The Prime Minister was more wooden than Pinocchio at his National Press Club address today, says Dr Martin Hirst, but luckily the Canberra Press Gallery were there to bowl him a few full tosses.
THE PRIME MINISTER began his National Press Club address looking wooden and stiff. But that’s not surprising — as a human being, he always comes across on television as wooden and stiff. Perhaps he’s like that in real life too.
I’m not sure about that because we were both 35 years younger when I was doing political battle with him at Sydney University in the late 1970s. Thus, we were both more supple, lithe and in our manly prime. Then Abbott was a “rugger bugger” and a “John’s boy”, which meant that we regarded him as wooden and stiff, and best avoided in the Quad after dark. Today, I’ve got more hair, but also more padding — so let’s not go there, or at least no further.
But, to be fair, Tony Abbott loosened up a little towards the end. Not during the speech, but after when facing questions from the Canberra media pack. I have some experience of this too.
I was a Press Gallery journalist in the early 1990s and witnessed many performances at the National Press Club. Most of them involved wooden and stiff politicians, or visiting dignitaries. Perhaps its the environment inside the Press Club itself, which is wooden and stiff. So too, from memory, is the food; served ‘A-B roll’ style. ‘A’ gets the lamb or chicken, ‘B’ gets the beef and everyone gets the vegetables, which may have begun life wooden and stiff, but which were boiled into submission at the hands of the club chefs.
Maybe the food’s better today, but the set piece performances and badly crafted speeches don’t seem to have improved. So, maybe, the lack of emotion, movement and conviction in the PM’s recycled speech notes was not his fault.
After all, it is fashionable to blame Peta Credlin for everything, but I won’t go there lest I be accused of misogyny by someone at News Limited for
a) blaming Credlin for what is clearly Abbott’s own fault; or
b) not blaming Credlin, thus revealing my sexism by discounting the fact that just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she can’t also be a domineering bitch whose royally f****d up an entire government single-handedly.
Women can do anything a man can do and somethings a woman can do better than any man.
But today was all about Tony. In fact, I didn’t see Peta Credlin in the audience cut-away shots. Lots of mugging ministers with oily smiles tightly painted on their grim visages; a few of Margie looking pretty much as wooden as Tony; and a couple of David Speers sitting next to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.
I’m sure there’s some subtle message in that about the closeness of Sky News presenters to the Abbott cabinet, perhaps it was the luck of the draw, or perhaps it signals that Cormann is Speers’ deepthroat on leadership bickering around the Cabinet table.
Pure speculation I know, but the papers are full of it today, so why shouldn’t I, an inveterate electronic graffitist, have my own little moment of “What if?”
The speech itself was predictable, dull, full of self-congratulation, replete with blaming “Rudd-Gillard-Rudd”, talking up the terror threat, beating the national security drum and repeated protestations that “only this government” can deliver economic miracles.
And, no, it won’t save Abbott’s arse. If anything it is likely to make the backbenchers even more nervous and the ministers more pissed off.
The public it seems, shares this sentiment.
a) delivering the PM a lollygagger to bash out of the park, thus ensuring the front page / bulletin lead, or
b) chucking a hard full toss cherry straight into the Prime Ministerial budgie smugglers, thus ensuring the front page / bulletin lead
So who were the winners and losers?
There were 14 questions spread evenly among the mainstream media outlets; it is worth noting that no electronic graffiti artists were given a shot. Perhaps, at $80 for non-members, the cost of tickets is prohibitive, or maybe we’re not that welcome in the enclave of the political establishment.
The first interrogator was the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann, who, in my view, gets a bad rep as a Liberal stooge. Maybe he is, but his question was pretty good, drawing on Abbott’s Jesuit training to put him on the spot:
"In good conscience are you the best person to lead this government and prosecute its agenda, and have you considered resigning?"
Well, this one turned into a lollygagger and only required a simple “Yes, and no. Yes and no, Chris” from the PM. The longer answer involved the “rejection of KAOS”, at the last election, but I wasn’t even aware that the secretive cold war spy agency was even standing.
More seriously though, Abbott attempted to rewrite history here — remember him calling on Gillard to resign? No, neither does Tony. He said that only the electors could toss out a government and sitting Prime Minister.
The second question could also have been a beauty. Steven Scott of the Brisbane Courier-Mail:
You didn’t mention the Queensland election in your speech, and I’m just wondering, why do you think the Queensland electorate turned against the LNP so dramatically and how will you convince your colleagues they don’t face the same threat under you? [S Scott, Courier-Mail]
Abbott’s response dodged most of the question and focused on the PM’s “deeply” felt sorrow for Campbell Newman and his colleagues. The central message was that the selling of the “difficult reform” in Queensland was not done well. On the implications for himself, all Abbott could offer was that the coalition needed to make a “bigger effort” to convince the Senate cross-benches to support it.
There will be more consultation with the back bench too, said Abbott, clearly pitching to the party room not to ditch him.
My take out is look out for more bribes to the PUP senators and the other independents.
He scored a two off this medium pace delivery.
At this point the PM got all Eat, Pray, Love with a ramble about how all of us are on the journey together.
Seriously, taking new age mantras from a loopy self-help book? Is that all you’ve got. Certainly for the electronic graffitists working from home, it was a special highlight.
“It’s the only journey worth coming on,” the PM solemnly intoned, waving his arms in the air (seriously).
Laura Tingle (Australian Financial Review) brought us all down to earth with her question about the economy and unemployment. Bummer, Laura!
"You focused on a stronger economy in your speech and on the need for jobs, but just noting that there are an extra 63,400 people who became unemployed since you were elected, can you spell out for us how you’re going to address that. And I reference your G20 economic plan which was built heavily on investment in infrastructure, which you also mentioned in your speech. How is that affected by the changing balance of asset programs in the states and will that have a material impact on the economic forecasts?"
Phew, we finally got there.
Abbott repeated his infrastructure and growth comments and his legacy as an “infrastructure Prime Minister”. He then lambasted the Victorian Labor Government to great applause and laughter from his nervous supporters in the audience.
That was a lollygagger in the end and Abbott thumped it for six and more.
Could Malcolm Farr – perhaps once (if not still) the most interesting and leftwing journalist in the NewsCorpse stable – do better?
"Staying with jobs, a number of workplace matters will be reported on by the Productivity Commission later in the year, but if I could go to your current thinking: are you aware of or have you read any credible study or research that says that lowering or removing the minimum wage creates more jobs?"
I like this question because it is something that the NewCorpse tabloid readers in working class suburbs would want to know about it.
Abbott’s answer was noncommital and the PM padded up to deflect it into the covers — but it could be a sleeper question that comes back to bite him.
Abbott said he would respect the umpire’s decision, but clearly that only applies if the decision is “Not out.”
Malcolm’s deceptive spin was followed up by SBS TV’s Catherine McGrath:
"In terms of economic debate, do you think that as Prime Minister you need to bring the political debate forward in Australia, and do you concede in any way that the skills that brought you to government– successfully tearing down Labor–are not necessarily the skills you need now and there might be some rebooting needed."
Abbott let this one go through to the keeper by suggesting that he would not “speculate upon myself”. But clearly that is what this whole Press Club thing is all about.
So good delivery Catherine, even though it didn’t take a wicket.
Next up, Andrew Probyn from The West Australian was given the ball. He has the look of a fiery quick and the run up was pretty good.
"Prime Minister, dare I say it, but you have appeared to contradict your mentor John Howard today, when you said that voters had the right to hire and fire prime ministers. Mr Howard used to say that leadership was the gift of the party room. Do you still have the confidence of the party room?
"And secondly a “Yes or no” question: If you were offered a Knighthood would you take it?"
Shit, these double-barrel questions, too easy to dodge, so not a great delivery in the end.
Abbott’s pause and this, his second, “Well, yes and no,” answer got a laugh.
Then it got weird. Abbott ignored the “party room” aspect of the question (no surprise) and told a long and possibly apocryphal story about visiting a pub in Colac to pour beers for friendly and appreciative locals.
The in-house cheer squad lapped it up, but the response from the armchair critics was less warm.