AND so it has come to this. On Wednesday, ABC managing director Mark Scott canvassed the possibility of junking the children’s favourite program Peppa Pig to meet the 1 per cent expenditure cut outlined in the 2014 budget.
The BBC program costs the ABC about $200,000 a year to purchase, about a quarter of Scott’s gross annual salary.
This is the old-fashioned reaction of the bureaucracy to budget cuts. I remember a senior public servant telling me in the late 1970s that the easiest way for the transport department to resist expenditure reductions was to declare that this inevitably would lead to sacking all the air traffic controllers. The contemporary equivalent is to present the Coalition as the slayer of Peppa Pig.
Last September, Tony Abbott achieved one of the largest two-party-preferred votes in modern Australian history. Now, less than a year since the election, Abbott faces the unusual situation of being opposed by virtually every political party and pressure group in the nation. His political opposition includes the Greens on the populist Left, the social democratic Labor Party in the middle and the Palmer United Party on the populist Right.
No senior Australian politician has received such personal criticism from parliamentary colleagues. In 2012, Julia Gillard achieved international attention for calling Abbott a misogynist. This year, Greens senator Scott Ludlam described the PM as “homophobic” while his Senate colleague Sarah Hanson-Young has called him a “total creep”. Last week, on ABC1’s 7.30, PUP senator-elect Jacqui Lambie depicted Abbott as “psychopathic”.
Kevin Rudd was not the victim of much personal berating. John Howard and Gillard copped bucketloads of abuse, but not from parliamentary colleagues.
The longstanding tradition that the office of the prime minister deserves some respect appears to have collapsed under Abbott’s incumbency. The evidence suggests Abbott is widely loathed among large sections of the professional classes. The vitriol is particularly evident on the ABC, within Fairfax Media outlets and in social media on a daily basis. Any perceived Abbott error now sparks a round of breast-beating moral outrage.
The truth is many politicians, male and female alike, might have expressed surprise when confronted on talkback radio by a 67-year-old female pensioner with three chronic medical conditions who declared that she worked on an adult sex line. Jon Faine, the ABC 774 presenter who took the (now infamous) call from “Gloria in Warburton”, told the ABC1 News Breakfast program that his immediate response was as follows: “I raised my eyebrows.” Abbott’s wink followed Faine’s gesture. The Prime Minister received widescale condemnation for his gesture, but Faine has escaped without criticism.
Faine posited two options to explain the wink. Perhaps it was “a private school boy’s snigger at the mere mention of the word sex”. Or perhaps Abbott had “a Benny Hill moment”. News Breakfast’s co-presenters Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland did not ask Faine whether he, too, had experienced a Benny Hill moment of the raised-eyebrows genre.
Nor was Faine asked whether only those educated at private schools sniggered about sex. Scott, who presides over Faine’s rather large taxpayer-funded salary, went to a private school.
The contempt for Abbott within the left-wing inclined professional classes was evident in the critical letters that The Sydney Morning Herald chose to run on May 23. There was reference to the Prime Minister “surviving on a wink and a prayer” — a reference to Abbott’s conservative brand of Catholicism. Abbott’s wife and daughters also were mocked.
That evening, Abbott attended the Australian Book Industry Awards in Sydney. Louise Adler, president of the Australian Publishers Association, introduced him with a professional address appropriate for the occasion.
The Prime Minister performed very well in front of an audience that was polite, but evidently resentful. He gives the impression of being better equipped to handle opprobrium than his recent predecessors.
The most amusing criticism of the Prime Minister has come from Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, who followed her Stalinist parents Bill and Freda Brown into the Socialist Party of Australia in the 1970s. At the time, the SPA was the pro-Soviet Union branch in Australia of the international communist movement.
Rhiannon refuses to provide details of who paid for her study at the Lenin International School in Moscow in 1977, during the time of Leonid Brezhnev’s totalitarian dictatorship. But the Greens senator maintains that the fact one of the Prime Minister’s daughters won a scholarship at a private institute in Melbourne raises issues concerning ethics. Really.
Already some commentators are predicting Abbott will lose the leadership in a partyroom ballot or that he will lead the Coalition to defeat at the next election scheduled for late 2016. Maybe. Or maybe not. As the joke goes, it is unwise to make prophecies, especially about the future.
Yet, maybe, despite broken promises and all that, the Australian population reluctantly accepts that the country needs a strong personality who is unfazed by abuse.
As Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson pointed out in April, when Labor left office after six budget deficits there were a further 10 deficits in prospect.
That kind of economic scenario will not be resolved by someone who wants to be loved. Abbott’s one unchallenged characteristic, at this stage of his prime ministership, is a perceived and real strength.