Abbott plays musical chairs

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Former PM Bob Hawke allegedly took PM Abbott to task at the service over the gross insult accorded by seating Julia Gillard next to Kevin Rudd.

Seating bitter political foes Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd next to each other was far too tactless to be accidentally done by a PM’s ceremonial and protocols mandarins, says Michael Galvin.

ON FORMAL OCCASIONS, seating arrangements are important. Anyone who has ever organised a wedding, or been to one, knows that.

Few events are more formal than a state memorial service for a former prime minister. In fact, there is a special section of the PM's Department ‒ the Ceremonial and Protocols section ‒ whose job it is to make sure all the niceties are observed.

At the Sydney Town Hall memorial for Gough Whitlam last week, the responsible officials decided to seat Julia Gillard next to Kevin Rudd. An absurd decision.

You could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of people in Australia who would make such a tactless and inappropriate decision if they were organising the event. It is wrong on so many levels only a fool would do this knowingly.

It is safe to assume public servants in the PM's Department know this, so I think we can rule out the clumsy incompetence explanation some journalists have offered — although in the case of this Abbott Government, incompetence is not as implausible as might be normally assumed.

Why, therefore, did it happen?

I will offer three possible explanations. None of them reflect well on Tony Abbott.

If there is a more charitable explanation, I would like to hear it, because it makes me feel ill to know we have a PM of such a base nature.

The first possibility is that it was meant as a strategic political decision — a way of creating a story that would distract from the main event, to remind people just how bad Labor Governments can be.

Certainly, the objective of getting a major "negative" news story out of the ill-fated Gillard/Rudd rendezvous was achieved. If it was hoped that some of the gloss off Whitlam and his achievements, however, it failed — and the irony is that the speeches last week have probably shifted the historical record permanently in Whitlam's favour.

The second option is more personal and visceral than this. It is that Abbott simply cannot pass up an opportunity to embarrass or humiliate Julia Gillard.

We know Abbott is pugnacious, but is he also the type of manic fighter who keeps on punching, long after his opponent has been knocked out? In short, did Abbott authorise this seating arrangement simply to enjoy seeing people he hates put in an embarrassing public situation? I hope not, but the frat boy prankster never feels far below the surface in the case of this man.

To readers who might find such an insinuation silly or far-fetched, universities are home to many professors who do this sort of thing to one another without a second's thought, especially if they are real or imagined rivals.

The third possibility is that it was question of the culture of government under Abbott. After all, Abbott has made it clear that the public service is not there to do what it wants — it is there to do what his government wants.

About the last thing that would enthuse Abbott would be an event that honoured Gough Whitlam and all that he stood for. We know this from the boorish behaviour he displayed when Margaret Whitlam died. He had to put the boot into Gough, on probably the saddest and most devastating day in Gough's life.

Not only is it likely that Abbott gave very little time or attention to this memorial service. This message probably went out to the mandarins organising it. Low priority; the boss is not keen. Like Murdoch's lapdogs, they don’t need Rupert telling them what to write; they know the line and can parrot it quite well once they work it out for themselves.

In this context, which public servant was going to speak up and make sure this seating fiasco did not happen? Self-evidently, no-one did. Abbott would seem to have got the public servants he wants.

Some may say that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but I believe it is the little things that often point to the bigger picture. Graciousness, or the lack of it, suggests far bigger issues.

Depressingly, what happened to Gillard and Rudd last week is a cameo that shows the true colours of this government — a variable mixture of incompetence, unceasing political warfare, boorishness, and the intimidation of others.

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