An Abbott in the headlights

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Finally! The "phoney" election campaign has morphed into a real election campaign but there are no signs of Abbott changing his approach. Letitia McQuade takes the scientific route to explain what drives the man who wants to be our prime minister.

(Caricature by John Graham / johngraham.alphalink.com.au)

OK, THE CONTEST is now clear.

The Libs have resisted a switch to Turnbull and it's Game on! We have one party with a well articulated policy agenda and one party with a few loose policies and lot of slogans.

While Rudd and the ALP's aim is to protect and expand upon the policies knitted together by the Rudd/Gillard governments, all Abbott is telling us is that he plans to unravel the jumper — though he still hasn't yet told us what he plans to do with the wool.

What Mr. Abbott fails to realise is that unpicking all the work of the current government is not a plan for the future of our nation, and announcing it as such fools no-one. Saying he will release policies "All in good time" is simply not good enough! The election is but weeks away, and if he has some great plan for us then he ought to cough it up now — or at least let us know why he has a problem with that.

Here's a fun neuroscience fact: when we perceive a threat, our brain bypasses our neocortex (the rational reasoning higher brain) and sets up a direct line to our amygdala (the emotional fight or flight, lower "lizard" brain) which in turn floods our system with cortisol (stress hormone) so we can deal with an immanent danger.

Effectively we stop thinking and go into fight or flight mode.

The question is: why does Abbott refuse to engage with our higher brain? Why does he continue to play to our amygdala, even now we are in election mode?

Watching Tony Abbott perform over the years, it wouldn't be too difficult to conclude he likes our amygdala. He seems extremely comfortable pitching to our "lizard brain". It's visceral, base and relatively easy to manipulate. What's more, it doesn't require him to deliver us any analysis, rationale or, apparently, any policies or costings. All it requires is that he maintains our fear and offers himself as a completely non-articulated solution.

While it is undoubtedly true Abbott has been very successful as an Opposition leader by pitching fear to our collective amygdala, if he wants to rule our world, I think it's time he engage with our collective neocortex and delivered us some actual substance. What are his policies? What exactly is he planning to do?

Could it be he doesn't have any real policies or, worse still, he has policies so unpalatable he doesn't want to tell us what they actually are?

Some have speculated that the reason he won't come clean on policy, and carries on screaming about "the monster at the door", is that he wants us all hiding, trembling silently, unquestioningly, under our beds, while he hands the wealth of our nation over to his uber-rich mates.

But I feel there is more to it than that. I suspect Tony Abbott spends so much time pitching to our amygdala because he understands, with his own experience, what a powerful force it can be.

Time and time again, Tony Abbott has shown us that his own "lizard brain" is just one tricky question away from hijacking his neural bus. Over and over we have seen him either literally paralysed – a proverbial "rAbbott in the headlights" – or alternately fleeing at great speed when faced by a pesky reporter's question.

Unlike Rudd, Gillard or even Turnbull, who seem to be able to keep their neocortices engaged when asked something a little off the script, Abbott – much like George W. Bush – appears to be a pure amygdala man.

You really don't have to apply a great deal of pressure to trip Abbott's amygdala and short circuit his ability to think and articulate clearly. YouTube is positively crawling with clips that show a totally flustered Abbott buckling embarrassingly under the mildest of scrutiny.

The Coalition know this is true and that's why they have put a gag on Abbott going off script and sent Hockey out to do all the interviews.

Having a hair trigger amygdala doesn't mean Abbott isn't very smart – as some claim he is – but what it does mean is that he is very easily rattled.

I want to know why the LNP are offering us a leader who doesn't seem able to take the pressure? How are we supposed to have confidence in Tony Abbott (and his hair trigger amygdala) to negotiate a fair deal for us with big business or other nations when he can't even handle a press conference with a largely pandering media?

It's time for our press to turn the spotlight around and take a long hard critical look at who and what Tony Abbott is. Is he someone with real leadership qualities, or is he just a rAbbott in the headlights?

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