Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Tony Abbott's 'reset' can never work because he can't 'reset' himself | Jason Wilson

Tony Abbott's 'reset' can never work because he can't 'reset' himself | Jason Wilson

Tony Abbott's 'reset' can never work because he can't 'reset' himself

It’s a popular trick for politicians to “reset” after a policy
disaster, but what happens when the problem isn’t the policy, but the
politician himself?

tony abbott

‘In attempting to rebrand himself in the face of political difficulty, Abbott is following a well-worn path.’ Photograph: AAP

Tony Abbott’s attempt to “reset”
his terrible political situation has had a forlorn quality. His
government has been trailing in the polls almost since its election, and
his own personal standing has been consistently worse than his party’s.

His first budget has been stoking public anger for seven long months.
His own ministers appear to be briefing against him, and MPs are
grumbling about the control-freakery of his office. In the face of all
this, the best his brains trust could do was pushing him out in front of
the media to promise that he really could change, if only we would give
him another chance. This followed a speech to his party room where he
promised to scrape some barnacles from the government’s hull (an
operation which may soon require a bathysphere).

attempting to rebrand himself in the face of political difficulty,
Abbott is following a well-worn path, which is not trod exclusively by
conservatives. Last month, British Labour leader Ed Miliband, himself
limping in the polls and suffering leadership speculation, offered a “fightback” speech
which was meant to show his nervous colleagues that he had plotted a
path to victory. The Tories helpfully pointed out that this was
Miliband’s 10th attempt to resurrect his fortunes on the stump, each
time with diminishing returns. Like Abbott, he has failed to persuade
anyone that a change in communication strategy equates to a more
fundamental reorientation. Perhaps his failures are more forgivable: his
policies, at least, are popular, and opposition is not a place from
which it is easy to control the political milieu.

Barack Obama’s recent reset may have a better chance of at least
offsetting the problem of his own personal unpopularity. After making
the generic speech where he claimed to have listened to the electorate
(including those who had failed to vote), Obama actually did something
that may energise his base and reassemble parts of his coalition in a
way that benefits future Democratic candidates. By using his executive
powers to allow millions of undocumented migrants to stay in the
country, Obama has banked some support for the future and persuaded core
Democratic voters that some values and courage lurk under his caution
and pragmatism. Unlike Abbott, though, Obama has the freedom that comes
from not having to worry about being either replaced or re-elected.

Abbott’s reset has not changed anything – perhaps it can’t. Part of
the problem is the dilemma that while his government’s austerity
surprise package has alienated the population at large, his base in the
hard right remains unsatisfied. The kind of Abbott supporters present in
the @boltcomments
Twitter feed are motivated by a desire for social and economic revenge
against feminists, migrants, ABC journalists, and anyone else they
associate with an intolerable pluralism.

if Abbott could turn back time, the unchallenged white patriarchy these
people want restored is a figment of their nostalgic imaginations. This
makes their thirst for vengeance impossible to slake: Abbott can
restrict ABC funding, but not privatise it or shut it down; he can
imprison refugees, but not expel every Muslim from the country; he can
largely exclude women from his cabinet, but he can’t erase the impact of
feminism on Australian life.

Another perennial source of support for the Liberals are wealthy
people who don’t want to pay much tax. A combination of political
ineptitude (he can’t pass the savings measures he has proposed) and his
own instinct towards a paternalistic state mean that he hasn’t been able
to satisfy them either.

Another thing that Abbott can’t change is himself. His attempts to
craft a more sober and considered persona have largely failed, and may
even be feeding into the psychological strain that led him twice to call
David Koch “Chris” in an abysmal morning television interview. The
reason that people like Kochie and Karl Stefanovic feel okay about using
Abbott for sport is that his perennial unpopularity is worsening. Those
disappointed with Obama and even Miliband can at least look back to a
time when they were capable of inspiration. Abbott’s talent — from his
pursuit of Pauline Hanson to the toppling of Julia Gillard — has always
been entirely destructive. No one — least of all women voters — has
failed to notice that he employs these talents most ruthlessly and
enthusiastically against women in public life.

But another problem with “resetting” is that the current crop of
Liberal MPs – a much more right wing collective than even the Howard
majorities were – can’t really comprehend the belief that their budget
measures were unfair. Despite Abbott’s well-known Catholicism, he shares
the secular-Calvinist presuppositions that animate his party, and
provide the core belief of the English-speaking right: namely, that just
as the rich deserve their wealth, so do the poor deserve their fate.

Code-phrases like “personal responsibility” express the belief that
those who have no job, cannot provide for their own healthcare expenses,
or cannot fund their own retirement lack virtues that more successful
people possess. Economic values – efficiency, the necessity for “price
signals” to deter the undeserving – merely give it a contemporary gloss.
It’s possible to stoke the outrage of a minority of Australians with
talk of dole bludgers and queue jumpers, but the failure of Abbott’s
attacks on the most vulnerable shows that Australia is not at heart a
Calvinist nation.

The spellbinding catastrophe that was the introduction of the
Medicare co-payment shows us all of this in miniature. The negative
response to this came not just from those who currently get bulk-billed,
but from those who are already paying more than the scheduled fee and
who were threatened with further price hikes. It also came from the
perception that this was aimed at the most vulnerable members of the
community, whom the government thought should be taught a lesson in
thrift. Rather than tossing it altogether, the government has put GPs in
charge of dishing out the price signals that they think are required to
enforce social discipline. For all the promised changes, Abbott seems
to be back where he started.

In contemplating Abbott’s deep difficulties, the left might consider arguments like John Quiggin’s
in these pages last week – electorates simply aren’t buying policies
premised on “reforming” market liberalism any more, and aren’t willing
to trade the remnants of the safety net for a balanced budget somewhere
down the track. At some point, somewhere, someone will have to say that
the only way to preserve the budget and a decent social safety net is by
raising more money through redistributive taxation. Politicians don’t
think that people are ready for this message, but Abbott’s failed reset
suggests we may be more receptive than we think.

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