The Liberal Party owes Tony Abbott a huge debt of gratitude. Had he not challenged then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 — over his support for Labor’s carbon emissions trading scheme — there is every likelihood Labor would still be in power.
Mr Abbott’s relentless messaging and disciplined campaigning on the carbon price issue first spooked Kevin Rudd into abandoning what he described as the greatest environmental, economic and even moral challenge of our time. This destroyed Mr Rudd’s prime ministership, and then Mr Abbott won more seats than the ALP at the 2010 election before Julia Gillard cobbled together a minority government. Just four years after taking the reins, Mr Abbott took a disconsolate Coalition daunted by Labor’s large governing majority to an electoral landslide and the responsibilities of government.
Raw power was not the extent of it. He delivered significant achievements for the country. Putting an end to Labor’s profligacy has been crucial, even though incoherent budget strategies have seen the fiscal gains fall well short of expectations. He also succeeded in repealing misplaced taxes on carbon emissions and the mining industry, thereby lowering household and business costs, improving the nation’s international competitiveness. He often has been derided for his “stop the boats” mantra, which has persisted, surprisingly, to this day when there are more sophisticated ways to discuss the achievement and its repercussions. Few people (including John Howard) truly believed border security could be restored so thoroughly and quickly without diplomatic damage. But Mr Abbott and his government have put the people-smuggling genie back in the bottle. The benefits are immense; not only have lives been saved, trauma avoided and costs reduced but the integrity of the immigration system has been restored, thereby raising public confidence in a program that is vital to the social cohesion and prosperity of the nation. The downside risk of Labor meddling with this compact remains a powerful advantage for the Coalition.
Yet it is worth reflecting that these signature achievements were delivered before the end of Mr Abbott’s first year in power. He never developed a more reformist agenda, especially on the economy, to provide his government with a sense of purpose and voters with a sense of confidence. Frustrated by this gaping hole, this newspaper was moved to team with our competitor to host a national economic summit. Despite buy-in from industry, community and union groups and people as significant as the Reserve Bank governor, the government has failed to take up the outcomes. There has been a sense that the fundamental tasks of fiscal repair and economic reform have been left drifting, lacking an effective advocate in the prime minister or his treasurer.
We have to remind ourselves now that as Mr Abbott dominated his Labor opponents over four years one of the most common refrains was to praise him for a discipline that was sometimes lacking when he was a minister in the Howard government. As opposition leader he was on message, hammered his themes and was never distracted. Yet this characteristic — which was learned on the job and for which great credit went to his chief of staff, Peta Credlin — became his downfall. The tightly controlled, small target and metronome messaging of opposition was unsuited for power. Mr Abbott (and his chief of staff) failed to change the rhythm or the tone. Discipline became aloofness, control turned into isolation and mantras mutated into a failure to listen and engage. The private surfer, debater, reader, bushfire volunteer, lifesaver, father, husband, advocate and joker never shared himself with the public. Distorted through the television lenses and set-piece prime ministerial pronouncements, Mr Abbott became one-dimensional, stubborn and out of touch. Even when told by supporters to open up and change his style, to refresh his team and force other voices to be heard in his office, he refused to act.
Concerns didn’t come out of the blue. Within 100 days of Mr Abbott taking office The Australian warned of emerging faults. “There are nagging doubts about the new government’s messaging and action plan, with signs that many in the Coalition have not mentally made the transition from the tight control of opposition to the confident, outward and collegiate model of successful executive rule,” we said. We returned often to that theme and after his February leadership scare we implored Mr Abbott to act on policy, consultation, advocacy, Joe Hockey and Ms Credlin. “He claims to have changed the approach of his office, yet it is still run by his command-and-control chief of staff,” we said. “He says the budget was overly ambitious yet his Treasurer remains.” Ultimately enough MPs felt the government’s tone and focus had to change that they were prepared to switch leaders. Yet, as Mr Turnbull already embraces his predecessor’s sound positions, his party and nation must be grateful for Mr Abbott’s service and achievements.