The Gillard-Abbott Paradox

Whatever the outcome of this year’s federal election, one thing is certain; most Australians will welcome the opportunity to finally end the bitter leadership struggle that has so consumed our politics.

In what has descended into the political equivalent of ‘Survivor’, Gillard and Abbott are locked in a fight to the death. Outplaying and outlasting their opponent is the order of the day.

But at last the end is in sight and the curtain will soon fall on the longest-running campaign in Australian political history.

After almost three years, the toxic Gillard and Abbott relationship has not only come to define our politics, but also the political leaders themselves. Win or lose the next election, it seems their fates are now intertwined. To the victor goes the spoils, but also the challenge of shaping a new political persona not defined by their opponent.

Since assuming the prime ministership, Gillard has adopted a small-target strategy. Rather than using the authority of office to effectively prosecute her own agenda, she played it safe at the 2010 election. Gillard moved closer to the Coalition on a number of controversial policy areas, seemingly in the hope that she would win a battle fought on personality. Abbott’s own ‘unelectability’ would get the government over the line.

Since then, Gillard has remained a largely reactive political leader and much of her agenda has been consumed with neutralising that of her opponent. The Opposition Leader’s successful framing of debates around immigration and the economy are cases in point. By aiming to take these off the table, Gillard has sought to keep the focus on her opponent’s deficiencies. She has allowed him to shape her leadership in the process.

Like Gillard, Abbott has also sought to define himself by contrast with his adversary. Buoyed by a government that has demonstrated a unique capacity to shoot itself in the foot, he has tried to stay under the radar, seeking to tap into an ‘anyone but Gillard’ sentiment.

But his relentless focus on the government has also left him exposed without his own policy alternatives. Here, Gillard has stepped in to fill in the gap, framing her opponent as a ‘misogynist’ out of step with mainstream values. If the polls are anything to go by, it’s a perception that appears to be gaining traction.

While Abbott’s strategy from the get-go has been to tear down Gillard, he has also damaged his own leadership credentials in the process. His aggressive approach has reinforced voters’ existing anxieties about a man they have long suspected does not have the temperament for high office.

From the outside, the Gillard-Abbott relationship appears to be one of intense dislike and even contempt. Neither can resist the opportunity to take a swipe at the other. No issue is too big or too small for a highly personal, hyper-partisan attack.

If Gillard is yes, Abbott is no. If Gillard is forwards, Abbott is backwards. Gillard is not Abbott and Abbott is not Gillard. Both leaders define themselves in contrast to their opponent. And both seek electoral support on this basis – offering themselves as the lesser of two evils.

Thus, in what is a peculiar paradox, while both aim to destroy the other, they also rely on their opponent for their own political survival. Abbott is both Gillard’s greatest enemy and her greatest asset, and vice versa. The two are locked in the ultimate symbiotic political relationship, each requiring their nemesis in order to sustain their leadership.

By its third season, however, the routine of this political ‘odd couple’ is well and truly tired. The prospect of a spin-off involving only half of the duo is hardly going to be a ratings winner. So where to from here once the Australian people finally pass their judgment?

Destroying their opponent carries risks for both leaders. Should Abbott emerge the victor in this year’s election, he will be forced to clearly articulate his own vision for the nation, no longer able to hide behind the unpopularity of the government. On current polling, he would enter the Lodge without the reservoir of goodwill usually associated with newly-minted prime ministers.

Conversely, should Gillard emerge the victor, she will no longer be able to hide behind the unpopularity of the Opposition Leader. Her own claim to be ‘modern and forward-looking’ may well be exposed by an alternative to the arch conservative Abbott.

After three long years, it is now time to turn the page on the ugly personality contest that has corroded our politics. Both leaders need to become less interested in what the other team is doing and more focused on their own agendas. For whatever happens on election day, only one will be left standing, and they won’t have the ‘greater evil’ to hide behind any more.

This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 23rd of January 2013. 

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