Why the Abbott era came to an end

In American football the rival teams have both ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ players. The offensive players are on the field when they have the ball; the defensive group take their places when the other side has the ball. It seemed to me, almost from the start of the Abbott Prime Ministership, that the new PM was uneasy in his new role. Temperamentally, he was still in Opposition, used to attacking, to punching, and to yelling out powerful slogans for his troops.

In the Prime Ministership, however, these tactics rather miss the point. The PM is looked up to as the nation’s political leader. Most of us want to get on with our lives, and it is useful to know that there is somebody competent running things, even if you didn’t vote for him/her. To achieve that happy state the PM has to be calm, inclusive and authoritative. Punching others is right out. The Opposition you will nod to benignly from time to time, but you take as little notice of it, and what it says, as you can.

You speak when you must (politics is not entertainment, as far as you are concerned), and when you speak it is to all Australians. You are measured in what you say and how you say it. You avoid slogans: like ads on television, their use-by-date comes very quickly. Within your party, you do your best not to have a kitchen cabinet, a group of cronies. You try to make yourself available to the backbenchers. And you make sure you have at least two obvious aspirants for your own job.

All this is hard to do, but those who last in the job learn to do it. They need luck, too, but politicians to some degree make their own luck. Tony Abbott never looked happy in the role of PM, and made no luck at all. He didn’t come across as authoritative, as calm, as inclusive or even as notably competent, and as time went on, and the opinion polls turned against him, he looked even less happy in the role.

Some of it was just personal style. He is not a fluent or articulate man, with the happy knack of speaking off the cuff and making good sense. He could not modulate his voice, and his verbal emphases were accompanied by sudden chops with both hands. Within the Ministry he seemed to make sudden decisions without trying them out on his colleagues first. His ‘Captain’s calls’ were not impressive, and he didn’t seem to understand one great truth about high office everywhere: whatever your position, you always need to persuade others. Once you begin to rely on the authority of the office (even in the military, I am told) that authority begins to wane, until there is little of it left.

Nothing I have said here is new, even for me, and it was being said again and again throughout his almost two years in office. Why didn’t he take notice? I don’t know. Every now and then his face had a puzzled look on it — ‘It’s not supposed to be like this’ seemed to be the inner sentiment. To return to my American football analogy, he was a brilliant Opposition leader, but he was not at all a brilliant Prime Minister. At the end he had lost the support of his party, whose members couldn’t see any likelihood of things improving while he stayed. He had lost also the respect of the electorate. No one much liked him, and some  passionately disliked him. My general sense of it all was that he was even more disliked than Julia Gillard at the height of her unpopularity. He could not find a way to rise above the cartooning and the quick smears.

Tony Abbott beat Malcolm Turnbull by one vote back in November 2009, over Turnbull’s attitude to ‘climate change’. The vote took place just before the fiasco of the Copenhagen climate conference. Malcolm Turnbull has had five years to think about all that. In that time it is likely that some of his belief in the menace of anthropogenic global warming will have waned, if only because there hasn’t been any discernible warming in that time, despite the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One of the satellite measures shows no warming now for 18 years and eight months. He will also have noted that governmental enthusiasm around the world for ‘combating climate change’ has greatly subsided.

In my view he must have given the more sceptical of the backbenchers (and Ministers) an assurance that he would not go down the carbon tax or ETS road again. In fact, earlier this year he seemed to have done just that, saying that the Government’s Direct Action scheme should be given a fair trial, and that Australia should wait and see what the international consensus was,  before doing something different. In his first press conference as Prime Minister he reiterated that the Abbott Government’s climate change policy would be retained.

On the other hand, his seat, Wentworth, is full of small-l Liberals, Greens and other sympathisers with tough action on the imagined climate crisis. He will have to find ways of soothing them, while not antagonising his own party. He will do this, as he suggested in his first media conference, by concentrating on economic policy. A new Treasurer, perhaps the return of Arthur Sinodinis to a related portfolio, and a collective focus on how to deal with uncertain and unhelpful economic times, will take the focus off the climate stuff. It will be some days, however, before we have much idea of his strategy.

And what of the displaced Tony Abbott? He has not said whether or not he will stay in Parliament, but he has said, though rather gracelessly, he will not be a destabilising force. I doubt that he would want a portfolio in the Turnbull Government, or that Malcolm Turnbull would offer him one. He has been in Parliament a long time, and will collect a decent pension if he leaves. But what would he do? He is a fighter, physically active and full of passion. I don’t see him as an adjunct professor somewhere, and his interests are Australian rather than international. Time will tell us, here, too.

The American football analogy took my fancy, as you have seen. Perhaps that could be the new style in our politics: a tough Opposition Leader to get the troops into office, when he is replaced by a smooth-talking, all-things-to-all-people facilitator who does his best not to upset the horses. It’s worth thinking about…

Endnote: Dr Jennifer Marohasy, who is a scientist, and has done major work not only on temperature adjustments (causing the setting-up of an inquiry into what the BoM actually does) but also on the use of artificial neural networks in weather forecasting, has had her adjunct status revoked at Central Queensland University, ostensibly because her work was ‘not well integrated into emerging research clusters’. See her website: http://jennifermarohasy.com/2015/09/snowy-hydro-responsible-for-cooling-at-rutherglen/

She thus follows Professor Bob Carter, who had his comparable status at James Cook University revoked some time ago.

The orthodoxy doesn’t like critics, especially from within science, and is not interested in debate.

Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • dlb says:

    Don, a good summary but as you say it has largely been said before. I note at one sceptic blog and right leaning political sites the Turnbull victory is being treated as an end of world scenario for climate scepticism and conservative ideals in Australia.

    re the termination of Dr Marohasy, I loved the euphemism for her work “not well integrated into emerging research clusters”. The academics sure have a way with words!

  • Doug says:

    On reflection, I see Tony Abbott as a good man who headed a good government, but was widely disliked and didn’t help himself with the well documented ‘captain’s calls’, unnecessary promises later broken and all the rest Don mentions. Nothing could make him popular and he had to go if the next election is to be won.

    That said, he leaves a good legacy – borders secured, taxes cancelled and lowered, budget better managed, national security prioritised, free trade deals, sensible (albeit unnecessary) climate policy etc. So there is a good story to tell. But they have probably achieved almost all they can given the hostile senate and a population wedded to endless largesse. All a Turnbull government can do is trim around the edges, repackage the achievements and plans, sell the good story and expose the opposition whenever it denies its past sins and speaks with forked tongue.

    I expect them to do that and win the next election.

    • Peter says:

      There are two dimensions to your posting, Doug:

      The first is about Tony Abbott and this is in fact, the focus of Don’s article: ‘Why the Abbott era came to an end’. In endorsing Tony as ‘a good man who headed a good government’ you are being most generous and charitable but you provide no compelling answer to Don’s title except to concede that he was ‘disliked’, made some disturbing ‘captain calls’ and broke a few pre-election promises. In the article the view presented is that Tony’s defensive, negative style in opposition gained him the PM’s role which then required a more offensive approach but surely there is more to it than this.

      In the last few days there has been commentary about his deeply divisive style, his concept of politics as warfare, putting punch into politics, the warrior PM, his ‘team Australia’ with-me or against-me thinking. As a leader one would think that shirt-fronting Putin, antagonising the Indonesian leadership, over-obsequious US smooching, sniggering at the Pacific Islander leaders’ concerns about rising sea levels etc indicate poor diplomatic leadership at an external level. Certainly asylum seekers arriving by boat, gay-marriage advocates, those seeking much more on climate change, ABC/SBS devotees etc were not on the winning team.

      Another central point, made by John Howard, is that any effective Liberal leader has to maintain a working balance between the liberal and conservative elements in the party and within the Coalition generally. Commentators such as Jones, Divine, Hadley, Bolt etc have bitterly lamented Abbott’s departure in recent days and one could interpret this as Tony meeting expectations of the hard right in his party but not the small ‘l’ liberal strands. The hard-right agenda of itself will not drive one onto electoral success and the saddest observation has been that Tony Abbott’s departure is not widely mourned except by people such as Abetz, Andrews et al.

      There is also another general theme which prioritises action – whether it be bike-riding, fighting fires, surf lifesaving living in Aboriginal communities, wearing yellow hats in factories etc – over too much thinking or explanation beyond simple slogans. In some ways it is a comment on the way many politicians emerge through the political funnels without rich, complex life experience and diversity. Attitudes to change – and whether you look backwards along old roads through a coal-lens or to the challenges of the future which incorporate the contributions of science, technology, the arts and innovation etc. The mood with which one conducts this conversation imbues our national thinking – whether it be stolid, hard-hat thinking or whether it be more positive, confident etc and it is palpable and translates to investment activity.

      When it comes to Turnbull, you are quite dismissive of him, Doug, relegating his role to ‘trimming’, ‘repackaging’ and ‘selling’ [the story]; Don too, though not specifically mentioning Turnbull, implies ‘a smooth-talking, all-things-to-all-people facilitator’ as the way a PM might maintain office.

      In Australia at the moment, given the so-called budget emergency, and claims that the ALP is addicted to spending, the simple facts are that some back-bone and prodding of the horses are required. My view is that ‘softly…softly’ is insufficient; the figures can’t be fudged and we are in for a lively ride but we may have a narrative that informs us where we’re heading and why. My view is that Malcolm will exceed the narrow constraints you set for him but of course this is yet to be revealed and you may in fact be correct.

  • aert driessen says:

    Don, much of what you have said about Tony Abbott (TA) is true but for the first time in your writings I note a political bias, and that is unusual. I do not agree one bit that TA was graceless in saying that he would not be undermining the new leader. That would have been difficult considering the treachery of Malcolm Turnbull (MT), who was always undermining the show; not only treacherous but also cowardly. You seem to be comforted by MT’s statements that he would not go down the ETS road, that Direct Action should be given a fair go, and that Abbott’s government climate policy would be retained. Do you really believe him?? How many times did he also say that policies “evolve”? While that may (or may not) be true until the election next year, I think that it is bound to go to an ETS after that. And if you think that his constituents in Wentworth will be an obstacle to be juggled with his Party’s beliefs, I think that al those small ‘l’ Liberals and Greens will be a source of comfort and inspiration for him. Not that he would need that with all those dollar signs hanging around an ETS. I think that MT has been plotting this over the whole post Copenhagen 5 years. I think that the bottom line for MT, using climate change as his driver and cover, is the ETS. This is not only the biggest game in town but the biggest game on Earth, worth tens of trillions of dollars. This is the big prize. I used to think of this as “noble cause corruption” but I now see it as outright fraud. Tony Abbott is a good man whose government achieved much in difficult circumstances. But above all, he is trustworthy. MT doesn’t know the meaning of trust, and I don’t trust him one little bit. This always was, and is, all about Malcolm, not Australia. Jeff Kennett had some words to say about him (ABC radio) before the vote and they were spot-on. Tony was rolled by treacherous people aided and abetted by Malcolm’s ABC, who tried to belittle and embarrass him at every opportunity. Shame on them all. I’m glad he is staying around because he is a good man with integrity and courage. I take him at his word that he will not undermine Malcolm but there are other ways to get rid of MT. Personal and superficial traits are no reason to knife a country’s leader.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      What was graceless was his going on about being undermined and knifed — and then saying that he would not destabilise.

      • aert driessen says:

        Thanks Don, As I see it Tony was just describing what really happened; telling us the way it was. I think that he was expressing his view that the means of his removal was not honourable, and I agree with him. I don’t see that part of his address as graceless, nor any other part of it. As for saying that he would not destabilise the new leader, that remains to be tested but, being the man he is, I expect him to be true to his word.

        • David says:

          The Australian public did not need a cabinet leak to realize that TA was incompetent. That is not just my opinion, but the opinion of 54 members of the Liberal party. As a result of the change to MT the Coalition has had an immediate 5 point jump in the polls and will probably get further swing in the coming weeks.

          Within another 7 days it will be Tony Who.

          • Margaret says:

            To use Don’s American football term, I found the former PM offensive. Thankfully the memory is fading now that the game is over.

    • dlb says:

      I agree with the article that Dr Marohasy would seem to be making too much of a conspiracy out of the BOM adjustments. On the other hand climate is such a political area these days, the BOM needs to be absolutely transparent with its methodology, and should welcome criticism from other scientists and the public, tedious as it may be.
      What’s your view Jimbo?

      • JimboR says:

        I think the final sentence in the BOM response sums it up far better than I could:

        “The Bureau welcomes critical analysis of the Australian climate record by others through rigorous scientific peer review processes.”

        And I think this sentence from Don’s posting:

        “The orthodoxy doesn’t like critics, especially from within science, and is not interested in debate.”

        is one of the silliest I’ve read in this blog. The inference that CQU or JCU wouldn’t like to be the university that blows an orthodox scientific theory into the history books is laughable. There are well established processes for scientists to “debate” theories. Those that don’t fare so well there tend to turn to blogs.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Jimbo: Some scientists turn to blogs because they are not allowed to debate. The ‘well established processes’ you talk about don’t work very well for anyone critical. Read Montford or Fuller and Mosher about how the orthodoxy tried to stop critical articles being published, and dealt with editors who didn’t toe the party line.

          Why is it that there hasn’t been one public debate about global warming in ten years? There have been attempts to set them up, but the scientists decline to participate. Why should they? They have the power and the authority.

          My understanding from a number of universities is that deans of science and their equivalents don’t want any opposition to AGW from within the ranks because it might lower the standing of the department in the ARC/NHMRC grate rounds. There is a hell of a lot of money for research in the approved AGW areas, and many lives and careers depend on it. I would bet a few dollars that this issue lies behind the ending of the Carter and Marohasy connections with those universities. The quote from CQU I used is laughable.

          • David says:

            There are well established statistical methods available to test if homogenization has introduced bias into a data set. Basically you create a new variable =1 if data adjusted and 0 if not. Then add this new variable to the model. If it is statistically significant then you can argue adjustment introduced bias. Hey presto you have a publishable piece of research.

            A quick search on Google Scholar suggests Dr. Marohasy has not published on this topic yet. ????

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Perhaps you should read her work instead. Go to her website. As I said, the notion that one must write a paper and submit it to a journal in order to contribute to discussion is not tenable. Not only that, the peer review system is unkind both to critique and to new ideas.

          • JimboR says:

            The alternative seems even less tenable to me. There’s barely enough hours in the day to keep on top of the stuff that has been peer reviewed and published. There’s never enough time to read and critique what’s written on the web every day by nut-jobs. And no, I’m not claiming Dr. Marohasy is a nut-job (I’d never heard of her until this thread) but so long as she “publishes” in the same forum as all the nutters, it’s hard to pick the good from the bad. I rely on the peer-review system to filter that for me, and if that means I miss out on gems from Dr. Marohasy then so be it.

            What you call “unkind” I call rigorous science. In my field (which is happily a million miles from climate science) I can think of countless published articles that are direct attacks on the orthodox view.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            So can I. But climate science is different, because it is political orthodoxy as well as scientific orthodoxy, which doesn’t apply to other fields of science. Not only that, and for that reason, it is munificently funded, and the journals happily accept the outcome.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            By restricting yourself to published “peer-reviewed” papers about climate, you are essentially refraining from examining the sceptic arguments and the supporting data. That is an admission of bias, a bias that undermines any claim that your conclusions.should be taken seriously. No-one with good access to the web, can claim they “don’t have the time”. Even an hour or two of reviewing some sceptic sites, would be enlightening.

          • David says:

            “The entire historical temperature record for Australia is being re-written by your ACORN-SAT team with fictitious justifications.” (Dr JM)

            This is exactly the type of hyperbole that would (should) struggle to make it into a peer review publication.

            Dr Marohasy needs to water down the red cordial if she wants to be taken seriously. Dlb right some of her claims are OTT.

          • JimboR says:

            Thanks David, you vindicated my decision not to click-through. If ever she returns to science, I’ll look forward to reading her findings.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          What’s wrong with rigorous critical analysis by anyone? After all, we all pay for the BoM. What is at stake is not rocket science but data collection and analysis, and you don’t need peer review to undertake it.

        • David says:

          I reckon the BoM are great!

          I recently used data from the BoM for a topic that had nothing to do with climate change.

          I found some interesting results, so went back and asked for more data. The person at the BoM was appreciative that someone found their data was useful.

          I got the impression, from this person, that the BoM was sick of being harassed and liked interacting with someone who appreciated their efforts, for a change.

  • Margaret says:

    Farewell to a pugilistic prime minister/minister for women. His knights and dames fetish, his onion eating, red speedos and Lycra cycling antics and his mad monkish, muscular Christianity were not at all what most of us wanted from thevleader of our country and while that might be playing the man, his policies were also depressingly lacking in vision and empathy.

    • JimboR says:

      What you housewives of Australia need to understand as you do the ironing…..

      He hasn’t been gone a week and yet it already seems like 40 years ago. It’s as if we’ve all snapped back into 2015 without him.

      • Margaret says:

        Malcom’s father Bruce taught him how to do his own ironing …
        Tony Abbott PM from 2013-1999.
        I feel better already.

  • David says:

    Why the Abbott era came to an end?

    Apparently it was all Scott Morrison’s fault for not informing Abbott how badly he was doing.

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