Not even cabinet knows the 'real' Abbott

The Prime Minister’s humiliating rebuke of two senior ministers suggests a worrying lack of understanding about what he really stands for, if anything.

These past few weeks have been seriously weird. This is basically because Tony Abbott has been unable to offer up any coherent statement of what the main challenges facing his government -- and the country -- might be.

As a result, when he was out of the country, it felt in some ways that he has lost control of his cabinet, not because there are cabinet ministers who are disloyal to Abbott but because of Abbott’s inability to be clear not just about policy but about the tone and language in which senior ministers talk about the government and its aspirations.

In the space of a couple of weeks, Abbott has had to publicly rebuke two senior ministers. First there was Eric Abetz for his suggestion that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. This was a seriously outrageous statement that contradicted all the recognised medical research and would have had a grave affect on some women whose life experience it seems Abetz cannot even begin to understand.

Then there was the hapless Joe Hockey’s economically illiterate suggestion that fuel excise, which ironically the government has good sound economic and environmental grounds to increase, is somehow a progressive tax because rich people pay more in absolute terms than poorer people.

Let’s put aside the question of the way in which Abetz and Hockey responded to the almost universal condemnation of their interventions, Abetz on the vexed and sensitive issue of abortion and Hockey on his suggestion that the rich are paying too much for the handouts -- the entitlements -- that go to the poor.

Neither of them, not Abetz in his pathetic attempt to say that he was quoted out of context, nor Hockey, in his abject apology for being misunderstood, actually resiled from what they had said.

What’s more interesting is that both of them must have felt that what they had to say -- Abetz, the anti-abortion advocate and Hockey, the chief engineer of the government’s economic policies on the great tax burden on the rich, would have met with approval by the Prime Minister. That they were somehow articulating views and positions that Tony Abbott would support.

Surely had they known that Abbott would so publicly and humiliatingly rebuke them, they would not have said these things? Surely that’s the case. If it isn’t, then Tony Abbott has a real problem with his senior ministers, including his treasurer.

It is the fact that they probably thought, if they thought about it at all, that Tony Abbott would support what they were saying that should concern Abbott’s supporters. Senior ministers don’t seem to know what their leader believes or where he wants to take the country.

What this points to is the major problem with Tony Abbott’s first year in office. On the available evidence, he has not yet been able to make the transition from an opposition leader renowned for his ability to be relentless in his attack on a shambolic government and its policies, to a prime minister who can articulate the direction in which he wants to take the country.

Not only that. It suggests that even his senior ministers do not know what he believes and therefore what may cause him to rebuke them in the way he rebuked Abetz and Hockey. Abbott seems to be a prime minister always in search of his prime ministerial self.

Some commentators seemed to believe he had found the 'real' Tony Abbott PM after the shooting down of MH17 over Eastern Ukraine that resulted in the deaths of almost 300 people, 37 of whom were either Australian citizens or Australian residents.

And it is true that Tony Abbott probably had the best week of his prime ministership after that awful incident.

For the first time since he was elected prime minister, Abbott sounded like what he was saying, how he acted, the tone of his language, came from conviction and a clarity about what he felt and believed that had about it a real authenticity -- a political authenticity that is, something that every politician aspires to but few actually achieve.

But on the evidence of the past week or so, it seems that this ‘real’ Tony Abbott that his friends in the media were so hopeful had finally emerged and would transform the political landscape, was no more than a transitory moment.

The 'real' Tony Abbott of their dreams is not apparent. Confronted with the challenge of selling a budget, Tony Abbott has floundered. He has sent mixed messages, one minute saying that he is open to making changes to appease the cross-bench senators and the next saying that the budget has to be passed because otherwise, Australia will be in diabolical economic trouble.

He has allowed friendly commentators to signal a move by Abbott towards something they describe as pragmatism and at other times, a move towards the political centre, though it is wholly unclear just what that means in policy terms.

And Abbott has been muddled at times and at other times tin-eared when it has come to selling the government’s proposed anti-terrorism laws. It is deeply troubling that young Australian men have gone off to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, some of whom have been involved in acts of the horrific kind. Were they able to return to Australia, some of them would undoubtedly represent a terrorist threat.

So Abbott is right when he expresses concern about this. He might even be right to take the advice of the security agencies that the anti-terrorism laws need to be beefed up to handle the threat posed by these young men if they return to Australia.

But when he conflated his government’s abandonment of changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act with the need for tougher anti-terrorism laws, he was muddled at best. The two things were not related, should not have been conflated and by doing so, Abbott seemed to be playing cynical politics.

It went downhill from there when he talked about ‘Team Australia’ as if there were communities who were not part of the team. This was clearly not the best way to convince communities that are grappling with the fact that some of their young people have become ruthless jihadists to support changes to the anti-terrorism laws.

And what exactly did Abbott mean when he said on talk-back radio that "you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team"? The fact is that the majority of the young men who have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, perhaps even all of them, were born in Australia or were children when they came here. They did not migrate. They are not migrants.

Was he perhaps talking about their parents? Was he telling them that they should not have migrated to Australia because they should have known that their children, in all likelihood to their great sorrow, would end up jihadists killing and being killed in Iraq and Syria? No wonder some Islamic leaders, in response, decided not to meet with Abbott.

We do desperately need to examine the whole question of what makes young men and some women leave Australia, where they were born and raised, go off and join a terrorist army and become involved in the slaughter of soldiers and the attempted genocide of whole communities.

Abbott has not really addressed this question -- not with any clarity, anyway. He knows what he is against, but he finds it very difficult to say what he is for, except in slogans like we all have to be part of Team Australia.

And so with the anniversary of his first year as Prime Minister fast approaching, Tony Abbott is still struggling to move beyond being the best opposition leader in recent memory.

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