Whoever coined the phrase, ‘War, what is it good for?’ obviously never spent much time around Tony Abbott.
In the past few weeks, the PM’s bottom-dwelling popularity had started to lift, courtesy of weeks of strutting the world stage, threatening Russia, offending Scotland, floating the idea of more troops for Iraq, and declaring his own personal Jihad on Muslims in Australia (and those returning from overseas).
But an overnight trip to Melbourne is a long time in politics.
The revelations from Fairfax media this morning that the Prime Minister told his entire party room he booked an official function in Melbourne on Tuesday so that he could claim travel entitlements for a private function the night before are reverberating around Canberra.
In addition to Fairfax, the ABC are pursuing the story. So is the otherwise gutless Opposition (Google how many times the Labor Party have asked questions about the secret scholarship provided to the Prime Minister’s daughter… and prepare to be amazed).
The television networks will be all over it tonight – they got all the vision they needed when Opposition leader Bill Shorten used Question Time to turn up the heat. All they need now is a shot of Tony Abbott running from a camera with his hand over his face. Or maybe just standing there mute, ignoring questions. Either will do.
But one major news outlet is missing from the growing frenzy.
The story is now more than five hours old. The news.com.au site includes a single story, and it’s one which backs the PM. It reports that Malcolm Turnbull “can’t recall” the Prime Minister’s comments. Quelle surprise.
The Australian has also provided fleeting coverage of the issue, and again from a perspective aimed at bolstering a Prime Minister under siege.
This from a newspaper that spent the better part of a week recently trying to assassinate the character of a young university student (Freya Newman) accused of leaking the details around the awarding of a secret $60,000 scholarship to the Prime Minister’s daughter (and the same newspaper that, when the story broke, went after Wendy Bacon, one of the New Matilda writers who was reporting on the yarn).
Like Abbott, News Limited is in a serious bind here. It’s one thing to barrack for ‘the home team’. But it’s another thing altogether to die in a ditch with him.
News Limited’s credibility around political reporting already has a ‘Fox News air’ about it. But this is the sort of scandal that can damage more than just a Prime Minister.
If News doesn’t join the fray soon – without puff pieces that seek to hose it all down – it risks being accused of breathtaking bias (insert sarcastic laugh here).
Why could this damage News? Because this is a story that will piss off even some of the most ardent conservatives.
In an era when the ‘age of entitlement has ended’, it has all the makings of a career-ending scandal. There’s yet more diddling of travel entitlements (to the tune of $432 – honestly, who gets $432 for staying somewhere overnight). And it has a cancer ward which was used as cover.
That’s the key here. A lot of Australians have had cancer. And a lot more know someone who has. And died from it. It’s not too big a leap to imagine that many of them will take this story very personally.
And of course, front in the minds of many conservatives will be the reality that this stuff just keeps happening. It’s only the latest in a long string of gaffes from a Prime Minister who can’t seem to go more than a week or two without making a complete arse of himself… and occasionally the nation.
At some point, even the Great Rusted On will grow tired.
For Abbott personally, the implications within his own party are also significant. He may survive it – Abbott isn’t coated with teflon, but Labor’s ‘catch and kill their own’ past will make Coalition members far more wary about replacing an odious leader. If enough members hold over the next few days, Abbott might scrape through.
But the people who are being asked to hold their nerve and back the most unpopular Prime Minister in living memory are the same people who are undoubtedly tiring of Abbott’s consistent, spectacular failures.
The first rule of politics is ‘always back self interest’. More than a few backbenchers will be starting to wonder about the level of anti-Coalition swing at the next election, and whether or not their seats are safe. This latest Abbottism will only help to focus their minds.
Abbott’s traction of the last few weeks – by reverting back to two word slogans like ‘Team Australia’ and demonizing Muslims – is now gone.
He’s back where he started.
While there hasn’t been a flood, individuals within his party have begun leaking against him.
In Abbott’s defence, many of the gaffes he’s made have come about, perversely, because of his occasional habit of being surprisingly honest, and saying precisely what’s on his mind.
A case in point in his comments about the ‘housewives of Australia doing the ironing’. Why would an old-school misogynist think anyone would be upset by that?
So too his remarks to Kerry O’Brien, when he suggested people shouldn’t believe what he says, rather the ‘scripted, prepared remarks’ cooked up by his spin doctors.
This latest gaffe is in the same class. After a life of unfettered privilege, Abbott genuinely sees nothing wrong with openly admitting he’s diddled his travel entitlements. After all, most everyone else in the party room is doing the same thing, right?
And he’s right – they probably are. But for a Prime Minister to so blatantly admit it? To quote his conservative predecessor, we’re entering ‘man-child overboard’ territory now.
Abbott’s in trouble because no matter how hard he tries, he can’t change what he is – an uber-privileged extremist from the school of ‘what happens on the field stays on the field’.
But the field has changed. So has the game.
Short of some natural disaster that kills at least a dozen Australians in the next few weeks – and as crude as that sounds, it’s precisely what some in his party will be hoping for – Abbott’s days are starting to look increasingly numbered.
His only real hope is to start a war.
Actually, maybe there’s a role for the Murdoch media after all.