Tony Abbott has been awesome.
His aggression, his message discipline, his populism has been a case study for all those seeking to serve in the toughest job in modern politics.
Heâ€™s made a middling government look woeful, most of the time.
And yet, cracks are starting to appear.
Talk of disunity in the Liberals, evidence of silly own-goals and nonsensical spats have been the first sign of complacency in an otherwise hyper-charged, optimistic and excited Coalition.
For the simple truth, as VEXNEWS has previously reported, is that the Liberal party room, while awed by Abbottâ€™s aggressive antics at the government, is not really a natural constituency for his views or, indeed, even a man like him.
Not to put too fine a point on it, heâ€™s a Grouper.
He has the uniquely old-fashioned, lovably eccentric and sometimes very, very popular set of views that would once have been attributed to those of the National Civic Council. Socially conservative statists. Even on some things, quite left-wing. And certainly not in the slightest bit anti-union.
Itâ€™s a weird mix, more evident and obvious to VEXNEWS perhaps because ever since we first encountered them in the slime-pit of student politics, weâ€™ve enjoyed the company of NCC types. They are mostly good people. And mostly pretty well-connected with what actually plays well in the burbs. Their most successful alumnus in modern times is obviously Abbott but there are quite a few around in senior levels of politics. To use the language of those who like to win elections, while a bit eccentric on some things, â€œthey get itâ€ (they know how to win).
And just as peering down the long, barren corridors of Melbourne Uniâ€™s den of dogs in student politics taught us to be able to â€œspot a Trotâ€ from miles away, we can also spot those with BA Santamaria in their heart. The latter causes much less concern than the ice-pick victim, of course.
And Abbott is definitely the real deal. He doesnâ€™t really even deny it.
His views are old school. Sometimes even bizarrely so. This was one of his offerings before he was Leader that if taken at his word would suggest that women ought not have an absolute right not to consent to sex in marriage (as the law once provided):
Even this moderate house of wisdom blanches at his rather ugly expressions about women giving consent to sex in marriage.and this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think they are both they both need to be moderated, so to speak.
Thatâ€™s pretty outrageous by modern standards. No consent means rape, marriage or not, and it should sicken all those pondering it, in our view. And we donâ€™t raise that to disparage him, and weâ€™re not sure thatâ€™s still his view or was even a correctly expressed properly considered exposition of his views on rape, but to make the point that many in his own party room, on which his own leadership depends, regard him as something of a rock-ape on these kinds of social issues and more ominously perhaps on economic matters.
MORE BLACK JACK THAN MILTON
Heâ€™s no economic reformer. Costelloâ€™s various writings on the subject are scathing.
Abbott has no interest in economics. Heâ€™s a values politician, who wants Australian national decision-making to stay connected with middle Australia not a hard-charging zealot for change. Disrupting families for the sake of the current account is anathema.
And again thatâ€™s just not where the Liberal party room, for the most part, is at. They are free traders. Limited government is what floats their boat, even if itâ€™s not always what they do when in office. Even among the so-called Liberal Right, who strongly supported him, they think that on economic matters, Abbott cannot really be trusted. His instincts are all wrong, his interest in reform and taking heat for it hovers around nil.
Just this past weekend, the Liberal Right titan who nearly single-handedly made him Leader, Senator Nick Minchin warned Abbott of the perils of populism. We think it only ran in the Adelaide papers but the retiring Senator went to the trouble of opining on this subject in a farewell newsletter to party members:
â€œSuccess really lies in getting the balance right between principle and pragmatism, between the pursuit of good policy and the need to retain popular support.â€
With WorkChoices, he said, the party had erred “too far in the direction of principle”.
“There is no doubt, an inadequate filter was applied to that policy prior to its introduction,” he said. “(But) that experience must not be allowed to be the catalyst for a reversion to populism now that we are in opposition.
“The federal Coalition has a responsibility not to pursue populism at the expense of the nation’s long-term interests.”
Senator Minchin winds up pledging support for Mr Abbott but also saying: “Victory in 2013 will come from sound policies based on strong principles, and not from cheap populism”.
Few in Canberra misunderstood who this anti-populist message was aimed at. It was Nick Minchinâ€™s tough-love message to his own creation, Leader Tony Abbott.
Others wonder how â€“ without the astute counsel and numbers-manipulations of his mentor Nick Minchin – Tony Abbott will be able to fend off what is almost certainly a non-Right majority in the party room should his personal numbers go from being not great as they currently are to being seen as a clear drag on the ticket. By early 2013, Abbott will be the longest-serving Opposition Leader since Beazley, we cannot imagine his personal numbers will have improved; itâ€™s almost certain theyâ€™ll be lower, probably much lower. Â Abbott’s relentless negativity might help the party’s numbers but it’s slowly killing his. Like Crean when he was deputy Opposition Leader and then Leader and Brumby in his first run as state leader, the more effective you are at punching the government, the more people are left with the idea that you might not be such a nice bloke. Â That’s why Abbott’s numbers are bad and will get worse as 2013 nears. By then heâ€™ll be vulnerable as hell to a challenge, in a party room that will probably sniff electoral victory and that has a natural predisposition not to like Abbott personally and not be very suspicious of his views.
The Press Gallery of course hate Abbott, hate his old world views and will cheer on anyone who has a crack.
A clear successor is not obvious. Weâ€™ve talked up Julie Bishop although few outside WA seem to think sheâ€™s a possibility (mind you she presents well and the WA bloc is big chunk of the party room). Joe Hockey seems to get fatter and yet smaller each passing day. Scott Morrison is whispered about occasionally especially by NSW colleagues. And then thereâ€™s Malcolm. The Turnbull option is still unpalatable for most â€“ even one-time backers – after his appalling egomania and misconduct and misjudgment as Leader.
When it is said that being the federal Opposition Leader is the toughest job in politics, this is why. No-one else will call it at this stage but we think thereâ€™s not much doubt: as strong a political advocate as heâ€™s been, itâ€™s a question of when not if heâ€™s replaced by a party room that never really wanted him in the first place.