Battleground: Why the Liberal Party Shirtfronted Tony Abbott

By Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen

Melbourne University Press 2015

ISBN: 9780522869712

RRP – $29.99 pb

Inside The Hawke-Keating Government

By Gareth Evans

Melbourne University Press 2014

ISBN: (Hardback)9780522866421

ISBN: (E-Book)9780522866438

RRP – $49.99 hb


Reviewed by Dr Stephen Matchett.

In their instant autopsy of Tony Abbott as prime minister – Battleground: Why the Liberal Party Shirtfronted Tony Abbott – Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen present his failure in office as the inevitable consequence of a character ill-suited to the times and an utter absence of the political arts of manipulation, explanation and conversation.

But how did Mr Abbott’s staggering-from-the-start prime ministership look to him? Surely different to the caricature of incompetence they present.

Unless Mr Abbott kept a diary which he one day publishes we will never know. Which will be a shame, because just about the only way he can respond to the wrecking of his reputation as a competent politician by Errington and van Onselen is to reveal what he thought and why he acted as he did.

As Gareth Evans demonstrated a couple of years back, there is nothing like a self-aware and revealing diary written during and published after a political career to present a past politician in such a warts and all way that readers may not like him or her but at least will have a sense of their humanity and intentions.

But Evans also showed how even in the easier 1980s the boundless sea of politics changed from serenity to storm in hours and how ego and ambition, arrogance and obsession created continuing chaos. The poisons of parliament and the news spin cycle were slower then – but still dangerous and dizzying.

If there is one thing that unites Evans diary and Abbott’s record over the decades, it is that politics is about commitment and capacity, consistency and calm and the ability to apply authority that is proportionate to the prize. It is all a matter of character, the ability to deal with all sorts of people in all sorts of circumstances, to stay focused on policy goals among the insults and obfuscation of daily politics that decides a leader’s fate.

As Machiavelli put it:

I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which would not lose him it; but this not being possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them. And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.

 Policy failure did not bring Kevin Rudd down – rather, it was the way he presented himself to the people around him. It is similarly central to Errington and van Onselen’s analysis that Abbott’s commitment to Chief of Staff Peta Credlin sent clear signals to his party colleagues that his allegiance was not to them. Was it so? An Abbott diary would be revealing.

 Even for self-aware politicians who present a disciplined public persona, rarely revealing everything to their intimates, a diary can be a window to a political soul, albeit one opened after the author has left office.

Inevitably, a diary written for release, or which the author later decides to publish, must be taken on trust as a record of an individual’s actions and emotions at time of writing – a test that some contemporary Australian efforts are too polished to pass.

Certainly social media makes it harder for politicians who variously tweet and record their lives for Facebook friends to use a diary to re-write their record. When opinions and actions are recorded hour by hour there is no room for rewriting records. From the politics of the personal to the most public of lives, every opinion and emotion we so easily express is now on the record.

There is also the enduring problem of what cannot be revealed for decades after the events a diary records. For all but political historians, this is not such a problem. As the cabinet papers annually reveal there is nothing as ex as the actions of long-retired ministers in ancient political crises. The way we live now makes the immediate out of date in the merest of moments and it is hard to imagine what could appear in hypothetical Abbott diaries published a decade after he departed public life of anything other than antiquarian interest.

But these are phenomena for the future and, until 2000 or so, diarists could deliver insights into the confusion of policy-making and the chaos of political life of the kind that to Errington and van Onselen’s eyes overwhelmed Mr Abbott.

As Sean Scalmer and Nathan Hollier describe the diarist’s purpose (Australian Journal of Politics and History, 2009), “political diaries convey the texture and rhythms of parliamentary political life better — more completely — than any other source. They throw a special light on what life is like for actors within the parliament, the executive, and the parties.”

 The Brits, who made the twentieth century political diary their own, at least in the anglo-sphere, set a standard that Australian practitioners do not try to match. According to Tory diarists Giles Brandreth (one-time whip and raconteur) and the late Alan Clark, (some-time junior minister and mad womaniser) the good political diary has four elements at time of writing; it is immediate, indiscrete, intimate and indecipherable.  They left one “i” out – intact. A published diary that is not presented as it was at time of writing but is tidied in the interests of presenting prescience is a fraud on the public.

But the Brits, at least the posh ones, being who they are, as diarists are often also fascinated by the sex and social lives of their subjects; especially the ones who are not quite proper persons. The fascination was especially forensic when diarist and minister Edwina Currie outed her own affair with Prime Minister John Major.

By such salacious standards Australian diarists do not measure up, as Neal Blewett, the author of his own cabinet diary (1999) explained in a 2006 essay on writing by Australian political participants for the ANU e-press: “The political diary is usually aimed at political junkies. It tends to be dense with material, often in a pretty undigested form. There is not much selectivity, often for very good reasons, and is often, as a result, rather turgid.”

Dr Blewett’s published version was rather more packaged than some of the more notorious UK diaries, notably Alan Clark’s. As Blewett explained:

Pruning the prose made it, hopefully, more lucid, but I tried to avoid any change in substance, tone or judgments. I did restructure the cabinet discussions to make them easier for readers to follow but at the same time sought to remain true to the arguments advanced by the ministers. Finally, given the concerns of the libel lawyers, I modified a few intemperate remarks about senior colleagues and excised about a dozen candid comments on minor figures.

Despite the tempered tones of most published diaries by Australian politicians over the years, publishers have assumed a market exists for a surprisingly substantial number of them, identified by Sean Scalmer and Nathan Hollier in the Australian Journal of Politics and History (2009) as starting in the 1970s with R G Casey’s diary as foreign minister. Diarists from both sides of the divide followed, including conservatives R G Menzies, Paul Hasluck and Peter Howson and Labor men Clyde Cameron, Neal Blewett, Mark Latham and Bob Carr. There is also a mass of memoires that rely on diaries and contemporary notes, such as Graham Richardson’s revealing Whatever It Takes.

 And now Gareth Evans has joined them. The sometime Labor minister was just 41 when writing his diary and went on to a long post parliamentary career, as head of the International Crisis Group and now an active chancellor of the Australian National University. His energy for administration and bureaucratic ability are obvious in his diary record as a minister in the first three and a half years of what we now call the Hawke-Keating Government, a descriptor that would have surprised Evans then.

While the Keating leadership alternative emerges in these pages it is plain that Prime Minister Hawke made the calls, although Evans did see hints of what was to come.

There is no doubt that this is a contemporary record, with Mr Evans responding to the routine rapacity of politics rather than making what would now be seen as prescient predictions about what turned out to be a very good government. As such, the diary stands as a superior source on how we were governed as Australia began to grapple with globalisation.

Or at times, how we weren’t – the chaos that occurs when policy and the pursuit of power, administration and ambition all intersect endures in the diary. Thus, Evans records Paul Keating’s “Option C” tax proposals in 1985, which is worth reading for anybody who believes root and branch revenue reform is possible and who does not grasp the scope of the Howard-Costello GST achievement.

It’s pretty obvious that several dimensions at least of the Keating package, and in particular some of the assaults on tax shelters and perks are simply going to be too rugged to survive political attack. But, equally, it is one of those situations where the most radical and far-reaching option may in the long run, because of the scope it offers for delivering goodies, prove more palatable than some of the less extreme alternatives. Keating sees this very clearly but he is having a lot of difficulty carrying the allegedly more radical members of the cabinet with him.

Evans was right, but it took another 15 years before John Howard and Peter Costello acted on the larger lesson of Option C, that without the imprimatur of the people expressed at an election special pleaders will always manipulate the system to stop change.

For the Sydney Institute readers old enough to remember these years, the acuity of Evans’ observation and analysis will activate memories of the era and, while the names and circumstances have changed, the essential issues stay the same.

The green-left stood for obstruction and obfuscation. “I seek to chase down the Democrats to find out what is happening … but they are all, as usual, rafting or rainforesting or talking about energy from beetroot,” Evans despairs in September 1985.

The Labor machine knew that all politics is local. Thus, Evans reports briefing a Victorian Labor Unity meeting: “They all seem much keener to get on with the debate about ballot rigging and branch stacking in the western suburbs.”

The press gallery is – well, it is the press gallery. Evans writes about a chat with Michelle Grattan, “I did reasonably well with Michelle at least by comparison with last year, but I really am appalled, as always, by the relentless superficiality of it all, and the speed, and pure chance, with which judgements that are enormously important in public terms are formed.”

And while Evans, first attorney general and then energy minister for the duration of the diaries, does not appear especially interested in economics, the country’s unsustainable situation intrudes: “Cabinet was overwhelmingly preoccupied today with the disrepair into which the whole Australian economy seems to be rapidly sliding as a result of our terms of trade problems,” he wrote in May 1986.

But the intrusion is not overwhelming, despite the now orthodoxy that Labor in government then was obsessed with tax reform, deregulating financial markets, the budget and BOPs, they only make marginal appearances.  Evans only makes a notice of record entry of Keating’s “banana republic” warning a week later, noting “all hell has been breaking loose” and that Prime Minister Hawke was not pleased.

Although the economy did not consume all his attention, Evans could not escape the inevitable difficulties of governing, compounded by the ambitions and egocentricities of his colleagues. His assessment of ministers’ motivation is as close as he comes to the British requirement for indiscretion in diaries. Apart from attending a party for the “most beautiful woman of her generation” at the University of Melbourne and a reference to a colleague’s female admirers in the press gallery, it appears that all Senator Evans’ machiavells were monastic in their tastes.

But not necessarily competent. Evans dismisses Deputy Prime Minister Lionel Bowen, “Another classic demonstration of Lionel’s complete lack of any self-discipline when it comes to talking on matters in which he has some personal interest.” John Dawkins “brought a good deal” of criticism upon himself “as a result of the manic self-promotion that he and his office have been going on with for the last couple of years.” (Granted, this was years before Dawkins’ epic restructure of higher and further education). John Button’s lauded political nous is his “infinite capacity to shirk difficult jobs”.

As for Bob Hawke, the PM who removed Evans from being attorney general, he picked a big reason for his demise very early, in June 1986: “Anyone determined to be so macho in asserting his leadership and so insensitive to the dynamics of a Labor government is riding for a fall.”

Above all, Evans recognised Paul Keating’s brilliance and ambivalence. In January 1985, he records what was to become a familiar Keating statement, that he would be happy to walk away from politics to make money and talk antiques. By October, Evans was reporting talk of Keating taking the leadership after an 1987 election win. “The Keating motif” was embedded in “every conversation one has around Parliament House these days, he has certainly made an incredibly strong mark”. The next year, Evans recognised Keating’s achievement in deregulating interest rates on new home loans and his obvious willingness to burn political capital to achieve essential reforms.

There is no doubt that this whole affair has been, once again, a considerable triumph for Paul Keating’s particular brand of economic rationalism, combined with persistence and a willingness to take political risks. I think he is absolutely right on this issue, and it’s clear that he will retain at least the tacit support of most of the NSW members of parliament, but there is equally no doubt that a reasonable size job has been done on him by a number of people all too keen to get even for the authority he has exercised in NSW over a number of years and that is something he will just have to ride out.

The diary ends before the epochal economic changes of the late 1980s and the struggle between Hawke and Keating for the leadership but Evans certainly was aware of the battle lines being drawn.

Evans was also clear-eyed about himself. If self-awareness is any indication, Evans was not a bad judge of political character – he certainly was aware of the way he gave people the political shits, not least the PM, who was obviously exasperated with him at times, and Foreign Minister Bill Hayden did not always welcome Evans’ help as assistant minister and Senate spokesman.  “I’ll have to get a seatbelt to handle the swoops and plunges that now seem irrevocably part of Hayden’s dealings with me,” he wrote after one 1986 attempt to be helpful did not go well.

But the biggest bad career call in these years was his deep concern with the fate of former Labor AG and High Court judge Lionel Murphy who was dragged through inquiries, courts and media over corruption charges. As Evans recorded in 1985 after a blue with NSW Premier Neville Wran over who was best help for their mutual mate, “it was my consistent support for Murphy for 18 months that had lost me a lot of credibility with my ministerial colleagues and the press”.

Throughout the diaries, Evans details his belief that Murphy was done grave wrongs by the courts, press and various corruption inquiries in which he was named, devoting time and attention to an issue which was personally important but was surely second order compared to the need to transform the national economy. It demonstrates that it is impossible to recognise what history will reveal matters when caught up in creating it. What Evans demonstrates is that life where the storm fronts of politics and governing collide is always chaotic and exhausting and that rather than set a course, on the much traversed but always changing ocean of governing, the best that even the most skilled voyagers can do is hold on and hope.

Evans defined what it takes to be a prime minister: “A capacity to rationalise anything is a necessary prerequisite, if you let your confidence be knocked around by your mistakes you would be buried deep in the bunker most of the time.”

 For all the accepted wisdom that the 1980s were a golden age of policy courage the diaries demonstrate how the chaos of politics came close to overwhelming competent ministers on a daily basis.

Not that this worried some of the reviewers. “It was a golden era of reform and government and its success holds a trove of lessons for today’s generation of politicians,” Denis Atkins wrote in the Courier Mail (29 August 2014).  David Day saw the diary’s value as a source on the looming struggle between Hawke and Keating rather than any insight into the policy process (Australian Book Review, December 2014). “They offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a period still recalled for its impressive strokes of policy and achievement,” Jonathan Green agreed in The Age (1 November 2014). Or as Nick Richardson put it, they are “a compelling record of a government that created great things within its multitalented Cabinet.” (Herald Sun, 11 October 2014).

Only Peter Craven (The Australian, 25 October 2014) got it;

This is a dazzling and diverting account, by a born raconteur and politics incorrigible, of what it is like to be a team player in an extremely talented government when you have a hankering for personal integrity and a strong tendency towards megalomania, but with plenty of irony and style to help wash it down. … Evans has produced an impressive, intimate view of government of the most blow-by-blow kind. This is a book that will fascinate everyone with a feeling for the human face of politics and for the fact it needs to be defended.

Who knows whether a Tony Abbott diary, of the Evans kind, or one kept by a loyal senior minister, or staffer, would restore his reputation as prime minister – but they could not hurt.

As things stand, if Errington and Van Onselen’s dissection of Tony Abbott’s time brief time in office goes unchallenged his reputation as PM will be terminally trashed.

The fundamental assumption of their book is that while an immensely successful opposition leader Abbott was simply not up to the job and they invoke the ultimate insult of Australian politics, the Billy McMahon comparison, to make the point: “Abbott’s failure was all his own work. Vain, untrustworthy and unpleasant, McMahon has been superseded in prime-ministerial failure by Tony Abbott.”

Errington and van Onselen set out a range of reasons why his parliamentary party pushed Abbott. Above all his loyalty to chief of staff Peta Credlin cost him support, but in their assessment this was just the first among equals of many matters. Process and policy were second to politics in his office, upsetting the electorally attuned backbench and conservative base in the process. He had a tin-ear for community attitudes, demonstrated by making Prince Philip a knight. His firmly held beliefs were from another age and his strong sense of loyalty selective. He came to office promising to undo Labor policies but had no coherent agenda of his own and he learnt nothing from the failed 15 February spill motion against him. As they write:

What ultimately became Abbott’s most damaging political sin was his failure to reprint and change. The broken promises, the zealotry, the unconscious bias, the shouting, the failure to listen and the misguided loyalty could all have been forgiven if Abbott had meant what he said about changing the way he governed. He couldn’t expect loyalty from his MPs if he wasn’t prepared to humble himself enough to respect their ability to remove him from office.

 But while they do not make much of it, their core point surely is that a man with the makings of an innately Australian leader simply did not connect: “Abbott was a leader at permanent risk of coming across as out of touch, despite his many community activities, such as surf lifesaving and fire-fighting.”

Tough stuff, and typical of an unremittingly critical text that interprets Abbott’s term as PM through the prism of his final failure, that sees every act as the result of his personality, which simply was not suited for high office. This is not a book that looked for positives, as Ross Fitzgerald pointed out:

A more even-handed analysis would at least involve highlighting some of his government’s achievements. How the Abbott government managed to stop the boats, repeal taxes, remove a mass of unnecessary regulations, initiate major infrastructure, start the task of budget repair, finalise three free-trade agreements and keep the nation safe under such difficult circumstances is also a story that needs to be told. To my mind, Errington and van Onselen in their punchy exegesis don’t even try to begin telling it. (The Australian, 12 December 2015)

And there may be a much simpler explanation of Abbott’s failures. He, like so many before him, was just overwhelmed by the chaos of governing. As Dennis Altman put it in the Sydney Morning Herald (16 December 2015): “Is it not more likely the case that Abbott lacked the skills to manage the complexities of government, and no amount of ‘self-authenticity’ would have resolved this?”

Errington and van Onselen provide no sense of what life within Mr Abbott’s office was like or any sense of his motivations, which a diary would reveal.

If there was ever a case for a diary to expand our understanding of a government Abbott’s is it.

Stephen Matchett writes for