Only three months ago, Tony Abbott won one of the biggest victories in modern Australia’s political history. The Coalition’s vote, after the distribution of preferences, was higher than that attained by Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd in 1983 and 2007 respectively and only fractionally behind John Howard’s performance in 1996.
Yet no government in living memory has faced so much media criticism so soon after an election. According to Andrew Catsaras’ analysis in his “Poll of Polls” segment on Insiders last Sunday, when the major polls are put together the Coalition leads Labor by 51 per cent to 49 per cent. Certainly the Abbott government’s support has not collapsed. However, as Catsaras pointed out, “there’s clearly been no honeymoon for the new government” when compared to that experienced by Howard in 1996 and Rudd in 2007.
The tenor of intensity with which many journalists dislike the Prime Minister and his colleagues is evident in the note which accompanies the current edition of The Monthly magazine. Editor John van Tiggelen quotes “one of the magazine’s most popular contributors” as declaring: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a cabinet of creeps; I can’t bear to take them seriously yet.”
This contributor chose to remain anonymous. Not so Van Tiggelen himself, who referred to the Abbott government’s “onanistic reverence for John Howard” and depicted it as “this frat party of Young Liberals who refuse to grow up”.
A considered person might well have regarded such language as redolent of frattish, undergraduate language. But Van Tiggelen is the editor of one of Australia’s leading magazines and is happy to put his name to such infantile abuse.
The cover of The Monthly claims the magazine contains an article by Greg Sheridan titled “My Beautiful Bromance with Tony Abbott”. In fact, this is an attempt at ridicule by academic Russell Marks. Sheridan has known Abbott for three decades. To some, Sheridan’s recollections in The Australian and elsewhere of the young Abbott have been of considerable interest. Not to the likes of Marks and Tiggelen, however, who regard them as a suitable case for sneering. Yet no serious commentator sneered when Blanche d’Alpuget wrote about the young Bob Hawke or when Jacqueline Kent wrote about the young Julia Gillard.
The Coalition won the 2013 election in the suburbs and regional centres of Australia. Abbott, Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Warren Truss, Barnaby Joyce and their colleagues focused on the unpopular carbon tax and concern in the electorate about unauthorised boat arrivals. They also presented the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government as incompetent. This pitch had lesser appeal in the inner-city areas where the Labor/Greens approach to climate change was not unpopular and where either Rudd and/or Gillard were admired by many.
A problem for the Abbott government is that most journalists who report national politics are inner-city types. It’s difficult to think of many members of the Canberra press gallery or key reporters in the capital cities who would support Abbott’s position on, say, climate change or asylum seekers or same sex marriage.
So much is the dislike of Abbott that it appears some commentators want his policies to fail even if this is damaging to Australia’s national interest. This is evident in the reporting of the documents stolen by Edward Snowden, indicating that Australian intelligence spied on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his senior colleagues in 2009. Rudd was prime minister at the time and Gillard his deputy.
Abbott has had to handle the consequences of an alleged action in which he had no involvement. In recent weeks, the airwaves and newspapers have been replete with advice from commentators – most of whom have never worked in politics or in diplomacy – about what the Prime Minister “must” or “should” do. Yet the highly experienced retired diplomat Philip Flood has supported Abbott’s low-key approach to Indonesia.
At times, the response to Abbott is irrational. On Q&A last week, Julian Burnside, QC, theorised that Abbott might be happy with “a bit of a set-to with Indonesia” since it would provide a “perfect excuse for the fact the idea of stopping the boats hasn’t worked and won’t work”. There is no evidence whatsoever for either prognosis.
It’s possible the overwhelmingly negative coverage may affect the Coalition at the next election. Or that the media’s apparent obsessions have little traction in the electorate. Despite promising starts, Howard only narrowly won his first election as prime minister in 1998 and Rudd did not even lead Labor to the 2010 campaign. Even so, the Coalition may need to consider whether its apparent tactic of low-profile engagement deserves reassessment.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.