Australia Day, for all its troubling historical implications, should generally be a happy time for an incumbent conservative government.
Patriotism is an easy embrace for right-of-centre politicians, and the national day brings with it a host of friendly media opportunities, as the Prime Minister and his cabinet fan out across the nation to attend citizenship ceremonies and bestow honours on local worthies.
If further reinforcement of magnanimity is required, a pliant citizen can generally be persuaded to let television cameras invade his or her barbeque, generating friendly footage of our political leaders munching on a sausage and waving miniature Aussie flags. The Australian of the Year is also appointed on January 26, which provides added media opportunities.
It takes a special sort of political incompetence, therefore, to stuff up a set piece like Australia Day: the sort of incompetence that is rapidly becoming the mark of Tony Abbott’s government.
This time, the source of the ridicule was Abbott’s decision to bestow a knighthood on none other than 93-year-old His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, the royal consort of the Queen of Australia.
To say that Philip is rather low on the list of Australian popular heroes is a bit like saying Islamic State has an image problem. For most Australians, Philip is an obscure royal known only for his exceptionally fortunate choice of life partner and a tendency for embarrassing gaffes. Rather pointedly, the newest recipient of the newly recreated Knighthood of Australia is not even an Australian.
It’s difficult to imagine a less successful prime ministerial announcement. Nothing could better exemplify Abbott’s 1950s mentality, and his increasingly tenuous grasp on the concerns and interests of middle Australia. At a stroke, Abbott has demonstrated yet again how far his once-ascendant star has fallen.
The content of the decision – an archaic honour bestowed on a foreigner who scarcely needs another one – was bad enough. Philip is already a Knight of the Garter, a Knight of the Thistle and a Knight Grand Cross of the order of the British Empire. Abbott’s protestations that “it is fitting that we pay tribute to an extraordinary life of service” seem all the more out of touch when we consider that this “service” was largely as the husband of the figurehead of a disintegrating empire.
If the content was poor, the context was worse. The Australia Day knighthood announcement comes at a time when Abbott’s authority is already eroding, and his judgment as a political leader is being called into question.
Reaction was swift and savage. Social media, of course, rejoiced in this new episode of Abbott monarchial mania. Some mourned the steady encroach of the Abbott government on territory that should really be reserved for the satirists. Others made merry with comparisons to the Emperor Caligula and his favourite horse Incitatus. With typical combativeness, Abbott stoked the flames by his reference to social media as “electronic graffiti.”
But it was the reaction inside the Liberal Party that should worry the Prime Minister most. A disgruntled cabinet and back bench have been leaking like a sieve for some time now, but yesterday’s debacle opened the floodgates of Liberal anti-Abbott sentiment.
Some of the quotes gathered by political journalists were scarifying. “It takes a rare talent to turn our national day into a joke,” one marginal seat backbencher told The Australian’s Peter Van Onselen. “He combines the judgment of Gillard with the madness of Rudd,” another said. A third told the ABC’s Alexandra Kirk that it was “manifestly amazing in the worst possible way.”
As several commentators have already pointed out today, this kind of ridicule is a dangerous sign. It shows that Abbott has not just alienated his colleagues, but that many of them are openly questioning his capacity to lead.
This has been a summer of discontent inside the Liberal Party. The party is reeling from the apparently permanent unpopularity of the current government, which most conservatives confidently expected to comfortably outpace a crippled Labor Party helmed by the supposedly ineffectual Bill Shorten.
It hasn’t worked out like that. 2014 was a horrible year for the Coalition, one of the worst for a new government in living memory, and the end of the political year brought no halt to the downward slide.
Over the summer, Abbott reshuffled the cabinet and fiddled with his health policies. The results ranged from underwhelming to chaotic. On health policy, despite the appointment of a new Health Minister, the government backflipped twice in its attempts to impose a “price signal” on patients visiting doctors.
After the ignominious withdrawal of the original proposal for a $7 co-payment for GP visits and pathology tests, the government tried a sneaky maneuver after Parliament had risen for the year. A whopping $20 per consultation was slashed from Medicare rebates to GPs, by administrative fiat and without the approval of the Senate. Long-simmering tensions with doctors and the Australian Medical Association exploded, and Abbott was forced to recall his new Health Minister Sussan Ley from holidays to announce the reversal.
The backflip has left health policy in limbo: nobody knows what the government plans to do next, except that it appears committed to destroying Medicare. Once again, the government had sustained a nasty political wound for no budgetary or policy gain. The debacle further eroded confidence in the beleaguered Prime Minister’s Office.
The Medicare shambles revealed a deeper pathology within the Abbott government: its inflexibility on policy. When faced with public disapproval of unpopular policies, John Howard was adept at changing tack. Bad policies were often amended or even junked altogether. Even when on the back foot, Howard was a master at playing wedge politics to discomfort his opponents.
In contrast, when faced with a huge backlash against social and economic policies that many voters consider unfair, Abbott has ignored public sentiment and doubled down on unpopular decisions.
The government has now tried to increase GP fees three times, in three different ways, for three failures. University fee deregulation is equally unpopular, and yet the government will again try to force higher education “reforms” through the Senate when Parliament resumes.
Perhaps this is why the government’s attempts to reset have failed so miserably. When Abbott tried to reboot the government late in 2014 with a modest cabinet reshuffle, the conventional wisdom was that the summer break might offer the government a chance for some much-needed political rehabilitation.
That hasn’t happened. The gaffes don’t help, but the underlying reason is that the government remains hell bent on ramming through a suite of unpopular policies for which it has no electoral mandate. Perhaps more backflips are considered too risky. But it’s more likely that Abbott simply remains committed to these policies.
In doing so, the real political character of the Prime Minister may be emerging. Far from the social conservative he often paints himself as, Abbott in government has proved himself a radical – a kind of right-wing Whitlamite willing to wager early defeat against far-reaching social change.
Tony Abbott, it appears, is prepared to crash if he cannot crash through. The only real question now is how long his colleagues will let him remain at the controls.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.