Things are getting spooky in the lead-up to October 31, with a former Prime Minister haunting the landscape. Here are the takeaways from Tony Abbott’s Margaret Thatcher Address, writes Max Chalmers.
It’s Halloween this weekend and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is doing all he can to resurrect his reputation from beyond the political grave.
You would think the humiliation of being dumped less than two years into your prime ministership by your own colleagues might provoke a pause, and a desire to reflect on what went wrong.
Was it the patronising three word slogans? The lack of vision? That weird habit of always repeating sentences when responding to a question?
For Abbott, facing up to these puzzles could lead to some troubling moments of introspection. Which is why, presumably, he’s battling on instead.
After his own highly successful stint as Australia’s leader Abbott is now lecturing Europe on how it’s all done, telling an audience at the annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture it is time for the continent to get tough on refugees and, you guessed it, stop the boats.
Here are five things we learned from a political zombie refusing to die quietly.
1) Abbott Still Sees Himself As A Raging Success
There’s a clear contradiction in Tony’s current predicament. On one hand, he seems genuinely proud of his time as PM. On the other hand, he consistently polled as one of our most unpopular leaders ever and helped bring his party to a position from which it looked certain to be tossed by the electorate at the first available opportunity.
In light of that fact, Abbott has taken on the ambitious project of redefining political success itself by trying to decouple it from the idea of political durability.
Striking a chord with the public, winning the backing of your colleagues, and being returned to power by the people are all a waste of time. What really matters is getting stuff done.
After lamenting the recent booting of Canadian political ally Stephen Harper, Abbott noted that:
“In this audience, some may be disappointed that my own prime ministership in Australia lasted two years after removing Labor from office – but as Lord Melbourne is supposed to have said ‘to be the Queen’s first minister (even) for three months is a damn fine thing’.”
Later he had this to offer:
“To Thatcher, the prime ministership wasn’t about holding office; it was about getting things done. It wasn’t about achieving consensus; it was about doing the right thing.”
You can see why he would want to make this argument. When it came to failing to achieve a consensus, Abbott was undoubtedly a great success.
But for all his words about substance over sustainability, Abbott’s comparisons raise some awkward contrasts.
Margaret Thatcher may not have cared about holding office – but she still managed to do it for over a decade.
Stephen Harper was divisive. He still held the top job for almost exactly the same length as the Iron Lady.
Abbott may not think electability is an important trait for a Prime Minister, or that it’s useful in establishing a political legacy, but his heroes clearly did.
2) He May Have Been A Terrible PM, But He’s A Talented Psychic
Speaking of Thatcher, Abbott was clearly right into the Halloween spirit last night, channelling the recently deceased British PM and summoning her will from beyond the grave, very much in the style of popular and deluded television psychic John Edwards.
“Her focus – were she still with us – would be the things of most consequence: managing the nation-changing, culture-shifting population transfers now impacting on Europe; winning the fight in Syria and Iraq which is helping to drive them; and asserting Western civilisation against the challenge of militant Islam.”
Given Thatcher’s early acceptance of climate change, it seems odd she forgot to say anything about it to Abbott in their little trans-mortem chat.
While it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the woman who smashed trade unionism in Britain and became the global face of neoliberalism, having Tony Abbott elect himself as a representative of your legacy is a pretty harsh punishment for anybody. Tough break, Maggie.
3) His Cognitive Dissonance (Still) Runs Deep
How did Abbott reconcile the more humane aspects of the Christian faith with the anti-humanitarian policies pursued by his government? By not trying to at all, generally.
In his remarks last night, between gloats about the punishment of refugees, and exhortations of European leaders to do the same, he came out with this:
“Implicitly or explicitly, the imperative to “love your neighbour as you love yourself” is at the heart of every Western polity. It expresses itself in laws protecting workers, in strong social security safety nets, and in the readiness to take in refugees.”
In the same speech he reflected on the abject horrors faced by those in areas controlled Islamic State militants. And then went on to argue European leaders should secure their borders and send refugees on boats back to where they came from.
The contradiction is reminiscent of many clocked during his time in office; the freedom lover who bound the country in yet more surveillance legislation; the Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs who wanted to close Aboriginal communities; the Minister for Women who was a man.
Abbott’s political agenda was incoherent, as his worldview remains now.
4) He’s Still Got The Magic
Even after losing office, the one-time PM still has the power to outrage and alienate everybody simultaneously, his one redeeming and unifying talent.
Among the immediate reactions to his speech were two Catholic priests who dubbed the comments ‘appalling’, while the Greens and social media went into an uproar.
This line in one news.com story pretty much sums it up.
5) A Legacy Of Slogans
Tony Abbott did not succeed in changing the character of the country as other conservative leaders, particularly Reagan and Thatcher, arguably did. But here’s how he sees his own legacy which, if he doesn’t continue to hound lecture halls from Sydney to London on a daily basis, is unlikely to be recalled by many for very long:
“Stopping the flow of illegal immigrant boats because a country that can’t control its borders starts to lose control of itself; the repeal of the carbon tax that was socialism masquerading as environmentalism; budget repair so that within five years, the Australian government will once again be living within its means; the free trade agreements with our biggest markets to increase competition and make it fairer; the royal commission into corrupt union bosses; an even stronger alliance with the United States and a readiness to call out Russia for the shooting down of a civilian airliner.”
He undid some policy and threatened to shirt front another leader. No wonder it was a short speech.
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