So this is where the story really starts.
True, we have not quite finished the silly season: Australia Day and the tennis are yet to be negotiated. But Tony Abbott is now officially back at work. He emerged in western Sydney, looking less refreshed than sullen and somewhat sallow, to talk about roads; naturally, the press gallery wanted to talk to him about almost everything else. It was not a joyous reunion.
Of course, he has never really been away; his holidays were interrupted by fires in South Australia, a funeral in Cairns, and his first flip-flop of the year over Medicare. But at least the vacation gave him an excuse to avoid Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s campaign launch, although his loyal deputy Warren Truss has promised (threatened?) that he will take part in the campaign, somewhere, sometime.
In the real world, Abbott will have to complete his political makeover, not into a popular leader but at least into a re-electable one.
But in the real world, Abbott will have to complete his political makeover, not into a popular leader (it is too late, and probably too impractical, for that) but at least into a re-electable one. The first move, according to the spin doctors, is to continue to ditch the policy barnacles, certainly the ones that are both resented by the electorate, unloved by his colleagues and rejected by the senate.
Well, perhaps; but some of Abbott’s remaining credibility has been his supposed adherence to principle. He might be wrong, but at least he has been consistent.
Actually, of course, he hasn’t; on examining the record it can be seen that his credo is not so much that of Martin Luther – ‘here is stand, I can do no other’ – but of Groucho Marx: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have some others.’
But the point is that if Abbott does not stand for the program he has fervently espoused for nearly a year, what does he stand for? If the whole of 2014 is to be regarded as a mere learning experience, to be dismissed as a failed experiment, what are the voters to make of 2015? At the very least their credulity will be severely tested.
For much of his time as prime minster Abbott has been seen as willful, obstinate, pig-headed. Now we are told he is to become more consultative, more flexible. All very well, but he does not want to take it too far or he will risk being seen as a mere political weathercock, wimpy and wishy-washy, as weak as piss.
And it must be said that last week’s unexpected switch on the six-minute GPs’ consultations is perhaps not the ideal start. According to persistent and, it now seems habitual, leaks from both party room and ministry, the GP tax mark II was even more of a fiasco than we realised.
When it was revealed last December the headline was the universal $5 Medicare rebate, but the ambush was the much larger cut in fees for consultations of less than ten minutes. Apparently treasurer Joe Hockey and then health minister Peter Dutton objected strenuously, but Abbott insisted and prevailed. The decision was, he told them, unanimous. So, reluctantly, his troops fell into line to defend a policy they regarded as indefensible.
As the pressure mounted from the medicos and their own back bench they hung on loyally until, when Bill Shorten confirmed that Labor would join the Greens and at least three crossbenchers to scuttle the plan in the senate, the prime minister unilaterally declared unconditional surrender, leaving his followers to flounder in the muck as they tried to pick up the pieces. The same old Tony, erratic, autocratic and ungovernable.
He can and no doubt will claim that it was really all Shorten’s fault, his relentless negativity and so on. But anyone with half a brain would have known that Labor was always going to oppose the idea, as the party already opposed the original tax.
True, Shorten took his time about it, but he had his reasons; he wanted to maximise the opposition from the medicos, who had already tasted government blood and wanted more of it, and he expected, correctly, that the resulting pressure would foment both panic and trouble within Abbott’s ranks. In fact it was said that at least one disgruntled backbencher, Mal Brough, actually threatened to vote against Abbott’s stance.
But while Abbott has unquestionably suffered another setback, it can hardly be called a triumph for Shorten. Once again the opposition leader has won only by default; his opponents have simply fallen over. And in the process Shorten has been seen as reactive and opportunist rather than actually taking the lead.
Certainly, he is ahead in all the polls and he has dragged Labor back from the abyss to become a genuine competitor, and most importantly, the party is united – or at least appears to be, which for practical purposes is much the same thing. But the leader remains, to put it mildly, less than inspiring. Bill Shorten has not made many mistakes, but he hasn’t made much of anything else either. He is simply too wooden, too calculating. Even his now legendary zingers are clunkier than ever.
Shorten keeps telling us he has a vision for his party, but he has not quite told us what it is yet; well, as with Abbott, the time is running out. He can’t afford to wait around for Abbott to become terminal; it may not happen, and if it does, it will only mean that he will fight another and perhaps more effective, opponent. In 2013 many people dismissed Abbott as unelectable; of course they were wrong. Now many are calling Shorten unelectable; this time they may be right.
And thus we bring in the new political year: an alternative prime minster who may still be unelectable, and a Prime Minster who is, in the opinion of many of his supporters, becoming increasingly unre-electable. And they still call Australia the lucky country. The way things are going it will bloody well need to be.