The dramatic slide in the polls for Kevin Rudd has forced the media to stop taking Tony Abbott on his own terms and to start evaluating him as an alternative prime minister.
Unfortunately, in doing that, they are projecting upon Abbott prime ministerial qualities that he simply doesn’t have. The most obvious of these missing qualities is the ability to negotiate difficult compromises in major policies.
One good example of this kind of wishful thinking was Niki Savva’s piece in The Australian yesterday. As a journalist and then a staffer to Peter Costello, Savva would have known Tony Abbott for many years, so she has no excuse for this:
"Tony Abbott has an opportunity now to do something Kevin Rudd has been either unwilling or unable to do. He can broker a compromise with the miners on the new tax. It would be his transition moment from Opposition Leader to alternative prime minister. Abbott has missed a couple of opportunities recently to make this essential crossover, most notably the debate on health, then later his response to the budget.
If he really wants to win the next election, he should take care he does not do the same again, and that he moves before the polls force the government to act."
It’s a nice idea, but it only works if you completely ignore the politics and personalities in the federal government right now. Abbott can’t and won’t do what Savva would want. He’s not a consensus guy, except on very minor issues: he hasn’t even got any runs on the board in hosing down factional squabbles within the NSW Liberals. There is no way he could pull off the kind of deals that Howard did on guns or the GST, nor even the nuanced effort in Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation. Tony Abbott got where he is today by trashing the very idea of compromise.
The Government is already engaged in top-level negotiations with mining companies over the tax. Niki Savva and other press gallery doyen(ne)s assume nothing is happening, a forgivable mistake for a novice, but wilful ignorance on Savva’s part. Serving that assumption up to readers of The Australian, is truly insulting and less than you’d expect from a Canberra veteran. But she goes on:
"Instead, he should test the sincerity of miners’ public declarations they are willing to pay more. If they are serious, Abbott should be able to devise the mechanism to enable them to do it. While continuing to champion an industry that has been demonised and still acknowledging their contribution to economic prosperity, Abbott cannot afford to ignore political realities and allow the government to paint him as the miners’ patsy or an obstacle to reform.
He could invite the miners to a meeting, present them with a range of options and secure an agreement aimed at ending an impasse that has already cost jobs and investment. What he can offer voters now is a solution, not more conflict."
This is something that you can imagine Malcolm Turnbull doing: recognising political realities and cutting a deal, using his business nous and connections to steal a march on someone like Wayne Swan — whose only dealings with business, until recently, involved fundraising for the Queensland ALP. Howard, too, might have done something similar in the mid-’90s. You can even imagine Brendan Nelson calling feebly for it and then being ignored. But not Abbott — and his fans should have worked that out by now and admit it. He’s not going to rise above the fray: the fray gives his life meaning, the fray lets him know who he is.
The most significant political reality in Australia today is the need for concrete action over climate change. Kevin Rudd’s popularity was sky-high and the political position of his party was secure when there was a promise that action would be taken. When that promise failed, Rudd and Labor failed. Does anyone think Abbott would take up that broken thing and make it work, even if his prime ministership depended on it? Nobody who knows Abbott could possibly agree.
Tony Abbott got where he is today by flouting "political realities". He is proud to be an obstacle to reform — whether that’s on the ETS, on immigration, on healthcare (including on many issues he had championed when he was health minister) and anything else the Government might put up. Of course he’s a patsy and a blocker, but to Abbott that’s all sticks-and-stones stuff. Niki Savva should know this. She should have dealt with Abbott enough to know that he simply has no hat, let alone any rabbits to pull from it. Savva should know that Abbott’s successes have exceeded his abilities and that his balloon has already begun to descend into the abyss.
Mining companies are betting that they can get away with paying no extra tax at all, by playing political games with people who do that sort of thing for a living. What compromise? Their idea of "political realities" are those they can work to their advantage, and that’s what they are doing. The incumbent government can make life hard for miners here and abroad if they think the miners are playing political silly-buggers: miners are amateurs at politics, Swan and others in the ALP are playing for their very lives, and failure to acknowledge their abilities and investments in a high-stakes game is where Savva’s analysis falls down.
The money that they are throwing at the Liberals is a bet that they can get away with paying no extra tax at all. If the tax is taken off the table, the rivers of gold stop flowing to the Liberals, and would Abbott want to answer for that to the party that elected him?
Speaking of extra tax, the first agenda item in any meeting between Abbott and the miners would be a demand that he ditch his "special levy" for paid parental leave. BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, many other mining companies and the banks that fund them are targets for that. To secure an agreement, Abbott will have to make concessions himself, but if he gives away too much he loses his place at the table.
There’s an old joke about how an honest broker must be honest and not broke: Savva should know it, and should know enough about politics to apply it to the situation before us. It is possible that the mining companies are being disingenuous when they say they are happy to pay more tax. If so, what does Abbott gain by exposing their dishonesty? On the other hand, we know what he’d lose: everything.
Interestingly, Savva’s piece also reveals a bit more of the emotional imperative that leads many conservative commentators to overlook the fantastic assumptions in their analysis. The second half of her article isn’t much more than an exercise in spite: Rudd is the bastard who gets to meet the US President, and the bastard responsible for her former boss not becoming prime minister, what a bastard! (But could Rudd possibly gush over Obama any more than Howard did over Bush?) For many Liberal supporters, including conservative media commentators, Abbott’s appeal is fixed on their conviction that the 2007 election was a "clerical error" to be reversed, and that the next Liberal government should simply restore the previous one.
Might Abbott achieve this? If the polls continue as they are, then perhaps. But can Abbott do it, as Savva is seriously suggesting, through negotiation and considered policymaking? No, Niki, he can’t. You have no grounds to believe in Abbott and you do readers of The Australian a disservice when you try to persuade them otherwise.
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