The Prime Minister began his National Press Club address looking wooden and stiff. But that’s not surprising; as a human being he always comes across on television as wooden and stiff. Perhaps he’s like that in real life too.
I’m not sure about that because we were both 35 years younger when I was doing political battle with him at Sydney University in the late 1970s. Thus, we were both more supple, lithe and in our manly prime. Then Abbott was a “rugger bugger” and a “John’s boy”, which meant that we regarded him as wooden and stiff and best avoided in the Quad after dark. Today, I’ve got more hair, but also more padding; so let’s not go there, or at least no further.
But, to be fair, Tony Abbott loosened up a little towards the end. Not during the speech, but after when facing questions from the Canberra media pack. I have some experience of this too.
But some viewers thought the journos didn’t do a very good job.
My take it was, as always, a mixed performance. Some bring their A game and some are not fit to be in the team.
Wooden and stiff Abbott right at home in the NPC
I was a Press Gallery journalist in the early 1990s and witnessed many performances at the National Press Club. Most of them involved wooden and stiff politicians, or visiting dignitaries. Perhaps its the environment inside the Press Club itself, which is wooden and stiff. So too, from memory, is the food; served ‘A-B roll’ style. ‘A’ gets the lamb or chicken, ‘B’ gets the beef and everyone gets the vegatables, which may have begun life wooden and stiff, but which were boiled into submission at the hands of the club chefs.
Maybe the food’s better today, but the set piece performances and badly crafted speeches don’t seem to have improved. So, maybe, the lack of emotion, movement and conviction in the PM’s recycled speech notes was not his fault.
After all, it is fashionable to blame Peta Credlin for everything, but I won’t go there lest I be accused of misogyny by someone at News Limited for
a) blaming Credlin for what is clearly Abbott’s own fault, or
b) not blaming Credlin, thus revealing my sexism by discounting the fact that just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she can’t also be a domineering bitch whose royally fucked up an entire government single-handedly.
Women can do anything a man can do and somethings a woman can do better than any man.
But today was all about Tony. In fact, I didn’t see Peta Credlin in the audience cut-away shots. Lots of mugging ministers with oily smiles tightly painted on their grim visages; a few of Margie looking pretty much as wooden as Tony and a couple of David Speers sitting next to Matthais Cormann.
I’m sure there’s some subtle message in that about the closeness of Sky News presenters to the Abbott cabinet, perhaps it was the luck of the draw, or perhaps it signals that Cormann is Speers’ deepthroat on leadership bickering around the Cabinet table.
Pure speculation I know, but the papers are full of it today, so why shouldn’t I, an inveterate electronic graffitist, have my own little moment of “What if?”
The speech itself was predictable, dull, full of self-congratulation, replete with blaming “Rudd-Gillard-Rudd”, talking up the terror threat, beating the national security drum and repeated protestations that “only this government” can deliver economic miracles.
And, no, it won’t save Abbott’s arse. If anything it is likely to make the backbenchers even more nervous and the ministers more pissed off.
The public it seems, shares this sentiment.
I don’t like it, we can use it scare so, so I’ll ban it
We were treated to scare tactics over Hizb ut-Tahir, an Islamic organisation that Abbott wants to ban, but for which he has not yet found a sufficiently compelling official excuse to justify it.
So far Australia’s leading terrorism experts have not felt it wise to endorse Abbott’s ban call, one even argues it would be counterproductive.
But don’t worry. Abbott’s crack team will be on it and soon enough there will be reason aplenty to outlaw the Islamic “party of liberation”.
The audience was also treated to some fairly ludicrous economic theorising from the Prime Minister such as:
…every dollar the government spends is a dollar you don’t spend now or in the future.
Really, but isn’t the point of spending on education so that we will have more money to spend when we grow up to be adults like Tony and co?
And isn’t the point of spending on health so that we are well enough to work until we’re 70 or older?
The economic gibberish continued with homilies such as every big business starts out as a small business and the almost religious commitment to budget surplus, which is another idea that most sensible economists think is ideology, not science.
Abbott also played the “race card”, saying that the government will crackdown on Chinese homebuyers. That’s just playing to the remaining few dozen Hansonites, it does not make policy sense at all.
I did notice that Abbott seems to have bought a job lot of surplus Campbell Newman “strongs”; which has already become the most over-used political cliche of 2015.
However, I digress, the point of this piece is to discuss the questions casually tossed onto the lectern by humble scribes hoping to score the story of the afternoon by either:
a) delivering the PM a lollygagger to bash out of the park, thus ensuring the front page / bulletin lead, or
b) chucking a hard full toss cherry straight into the Prime Ministerial budgie smugglers, thus ensuring the front page / bulletin lead
So who were the winners and losers?
There were 14 questions spread evenly among the mainstream media outlets; it is worth noting that no electronic graffiti artists were given a shot. Perhaps, at $80 for non-members, the cost of tickets is prohibitive, or maybe we’re not that welcome in the enclave of the political establishment.
The first interrogator was the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann, who, in my view, gets a bad rep as a Liberal stooge. Maybe he is, but his question was pretty good, drawing on Abbott’s Jesuit training to put him on the spot:
In good conscience are you the best person to lead this government and prosecute its agenda, and have you considered resigning? [C Uhlmann]
Well, this one turned into a lollygagger and only required a simple “Yes, and no. Yes and no, Chris” from the PM. The longer answer involved the “rejection of KAOS”, at the last election, but I wasn’t even aware that the secretive cold war spy agency was even standing.
More seriously though, Abbott attempted to rewrite history here — remember him calling on Gillard to resign? No, neither does Tony. He said that only the electors could toss out a government and sitting Prime Minister.
The second question could also have been a beauty. Steven Scott of the Brisbane Courier-Mail:
You didn’t mention the Queensland election in your speech, and I’m just wondering, why do you think the Queensland electorate turned against the LNP so dramatically and how will you convince your colleagues they don’t face the same threat under you? [S Scott, Courier-Mail]
Abbott’s response dodged most of the question and focused on the PM’s “deeply” felt sorrow for Campbell Newman and his colleagues. The central message was that the selling of the “difficult reform” in Queensland was not done well. On the implications for himself, all Abbott could offer was that the coalition needed to make a “bigger effort” to convince the Senate cross-benches to support it.
There will be more consultation with the back bench too, said Abbott, clearly pitching to the party room not to ditch him.
My take out is look out for more bribes to the PUP senators and the other independents.
He scored a two off this medium pace delivery.
At this point the PM got all Eat, Pray, Love with a ramble about how all of us are on the journey together.
Seriously, taking new age mantras from a loopy self-help book? Is that all you’ve got. Certainly for the electronic graffitists working from home, it was a special highlight.
“It’s the only journey worth coming on,” the PM solemnly intoned, waving his arms in the air (seriously).
Laura Tingle (Australian Financial Review) brought us all down to earth with her question about the economy and unemployment. Bummer, Laura!
You focused on a stronger economy in your speech and on the need for jobs, but just noting that there are an extra 63,400 people who became unemployed since you were elected, can you spell out for us how you’re going to address that. And I reference your G20 economic plan which was built heavily on investment in infrastructure, which you also mentioned in your speech. How is that affected by the changing balance of asset programs in the states and will that have a material impact on the economic forecasts? (L Tingle, AFR)
Phew, we finally got there.
Abbott repeated his infrastructure and growth comments and his legacy as an “infrastructure Prime Minister”. He then lambasted the Victorian Labor government to great applause and laughter from his nervous supporters in the audience.
That was a lollygagger in the end and Abbott thumped it for six and more.
Could Malcolm Farr–perhaps once (if not still) the most interesting and leftwing journalist in the NewsCorpse stable–do better?
Staying with jobs, a number of workplace matters will be reported on by the Productivity Commission later in the year, but if I could go to your current thinking: Are you aware of or have you read any credible study or research that says that lowering or removing the minimum wage creates more jobs? [M Farr, news.com.au]
I like this question because it is something that the NewCorpse tabloid readers in working class suburbs would want to know about it.
Abbott’s answer was noncommital, and the PM padded up to deflect it into the covers; but it could be a sleeper question that comes back to bite him.
Abbott said he would respect the umpire’s decision, but clearly that only applies if the decision is “Not out.”
Malcolm’s deceptive spin was followed up by SBS TV’s Catherine McGrath.
In terms of economic debate, do you think that as Prime Minister you need to bring the political debate forward in Australia, and do you concede in any way that the skills that brought you to government– successfully tearing down Labor–are not necessarily the skills you need now and there might be some rebooting needed.
Abbott let this one go through to the keeper by suggesting that he would not “speculate upon myself”. But clearly that is what this whole Press Club thing is all about.
So good delivery Catherine, even though it didn’t take a wicket.
Next up, Andrew Probyn from The West Australian was given the ball. He has the look of a fiery quick and the run up was pretty good.
Prime Minister, dare I say it, but you have appeared to contradict your mentor John Howard today, when you said that voters had the right to hire and fire prime ministers. Mr Howard used to say that leadership was the gift of the party room.
Do you still have the confidence of the party room?
And secondly a “Yes or no” question: If you were offered a Knighthood would you take it?
Shit, these double-barrel questions, too easy to dodge, so not a great delivery in the end.
Abbott’s pause and this his second “Well, yes and no,” answer got a laugh.
Then it got weird. Abbott ignored the “party room” aspect of the question (no surprise) and told a long and possibly apocryphal story about visiting a pub in Colac to pour beers for friendly and appreciative locals.
The in-house cheer squad lapped it up, but the response from the armchair critics was less warm.
This punter was even blunter:
Yep, apparently Colac is hometown to Liberal Party chief Brian Loughnane who is also married to Peta Credlin. Perhaps the Abbotts and the Loughnane/Credlins share a caravan there.
Probyn had to interject at this point to get Abbott to answer is party room question and the PM wasn’t happy. All he could say (several times) is “We’ve had a rough couple of months.”
Probyn’s delivery sconned the PM, but the helmet of dodging the question saved him on this occasion.
To be honest, I suspect that like me you are losing interest at this point in what is really a pretty pointless match; so let’s skip straight to the highlights reel.
Channel Seven’s Mark Riley has form bowling to the Prime Minister; who could forget that wonderful long stoney silence–Tony Abbott’s infamous “shit happens” moment.Here’s a reminder, it’s that good.
Given their history, Riley’s question was always going to be difficult for the PM to fend away.
It was long, it was detailed and it was a beauty. Riley took Abbott through a series of quotes about being collegiate and working with his colleagues, going right back to 2009.
Abbott was not happy and it showed on his face and his aggressive stance at the crease; the rictus grin was back and in full force.
Then the fast ball:
Why have you not kept any of those promises delivered 12 or 15 times to your party thus far, and why should your backbench and your cabinet have any faith that you’ll keep it this time. [M Riley, Ch7]
Now the nub. That delivery shook Abbott up and he gave a long and contradictory answer about the now infamous series of “Captain’s calls” he has made over the past 18 months. This could be another sleeper that bites Abbott on the bum some time soon or later. Abbott’s answer was full of contradictions and wobbles. A potential series winner from Mark Riley
The rest of the line up was pretty tame and some, like the dear Michelle Grattan should really retire. But I want to mention Kieran Gilbert from Sky News.
He asked what I thought was the question of the day:
G’day Prime Minister, Kieran Gilbert from Sky News. I understand that yesterday you had consultations with some of your closest supporters and in it [sic] you recognised that you do have a serious threat to your leadership underway and you said, and I quote “In these circumstances you can either panic or you hold your ground.” you’ll be holding your ground. Is that a recognition that you are facing a serious threat to your leadership.
And the second question [oh no Kieran, don’t spoil it] You met with Julie Bishop last night; did you ask her for a commitment she would not challenge you? And, if so, what did she say?
That’s technically three questions Kieran and I did try for three years to teach you not to do that, but anyway, good effort.
While all this was going on Abbott was furiously drinking his water and the death stare was back. If looks could kill, Gilbert would be dead, buried and cremated. It obviously got under the PM’s skin.
The answer was pretty weak. All that Abbott could do was play a defensive shot — back to the whole “difficult patch” for the government drivel.
“As for Julie,” the PM went on, “Julie’s a friend of mine. Julie’s my deputy, she’s been a terrific deputy, she’s been a terrific minister. I believe I have her full support and I certainly look forward to having her continued support.”
That was the question that nearly got past the PM’s protector. he got just enough bat on ball to prevent serious injury.
But I still want to know what was said in those meetings and who is the insider whose talking to Sky News and briefing them on what should be private discussions.
The gallery is a mixed bunch and the bowlers don’t always come into the match with form and fitness. Today was no exception, but then, giving journalists food and wine at lunch time is a surefire way to put them off their game.
Most would rather sleep it off than have to go back and file another boring yarn about Abbott speaking at the Press Club and not really saying anything.
For a full rundown of the questions check this live blog from the AFR
Let’s hope there’s a return match before too long.