The man, the myth, the misspeak

One of the legacies of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership will surely be his tendency to misspeak. His worst lapses need no repetition, no explaining. Most of us have his best-of unfortunately committed to memory, and the quotes tend to be self-evidently racist/sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic/xenophobic/blisteringly ignorant of everything from climate change science to the importance of land and country to First Australians. Really, he covered a lot of ground.

While we saw the occasional perfunctory apology to a breakfast television interviewer, there was little, if any, apparent effort to correct his comportment. Ultimately what was shocking was not Abbott’s verbal clumsiness, but that the rest of us continued to be surprised by something so firmly established as a behavioural pattern. ‘If this is the sort of thing he lets slip in front of a crowd,’ a friend said, ‘if it’s such an effort for him to moderate his choice of language in public, imagine the things he says in private.’

His unwillingness to apologise for some of his worst clangers, say, the time he suggested Aboriginal people living in remote communities had made a ‘lifestyle choice’, speaks for itself. When he did offer a statement approximating an apology – immediately following his ‘holocaust of jobs’ line, for instance – it lacked credibility, because there was no commensurate shift in his subsequent language or behaviour.

One, two, even a handful of verbal mishaps can be explained away. It was a misrepresentation of the quote. It was taken out of context. It was a well-intentioned but poorly executed joke. It was ‘exuberance’ when he referred to Liberal candidate Fiona Scott’s ‘sex appeal’. But there is no excuse for a prime minister as profoundly verbally inept as Abbott. Communication is central to the role of any politician – and when you’re virtually unable to open your mouth without offending someone, much less articulate and peddle policy, you’re probably not the bloke for the job.

Abbott was caricatured as a haplessly bumbling leader, foot permanently jammed in mouth. There is, perhaps, a parallel between this helplessness – the ‘shit happens’ attitude, if you will – and the recurring figurative shoulder-shrug of his government. There was nothing he could have done, he said, to prevent Toyota’s 2014 pull-out from Australia, resulting in thousands of lost jobs. In defence of last year’s disastrous federal budget, then-Treasurer Joe Hockey declared, ‘We are about building a stronger future for our nation. And sure, that is hard. But we are going to do it because we must. There is no choice.’ In March this year, with his infamous ‘lifestyle choice’ comment, Abbott said it was ‘obviously very, very difficult to close the gap’ in the standard of living between Australians living in remote communities and the rest of the country. It’s a rhetorical palms-up; an attempt at a noble abdication of responsibility.

But it doesn’t hold, mostly because the people saying Sorry, there was nothing we could do are precisely those we elect to effect change and progress. When Hockey said There is no choice, he meant to elicit sympathy. His hands were tied. In fact, the choice the government made in that budget was to prey on pensioners, students, people with a disability, low-income earners, single parents, Indigenous people, unemployed people, chronically ill people, the public service, healthcare, education, foreign aid and public broadcasting.

This purported lack of agency was certainly not trademarked by Abbott, and has been invoked by both ends of the political spectrum. But in Abbott’s case, it was compounded by a bizarre but pervasive paranoia. Throughout his time in office there was a rotating cast of forces out to undermine him – the media, particularly the ABC; the United Nations; his own government. Some saw his December 2014 ministry shake-up, which happened much earlier in his prime ministership than most reshuffles, as a way to reset before the new year and address some of the criticisms of his initial ministry. (We got a science minister and a second woman in cabinet.) Others, however, saw it as indicative of his mistrust of his colleagues. Scott Morrison and his vaulting ambition were moved to Social Services – perhaps a reward for his performance in immigration, but also a portfolio where he was unlikely to garner much popularity from the public. At the same time, Abbott’s own alarmist ‘death cult’ rhetoric stoked the fires of public panic. It’s a strange, unwieldy combination – a hands-tied narrative coupled with fear and suspicion.

It was echoed once again in his final speech as prime minister. Speaking post-spill, Abbott positioned himself as a decent bloke who’d done his best, but been undone by perfidy. Importantly, he stopped well short of martyrdom. He was pragmatic in acknowledging the reality of political life: ‘When you join the game, you accept the rules.’ Perhaps the harshest words Abbott had were reserved for the press. He blasted the ‘sour, bitter character assassination’ and ‘poll-driven panic’ that resulted from relentless polls and commentary.

He also vowed there’d be ‘no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping’ from him, alluding to what happened with the previous Labor government. Days later he told the Daily Telegraph Scott Morrison had ‘badly misled people’, adding ‘I was doing all I could to save the government’. In his first broadcast interview since being ousted, with 2GB’s Ray Hadley, he lamented ‘death by polls’ and a ‘back room cabal’. He told a sympathetic Hadley, ‘It’s a game of snakes and ladders and yes, I’ve hit a snake.’ He also spoke to the Australian, quick to declare that despite the change in leadership, the Coalition’s policy was the same. In each of these interviews the emphasis was largely on his own reputation. He sought to present himself as humble and hardworking, a victim of political machinations.

As Malcolm Turnbull himself once wrote, ‘few are so publicly humiliated as a pole-axed prime minister’. In Abbott’s case, perhaps the most humiliating part was not the spill itself, but the attempted revisionism of his failure as leader into something more gallant. His refusal to accept responsibility for his deeply unpopular policies. His comments to media over the last fortnight on the heels of his ‘no undermining’ promise.

Slogans were an Abbott signature. Of course, repeating the same three-word phrases is one way of distilling policy into digestible, if vacuous, soundbites, but it was also a way of controlling his reckless, graceless rhetoric. Stop the boats. Stop the death cult. Stop the debts and deficits. He might like to invent a new safe phrase to use over the coming months, though ‘shit happens’ does have a timeless ring to it.


Jennifer Down

Jennifer Down is a writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, Overland and Kill Your Darlings. Her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, will be published by Text in 2016.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. What are party politicians good for if not using rhetoric? Give poor Tone a break – all his language choices were but captain’s picks.

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