Published in The Drum 30 January, On Line Opinion 1 February and The Canberra Times 3 February 2012
The man who would be Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, demands attention; he single-mindedly pursues the media; he is relentless and irrepressible in projecting a profile. He is in our faces. As such he is worthy of close scrutiny, particularly as mistakes have been made in the past in choosing Prime Ministers.
What does Abbott have going for him? Energy, he exudes energy, vigour and enthusiasm, which cut across and dampen his often negative message. His bounce is at odds with his conservatism. He is an enthusiast, a give it a go, blokey boyish sort of bloke. He appears egalitarian, from factory worker, farm hand, fisherman to finance director, he can shake a hand, share a joke, grin from ear to ear and appear to be on the wave length of whoever it is he has homed in on.
He can weld, drive a bulldozer, don a surgical gown and generally give it a go. Amongst other things he is the Walter Mitty of Australian politics. It would be hard to imagine Jo Hockey in Speedos or training a sheep dog but our aspirant Prime Minister is comfortable in any situation in a variety of clothes.
He has the marvellous political attribute of a thick skin. No arrow, spear or silver bullet can bring him down. He is impervious to criticism; he listens to no-one and learns nothing. A successful student boxer, he remains quick on his feet, his reflexes are good and he is ever watchful for the delivery of the king hit.
Surprisingly, for a former Rhodes Scholar, his analysis is weak and as an avowed Roman Catholic Christian, who once tried his hand at orders, his compassion for the downtrodden and needy is wafer thin. However if resilience were the sole criteria for gaining Prime Ministerial office he would be a shoe in.
But it is not. Marketing a coherent policy is, and yet there has been nothing put into the public domain that voters can examine and mull over. This is distinct negative, when there is so much waiting to be done. His mainly lazy parliamentary colleagues are prepared to let Tony take the running in a forthcoming electoral contest they see Julia Gillard handing to them.
They were not aghast when Abbott announced that his new refugee policy was to turn the boats around, even after the Navy pointed out that it was against International and domestic law, would put refugees and sailors at risk of physical harm, perhaps death and would undermine the morale of the Navy who have a duty to rescue those in peril on the sea.
One of the requirements of a Prime Minister is to at least maintain a dialogue if not good relations with near neighbours. Now, even before holding office, Abbott has offended the Indonesians for no good reason other than domestic politics. He says on being elected Prime Minister he will go to Indonesia and tell them what his turn the boats around policy is all about and no doubt he will tell them what they should do on our behalf. The Indonesians are rightly angry, he should go now and explain himself. Do we really want a foot in mouth Prime Minister?
However it is his performance at The Lobby/Tent Embassy incident that marks the man for what he is. Putting to one side Julia Gillard’s lack of leadership and poor show of character, Abbott, who touts his macho he man qualities, squibbed it. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. It would not have required a surfeit of courage walk outside, confront the shouting and yes, angry demonstrators, and get them to express their grievances more calmly. I have done as much myself.
To have both leaders in one spot in a situation when one or both might have demonstrated what they are made of and to have both duck for cover is a testament to the lack of leadership infecting both major parties at the moment. But for the aspirant Prime Minister it was an opportunity lost, compounded by his calls for the AFP to investigate possible breeches of security. He is attempting to misuse the AFP, to once again politicise them. What Abbott is faced with is a political problem and he should handle it as such. He looks weak attempting to hide behind the men in blue.
In my mind, as Prime Minister, Abbott, would be a liability for Australia on the international stage. His talk first think later style of discourse will do harm rather than good. But bad enough as that may be it is his relationship with the bedecked, bejewelled and compassionless Cardinal George Pell, which should be of concern to anyone who believes Australia should remain a secular democracy.
Abbott showed his form as a Minister in the Howard government. As Prime Minister he can be expected to wind- back on socially progressive issues.
Abbott is not the man for Prime Minister, he is not the man to lead this great country.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.