Tony Abbott is trying to be Australia’s Ronald Reagan, says Andrew Elder — and for the moment the strategy’s working.
TONY ABBOTT'S relaxed demeanour on 60 Minutes is not the combative Abbott we have become accustomed to in recent years. It succeeded in making people view Abbott differently. He is seeking to create the impression that Abbott and his supporters hope to negate — that a lot of the obstacles lie between him and the prime ministership.
The sunny optimism and pleasantness that Abbott showed in his 60 Minutes appearance reminded me of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s demeanour made him more appealing than his policies of cutting social welfare and decreasing taxes for the wealthy might otherwise have seemed. And he diminished criticism by not letting it get to him.
People didn’t mind not being wealthy, nor working hard — but they resented having to worry about the staples of life. Reagan held out the promise, however vague, of a society where people didn’t have to worry all the time. This was one lesson Reagan learnt from Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his “only thing ... to fear is fear itself” shitick and his indomitable confidence in the face of Depression and World War. Abbott seeks to extend the same promise to peace-torn Australians.
A generation of U.S. Democrats became infuriated at Ronald Reagan, because his bland generalities hid or belied a myriad of social problems. For uncommitted voters, witnessing both sides of the political debates, it made no sense to be angry at such a genial, apparently well-meaning, man. The more committed Democrats became in attacking Reagan, the worse they looked; they were as politically repellent then as the Tea Party is today.
Abbott’s adoption of bland amiability solves three of his biggest problems:
- It addresses the idea that he’s unlikeable (misogyny is one aspect of that).
- It deals with questions arising from Abbott being a much more committed Catholic than most in that denomination — and if it gives him some inner confidence, it can’t be all bad. People send their kids to church-run schools to instil that, whether or not they share the denomination or faith of the school.
- It excuses him from policy detail.
Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne is the Opposition’s chief strategist in Parliament. He is responsible for constant interruptions to Government policy explanations in Question Time, and for the monkey-house atmosphere that gives Coalition members an impression of confidence — as well as reinforcing it. Pyne confronts the Government more directly than Abbott has for some time now.
It is fair to say that in debates over education, arising not only from Gonski, but ongoing challenges in that area ‒ teacher tenure, the appropriate use of ICT (where teachers are less skilled than those they would teach), Asian languages, the balance between drill versus creativity, and other debates – Pyne and the Coalition have been absent. He has almost certainly spent more time with James Ashby than in considering, say, what and how to teach pre-school children. His generalities about teacher quality and testing reveal his lack of preparation even for debates, let alone for assuming portfolio responsibilities.
Last week, he resolved this in a stroke: the old ways are best. Chalk-and-talk, the-sage-on-the-stage, a paradigm familiar and reassuring to older voters. If you believe that old-fashioned teaching methods ‘worked’ (in an age where standards and expectations of teaching were lower) and that teaching that has to grapple with a myriad of challenges ‘does not work’ (while also being subject to greater scrutiny), then old-school teaching methods have not failed. They just haven’t been tried. They deserve another go.
“They deserve another go” is very much the theme of the Abbott Coalition. Shadow ministers consistent with that theme are reinforcing the overall message. People who would drag the Coalition into the thickets of policy debate are wasting their time.
Consider Joe Hockey’s regular missteps over revenue, spending and fiscal responsibility, generally. There are two ways the Coalition can support Hockey:
- Getting into detailed discussions over forward projections and statistical inferences that most people can’t understand and don’t trust; or
- Reassurances that good old Joe is doing his best, his heart’s in the right place, and all those clever people at Treasury will work out the details at the appropriate time — and hey, why sweat the small stuff?
Which will be most effective in advancing the Coalition cause? Which do you think the Coalition will adopt?
Australia has the best economy in the developed world. This did not happen by accident. The policies of the Rudd and Gillard governments are as responsible for that as any developed country’s government is for its economic predicament. It’s galling to be told that relative economic prosperity and sound management thereof is somehow beside the point.
But Australians will sacrifice a coldly competent government that fails to allay worry:
- Whitlam’s economic performance wasn’t that bad, but his government was a worry and was defeated emphatically at the polls.
- In the early 1980s, Fraser could not allay people’s worries about the recession of that time; he lacked the sunny optimism of Reagan and so did his opponent Bill Hayden, but Bob Hawke had it in spades.
- Howard’s earnestness got nowhere against Hawke in 1987. By the mid ’90s, Keating’s reformism became the work of a man who was never satisfied, a man who didn’t like Australia or Australians particularly much. Howard flicked the switch to vaudeville with his simple, bland, faith in Australia and developing simple, bland policies to match.
- In 2007, Rudd used policy wonk-talk against a government that had, policy-wise, taken its eye off the ball. He leavened this with homely golly-gosh Queenslandisms, giving a sunny veneer to a man who turned out to be a dithering control-freak.
Tony Abbott is unlikely to catch Julia Gillard off-guard. Like all good advocates, she is well-prepared, thinks on her feet, and can be feisty. She’s articulate. Abbott’s stumblebum delivery calls to mind a succession of Queensland politicians, from Kevin Rudd to Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who used their inarticulateness as a sign of authenticity and an apparent rejection of fancy word-games.
Abbott can, and probably will, seek to derail a meticulous policy position that is advanced passionately and persuasively by simply rolling his eyes and exclaiming “Oh, Julia! There you go again!” Gillard isn’t short of sunny optimism herself, but it can desert her sometimes.
Abbott needs some policy detail, but not too much (and less than you might hope) in order to promote confidence about his sunny optimism. When you talk to Coalition supporters and/or to people who just like Tony Abbott, they project a lot onto him that his ministerial record and even his record of statements as Opposition Leader can’t sustain.
That Abbott would run an economically prudent government, preparing the country for a prosperous hi-tech future engaged with economies, cultures, and societies in Asia, has no solid basis ‒ so it’s hard to attack ‒ and mockery only reinforces the belief. The busy reformism of the Gillard Government is just so much tinkling bells and clattering cymbals, because it does not offer the reassurance that Abbott is, for all his other shortcomings, beginning to offer.
Prosperity does not mean GDP growth of X% or unemployment of Y% or interest rates at Z%. It doesn’t necessarily mean crass materialism. It means that most people live comfortably and are relaxed about the future (“comfortable and relaxed” — where have I heard that before?). Abbott is seeking to engender that impression; whether or not he succeeds will determine whether or not he becomes Prime Minister. Polls are a lagging indicator, not a leading one.
This ad was screened in a time of far-reaching economic reform and political crises on numerous fronts. Look past the sheer cheesiness of it, if you can, and the 1980s fashions and technologies, and see how its appeal can cross time and
The election will be won by the party that most convincingly creates the impression that they can make Australia feel like that ‒ and know that Abbott is ahead of Gillard, for the moment at least ‒ in tapping into the sentiment.
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