Like all federal opposition leaders before him, Tony Abbott has a burning ambition to become prime minister. There is nothing unusual about this. His methods, however, are less rudimentary.
Through upping the tempo of national politics, Abbott has come within striking distance of realising his goal, but he has also fundamentally changed political discourse in Australia in a way that is dangerous for our democracy.
There is no question that Tony Abbott uses distinct language to sell his message. Subtle as a sledgehammer, he routinely derides Prime Minister Julia Gillard as a “liar”. Any misstep or failure of the Prime Minister, however big or small, is “the worst ever” or further evidence of “the Government’s incompetence”.
Such lines certainly cut through in the media and Abbott’s straight-talking style appears to have resonated with an electorate disillusioned with the cryptic poli-speak that has all too often characterised the Rudd and Gillard prime ministerships.
Borrowing the shock-and-awe techniques of the Republicans in the United States, Abbott has sought to trash any sense of political consensus and make every policy debate so emotive and hotly contested that the public becomes disillusioned with the government.
It’s a strategy that creates a sense of perpetual crisis and controversy, to the point that even when something that is potentially electorally appealing is delivered, it’s seen as damaged goods. The water is so muddied that a win is no longer a win.
This strategy has proved devastatingly effective for Abbott, and if the polls are correct, he is on the cusp of achieving one of the most decisive victories in our history, but at what cost?
Australia is experiencing a period of political malaise with many voters despairing at the state of the country. Over the last three years, any sense of good will and civility in political discourse has all but evaporated. Gillard and Abbott are locked in a fight to the political death and the Australian public are unwilling spectators.
The Parliament has become a place of brutal combat. Virtually all policy debates are characterised as battles, with winners and losers. There is no room for policy nuance. In this context, it is easy to understand why many voters are tuning out from the entire political process, not to mention giving up on ever trying to evaluate policy proposals on their merits.
Through his use of intemperate language, Abbott has also legitimised the more extreme aspects of our politics. Fringe groups with views that have traditionally been dismissed as offensive or inappropriate have been brought into the mainstream. Who can forget the disturbing scenes of Mr Abbott standing before hate placards at anti-carbon tax rallies last year?
The use of hyperbole has also undermined the capacity of the nation to make judgements and affected our sense of perspective. How can the Australian people seriously assess the gravity of the Government’s failings, when every error is characterised as the “worst ever”?
The government of which Abbott was a part was not immune to scandal. Indeed, under John Howard’s prime ministership there was the ‘children overboard’ affair and the illegal war on Iraq. These are not trivial matters, but in the new political discourse they pail into insignificance in comparison to the actions of Peter Slipper or Craig Thompson.
Unfortunately, Gillard herself is complicit in this, as she fails to offer any broader historical perspective, rather evoking the Howard prime ministership as a template for managing her own scandals.
These are troubling developments and it is not fair to place the blame entirely at Abbott’s feet; he is aided by the complicity of some sections of the media and a Government that has been all too willing to dance to his tune.
However, Abbott’s status as opposition leader and alternative prime minister does provide him with a unique platform from which to influence national politics.
No matter who prevails at the next election, there are no winners in the unedifying race to the bottom that national politics has become.
This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 3rd of May 2012.