Some Australians have scant respect for their elected leaders, present or past. In this regard, Tony Abbott has been the recipient of more than usual disrespect on account of the fact his policies on national security and border protection — along with his social conservatism — are anathema to the world view of the fashionable left intelligentsia.
This is at its most strident among journalists (especially the ABC and Fairfax Media), academics (particularly in social science departments) and on social media.
On Tuesday, Jonathan Green (presenter of ABC Radio National’s Sunday Extra program) asked in a tweet “how many interviews” could Abbott do “before he becomes a rather feral backbencher?”. Somewhat pompously, the question was directed to Malcolm Turnbull, who is most unlikely to respond.
Green’s query indicates that the Abbott haters in our midst are likely to be vocal for some time to come. Abbott has given five interviews in about a three-week period since Turnbull won the leadership in a contest the former prime minister was not anticipating.
There was a doorstop, more like a beach-stop, when Abbott spoke briefly to The Daily Telegraph’s Taylor Auerbach after he emerged from the surf at Manly. There followed interviews published in The Daily Telegraph (by Simon Benson) and The Weekend Australian (by Dennis Shanahan and Paul Kelly) last Saturday, and then last Monday’s discussion with Ray Hadley on Radio 2GB, followed by an interview with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell on Thursday. That’s it.
Abbott made a couple of criticisms of his colleague Scott Morrison to Auerbach but he substantially scaled down his aspersions in talking to Hadley. The interviews published in The Daily Telegraph and The Weekend Australian and heard on 2GB and 3AW have been self-serving, but in no sense bitter or twisted. And certainly not feral.
As the BBC’s Andrew Neil pointed out last year, during this visit to Australia, BBC presenters are not allowed to express their political views in public. During Mark Scott’s time as ABC managing director, the similar prohibition that prevailed at the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster in Australia was lifted. These days the likes of Green are free to act as social media polemists on a Tuesday, then front up as impartial presenters on a Sunday.
This is not a wise policy for the ABC since it highlights the public broadcaster’s lack of diversity. The ABC does not have even one conservative presenter, producer or editor in any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. Hence the likes of Green set the ABC’s public tone.
In the discussion on the most recent dumping of a prime minister, much attention has focused on the fact Australia has had five prime ministers in nearly eight years, namely John Howard (ending November 2007), Kevin Rudd (ending June 2010), Julia Gillard (ending June 2013), Rudd (ending September 2013), Abbott (ending last month) and Turnbull. Sure, this is political instability of a kind. But Australia has been there before in the modern era.
Between early 1966 and late 1975, Australia had seven prime ministers: Robert Menzies, Jack McEwen, Harold Holt, John Gorton, William McMahon, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.
Of this group, only Gorton lost the prime ministership because of lack of support in the government partyroom. In the modern era, this has also been the fate of Menzies in 1941 (when leader of the United Australia Party), Labor’s Bob Hawke in 1991, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott. Among these half-dozen, Abbott has been one of the most benign and least feral in the wake of defeat.
Menzies found his loss of office in 1941 difficult to bear, especially since he was replaced as prime minister by the Country Party’s Arthur Fadden and belonged to a party that was headed for a time by ageing former prime minister Billy Hughes (who was born in 1862). Menzies, however, accepted his fate and played a key role in the formation of the Liberal Party in late 1944. He contemplated leaving politics in the mid-1940s but changed his mind and became prime minister again in December 1949.
Gorton did not take his defeat well. In a surprising and unwise decision, the Liberal Party elected Gorton deputy leader to new prime minister McMahon and he became defence minister.
In August 1971, Gorton was sacked by McMahon after he wrote several newspaper articles that were deemed to be critical of the government.
Soon Gorton quit the Liberal Party and unsuccessfully contested an ACT Senate place in 1975. Gorton never spoke to Fraser from the time he lost office until his death in May 2002, since he blamed Fraser for his loss of the prime ministership to McMahon.
Hawke quit politics soon after being defeated by Paul Keating for the prime ministership in the Labor partyroom. Labor lost the resultant by-election in Hawke’s Melbourne seat of Wills to left-wing independent Phil Cleary in early 1992. The former prime minister’s autobiography, The Hawke Memoirs, was not friendly to his predecessor Keating, who lost the 1996 election to Howard.
In recent times, Gillard’s defeat of Rudd in the Labor partyroom was followed by numerous unfavourable leaks that undermined Gillard’s prime ministership — especially in the lead-up to the 2010 election. Then, when Gillard headed the minority government, some of her supporters paid out on Rudd, who was regarded (correctly) as a potential challenger.
Gillard’s subsequent replacement by Rudd was accompanied by considerable acrimony. The hostility between the Rudd and Gillard supporters was evident in the ABC TV documentary The Killing Season, which aired earlier this year.
Viewed in this light, the sudden changeover from Abbott to Turnbull has been one of the most professional in recent memory — so far, at least. There has been little of the disorganisation and bitter infighting that accompanied the defeat of Menzies in 1941, Gorton in 1971, Hawke in 1991, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013.
What was notable about the Four Corners program that screened on September 21, Dethroning Tony Abbott, presented by this newspaper’s John Lyons, was the relative absence of political vitriol. Certainly senator Cory Bernardi expressed his displeasure at the outcome. But it was reasonable to expect that one member of the Abbott camp would speak up for the former leader, who attained 44 out of 98 votes in the leadership ballot.
On the available evidence, Abbott has accepted his defeat at the hands of his colleagues well. What’s more, in the Hadley and Mitchell interviews, the former prime minister exhibited the verbal dexterity that served him so well early in his political career but went into abeyance around the time he defeated Turnbull and became opposition leader in December 2009, continuing throughout his prime ministership. Now Abbott sounds like Abbott again — fluent but certainly not feral.