run-up to the election itself.