Searching for the ‘real’ Tony Abbott

The MH17 tragedy has led some commentators to focus on the Prime Minister’s ‘true’ character – forgetting that we’ve played this fruitless game before.

It is perhaps not the time to praise Tony Abbott for the way that he has handled the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. It may not be the time either to praise Julie Bishop for the calm and measured way she negotiated the passage of the resolution through the UN Security Council for a proper international investigation of the missile attack that brought down the airliner in an act of terror that resulted in the murder of almost 300 people.

It is not that Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have not done their duty well. They have been able to speak eloquently about the horror and the dread and the great sorrow many Australians have experienced in the past few days.

And they have been firm and clear in demanding respect for the dead and a proper international inquiry that will get to the bottom of what happened to flight MH17 and who was responsible for this terrible crime.

It could even be argued that without Tony Abbott’s resolve and moral clarity, the UN Security Council may not yet have acted as decisively as it has.

It may be unseemly to point out that the Coalition was opposed to the efforts of Kevin Rudd and his government to win a place for Australia on the Security Council because, they argued, a place on the Security Council would not give Australia any greater influence in international affairs. The whole exercise, it was argued, was a distraction and a waste of time

The fact is though, that had Australia not had a seat on the Security Council, Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop could not have played the decisive role they have played in this terrible tragedy and its aftermath.

It is with some reluctance that I point this out. But the question no doubt in the minds of most political journalists and commentators, not to mention politicians of all parties, is this: when is the right time to make calculations about the impact in terms of domestic politics of Tony Abbott’s performance, given that the sorrow and anger of so many lives lost is still so fresh and raw?

Some in the media have already started to make these calculations, at least in terms of what lessons Tony Abbott should learn from the way he has handled this difficult time.

Some of his supporters in the media have argued that what Tony Abbott should learn from the last few difficult days is that he has been too controlled, too wary of being himself, too wooden, too contrived, during this first period of his prime ministership.

“Fearing the stereotypical criticism of being aggressive and out of control, Abbott started as prime minister too cautiously and appeared anodyne and weak,” wrote one Denis Shanahan in The Australian on Tuesday.

“While the MH17 incident has been an unwelcome test, it has displayed the best aspects of Abbott’s strength of character as a leader, a human and a parent.”

In other words, Tony Abbott has not been the ‘real’ Tony Abbott until the last few days, though according to Shanahan, the real Tony Abbott was starting to emerge last week when, for instance, Abbott spent extra hours on a plane with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instead of ‘grandstanding’ in Canberra during the carbon tax debate in the Senate.

Now, we have heard this before, have we not, about another prime minister? Who can forget the seemingly endless talk, about who was the ‘real’ Julia Gillard and why it was that the real Julia Gillard -- who was supposedly passionate, warm, funny and feisty -- couldn’t free herself from her self-imposed wooden and boring prime ministerial persona?

There were times when Gillard managed to show that there was more to her than the mask she had fashioned for herself when she became prime minister -- when she was passionate and brave and even funny -- but these were no more than relatively fleeting moments. She never did manage to become `real’, whatever that may mean.

Perhaps Tony Abbott will be more successful that Gillard in abandoning what his supporters reckon is a contrived and counter-productive attempt to present himself as someone whom he is not.

Perhaps this terrible week, when Abbott articulated with clarity and controlled passion the feelings and demands of most Australians in the face of the horror of what happened over the skies of Eastern Ukraine, will mark some sort of turning point, when the ‘real’ Tony Abbott finally emerged.

This might, however, be wishful thinking. The construction of the public personality and character of Tony Abbott, the one that his supporters reckon is not him at all, began from the moment he became opposition leader and was honed and refined by him with great discipline and self-control over the long years he spent as leader of the Liberal Party.

Abbott was determined to leave his past behind. He was convinced that he had to change if he wanted to become prime minister. Everything changed, including his language, which became in some ways no more than a series of endlessly repeated but powerfully effective slogans.

Tony Abbott led the Coalition to a comfortable and impressive victory last September and so his hard work in remaking himself had proved to be successful. The ‘old’ Abbott -- the one that even many of his colleagues believed could never be prime minister -- had been refashioned.

Now some of his supporters are arguing that he has to remake again; or rather, go back somehow to the politician he was in the past. Really? Repudiate all the blood sweat and tears that went into successfully transforming himself?

The Prime Minister has performed the task of leading the country at this difficult time with skill and good judgment. No doubt there will be calculations made about what that might mean for him and the government in terms of his and the government’s standing in the polls. Indeed these political calculations have already started.

It is too early to begin to know whether these past few days will one day be seen, as some commentators and supporters of Tony Abbott hope, as the time when the ‘real’ Tony Abbott emerged. Chances are, however, that the search for the ‘real’ Tony Abbott will be as unproductive as was the search for the ‘real’ Julia Gillard.

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