He's Behind You! Malcolm Turnbull rolls Tony Abbott with ruthless efficiency. Ain’t it always the way? Politicians like Abbott and his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, are invaluable in the ruck, kicking and gauging where the ref can’t see their infringements. But they’re not the sort of guys you send up to receive the cup from the Governor-General. Team captains have a certain look – and poor Tony Abbott never had it. Just a little too excitable. Too much the true believer. Unable to compromise. Not really clubbable.
YOU CAN’T HELP ADMIRING the Aussies. There’s a raw energy about them that grabs, and holds, your attention. A brutal kind of honesty, too, which is equally compelling.
The way Abbott’s loyal ministers were rotated through the Sky News studio, each one just a little more desperate than the last, seemingly unable to believe that they were in the middle of the very thing they had railed against when the hapless Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were hacking away at each other on prime time – a leadership spill involving a sitting Prime Minister.
“Good God! As a country we’re better than this!” Was Abbott’s anguished observation as the realisation that Turnbull was about to remove him from power finally beat its way past his emotional defences and made contact with the rational centre of his brain.
Paul Murray, a big, burly, bearded bloke, who makes his living telling Sky’s right-wing viewers “what’s really going on” spent the night acting as Abbott’s emotional proxy.
Right-wing Commentator, Paul Murray. Abbott's emotional proxy.
Alternately flailing his arms about in a balletic combination of anger and despair, and roaring defiance at a studio full of journalists and commentators who were clearly relishing the slow demise of the “Mad Monk” (as Abbott’s less charitable fellow citizens were wont to call him) Murray more and more came to resemble a baited bear. It seemed inevitable that the smooth young fellow seated well within range of Murray’s agitated paws would offer one acerbic taunt too many and end up smearing claret all over the studio floor.
I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor joker. Especially when he blurted out the obviously painful question about whether it was any longer possible for conservative politicians like Tony Abbott to survive in the tolerant culture of twenty-first century Australia. You could read the anguish plainly on his bluff features as he internally answered his own question.
Because, of course, the answer is “No, Paul, it’s no longer possible.”
Not that his sort of Aussie is easy to convince. Not even when the Irish – yes, the Irish! – vote in favour of Marriage Equality. That’s right, Rome’s most dutiful daughter, snapping her fingers at the Clergy like she just didn’t care anymore about who did what, where, and to whom – just so long as love got a look in there somewhere.
Why couldn’t the Liberal Party Right see it? Why didn’t Abbott just declare a free vote on the Marriage Equality issue and save his rapidly diminishing supply of bullets for something that really mattered – like getting the deficit down and keeping all those tailored suits in the high towers of Sydney and Melbourne smiling their special, self-satisfied, squatocratic smiles.
Sacking the bloody useless Joe Hockey was the easiest way to do that, but Tony just wouldn’t. Loyal to a fault, poor fella. As Murray put it: “He was loyal in a game where loyalty no longer counts.” Honestly, I thought the guy was going to cry.
The other journos in the studio just shrugged. They knew it was all over for Abbott when reports from a weekend corporate shindig started filtering back to the Canberra press gallery. Turnbull had been present and, apparently, he had the more than 400 business leaders present eating out of his hand.
Secure in the knowledge that the mood of the boardroom was solidly behind a change at the top, the silver-haired millionaire locked and loaded his supporters for a leadership spill on Monday afternoon.
Ain’t it always the way? Politicians like Abbott and Hockey are invaluable in the ruck, kicking and gauging where the ref can’t see their infringements. But they’re not the sort of guys you send up to receive the cup from the Governor-General. Team captains have a certain look – and poor Tony Abbott never had it. Just a little too excitable. Too much the true believer. Unable to compromise. Not really clubbable.
Not that anybody’s ever going to say that about Malcolm Turnbull. Like that other Malcolm, the late Malcolm Fraser, he fits right in – a leader in the Menzies tradition.
Not a pair of Speedos in sight.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 September 2015.