Come September 8, the six years of what Tony Abbott has described as the worst government in Australian history will be over. For many Labor supporters, the end will come as some relief.
It’s not true of course that the Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard will be considered the worst ever when the historians get to putting these governments in an historical context, but it is true that these have been terrible years for the Labor Party.
In six years, the Labor Party, through its elected representatives in caucus, managed to destroy two prime ministers and wreck the governments they led. They then re-instated one of the prime ministers they had destroyed despite the fact that many of them considered Kevin Rudd to be the wrecker-in-chief of the Gillard government.
And they did this not because of any great dispute over the challenges confronting social democrats everywhere, but because they were slaves to opinion polls, thrashing about in a kind of self-induced hysteria, seemingly free of any core values or vision.
There are many who argue that Tony Abbott is the most successful opposition leader in recent decades. He is certainly one of the longest serving opposition leaders and when he leads the Coalition to victory on September 7, he will have achieved a relatively rare thing in Australia, a change of government.
But more than anything, Tony Abbott has been the luckiest opposition leader in recent memory. Given his luck, he really ought to have won the 2010 election, when Rudd supporters leaked damaging accusations against Julia Gillard which led to an overnight drop in the opinion polls for Gillard of around 7 per cent.
Abbott was unable to build on this lucky break and on all the other woes that befell Gillard during the campaign and he couldn’t build on it because Abbott had problems of his own. He could take some small credit for the destruction of Rudd’s government, but his own standing in the polls was poor.
It remains not too flash, though as it becomes clearer that Labor is finished, that Rudd is only a shadow of Kevin07, and that Labor deserves a long spell in the political wilderness, Abbott’s poll numbers have improved. Everything is relative.
Luck has been Abbott’s greatest asset. He had the luck of confronting a government tearing itself apart over nothing much at all. And the luck of having Kevin Rudd as his opponent, who for most of the past three years has acted more like his ally in Abbott’s determination to delegitimise Gillard.
After September 7, Abbott will be prime minister and almost certainly, as far as Labor is concerned, his luck will hold.
Every government that loses office goes through a period of turmoil. The loss has to be mourned, blame has to be apportioned. There is almost inevitable instability during which opposition leaders come and go with some frequency.
What sort of opposition is Prime Minister Abbott likely to confront? Will it be a ‘normal’ newly minted opposition, with the usual period of bewilderment and instability after a loss?
Chances are that Labor will be in more than the usual post-defeat turmoil. It will have seen the departure of some its most talented politicians, including Julia Gillard – who if things had gone as they should have, would only now be thinking of leading the party.
It’s likely that Labor will have years of accounting for what it did to itself during the past six years. Some of its brightest and most promising politicians, like Bill Shorten, have been seriously wounded by their role in the destruction of the governments of Rudd and Gillard.
So consumed is Labor likely to be with grief and recriminations that it is unlikely to have the space or the leadership to examine its future in any sustained and structured way.
The Labor Party, like all social democratic parties, is confronted with a crisis of identity – what does it mean to be a social democrat at a time when the era of rapid economic growth in the developed economies is coming to an end?
The Labor Party has not even begun to address this fundamental question. The end of the era of rapid growth will put at risk – has already put at risk in Europe – the whole welfare state structure that has been the major achievement of parties of the left in the post-war period.
Prime Minister Abbott, in all likelihood for his first term at least, will be lucky enough to have a Labor opposition as politically dysfunctional and as riven by personality conflicts, as the Labor government that he confronted when he was opposition leader.
Tony Abbott is about to become prime minister. During the 1996 election campaign, Paul Keating ‘warned’ Australians that if you change the government, you change the country. This was meant to scare voters away from John Howard, who, Keating warned, would take Australia back to the 1950s.
This was not true. What was true was that the country did change under the Howard prime ministership. For all his commitment to neoliberal economics, Howard was a ‘values’ politician who was at his best fighting the culture wars – on Australian history, on national identity, on indigenous reconciliation. Howard’s economic reforms have to be seen in the context of his social and cultural values, his sense of what it meant to be an Australian and what he believed was Australia’s place in the world.
For all the scare talk about Abbott – that he is the most conservative Liberal Party leader ever, that he is a deeply committed social conservative, that he is still secretly an acolyte of B.A. Santamaria, Abbott is no John Howard.
There is no evidence that he is an enthusiastic cultural wars warrior. He has said little during his time as opposition leader that would suggest that he agrees with some of the right that the so-called inner-city elites with their out of touch political correctness need to be smashed. His views on indigenous reconciliation are decidedly not Howard’s views.
And whatever can be said about his paid parental leave scheme – and there are clearly issues about its fairness and affordability – it’s a scheme that would make Santamaria turn in his grave in horror because of what it says about the role of women in the family and in society.
Abbott is not the Abbott he used to be. There’s even a real possibility that over time, Abbott, influenced by his family and by changing community attitudes, will soften his opposition to same sex marriage.
But if he isn’t the Abbott he used to be, it’s not easy to see the Tony Abbott he has become. He surely isn’t the Abbott we have come to know in recent times – the man of slogans and sound bites and stunts and iron discipline that sometimes seems to be directed at making himself as unauthentic as possible.
Abbott has been the luckiest of opposition leaders. The real test of Abbott will be when his luck runs out – as surely as it must at some stage. Prime Minister Abbott won’t always have Labor to kick around.