Sometimes only a cliché will do, especially when the subject is the Australian Labor party. Labor is holed beneath the water line and is sinking fast. No one, not even its newly reinstated skipper, Kevin Rudd, is capable of keeping the boat afloat as the nation heads for a general election on 7 September. In a couple of weeks, barring an act of God or a military coup, the conservative Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal-National coalition, will replace the left-liberal Rudd as prime minister of Australia.
It was not meant to be like this. In June Labor’s greatest electoral handicap — its party leader and prime minister, Julia Gillard — was stabbed in the back and replaced by Rudd, who three years earlier had in turn been backstabbed and replaced by Gillard and her gang of Labor heavies. The brutal reinstatement of Rudd seemed at first to have been a stroke of genius. For a few weeks, Labor was united and the Australian people appeared to be willing to give Rudd another go. The nervous nellies in Abbott’s coalition became more than usually jumpy.
Today it’s a very different story. Abbott is preferred prime minister, Rudd’s approval rating is in free fall, and after adjustment of Australia’s preferential voting system, support for the coalition is at 54 per cent, well ahead of Labor’s 46 per cent. That compares with a 57-43 split at the end of Gillard’s reign, but it still points to an electoral landslide. No wonder Labor’s true believers are angry and alienated while the party’s urban sophisticates — rich, well-educated and congenitally liberal — are staying away from sharp objects.
Credit for all this must go to Abbott. Since he became opposition leader in late 2009, the monarchist, Rhodes scholar and devout Catholic — he was educated at the Jesuit Riverview College, the Stonyhurst of Australia — has resurrected the conservative cause, which had languished in the Antipodes since John Howard’s inglorious downfall in 2007. In his four years as leader, he has comprehensively wrong-footed Rudd, Gillard and Rudd. Nothing better demonstrates his political nous than his decision to take issue with the global warming consensus and oppose a carbon tax, a position that won overwhelming popular support.
That’s not to say that Abbott is universally applauded. The prospect of having to accept him as prime minister fills the left with fury, but there is also a lot of hostility from elements of the press. Unlike David Cameron, Abbott does not subscribe to the liberal consensus. The affluent and well-educated folk of Sydney and Melbourne are full of scorn. Abbott is 55, married with three daughters, religious, broadly pro-life and anti-gay marriage; in other words, a neanderthal! He believes in individual enterprise, family values and respect for tried-and-tested institutions.
The Fairfax group, publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, tend to treat Abbott as so loathsome a character that the ordinary rules of fair play need not be applied. Hence stories of a misogynist past: it is alleged without any evidence that he threw a punch at (and missed) a university feminist some time in the 1970s.
When not a hate figure, he is a figure of fun. He is now known the world over as a macho man who goes about the beach in ‘budgie-smugglers’. He is also widely seen as being gaffe-prone. Earlier this month, for example, he provoked howls of derision when he said that ‘no one’ (meaning Rudd) was the ‘suppository’ (instead of the repository) of all wisdom. But was that really a gaffe? To some, it sounded like a good joke.
Few, however, would deny that Abbott has been a politically astute leader of the opposition, though he has been helped enormously in his work by Rudd, who now seems not only incompetent but a fraud, too. The perception has changed over the years. When he led Labor to power in 2007, he was a reassuring presence to Middle Australia. He seemed like a reasonable bloke, especially to voters in Queensland’s sun-belt seats and Sydney’s western suburbs, which are mortgaged to the hilt. What he offered was John Howard lite: fiscal conservatism, tough immigration laws and an evangelical approach to saving the planet. He appealed to climate geeks and at the same time managed to persuade the so-called ‘Howard battlers’ — mainly working-class voters who had switched from the ALP to the Liberals — to come home to Labor.
But Rudd’s leadership was an exercise in bad faith from the beginning. From border protection to carbon pricing to fiscal policy, he has been all over the place. He has been an opportunist of such proportions that the only thing that has exceeded his grasp is his reach. Nothing has changed since his return: there is always an air of detached calculation about his performances, a sense that in different circumstances he could just as happily be arguing the opposing case. He ran a chaotic cabinet, silenced internal critics, punished those against whom he held a grudge, failed to distance himself from a union movement that represents only 15 per cent of the private workforce, and now leads a big-spending and debt-ridden policy agenda that has led to a $70-billion budget black hole.
Many Australians regard ‘Heavvie Kevvie’ as a nerd and an embarrassment, with his taste for such cringe-inducing Australianisms as ‘Happy Little Vegemite’ and ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’. But his disgruntled Labor colleagues go beyond the cringe and speak of him as abrasive, arrogant, aloof and autocratic.
When he first challenged Gillard for the leadership, in February last year, it was in some ways worse. His colleagues denounced him then as a ‘psychopath’, ‘disloyal’, ‘dysfunctional’, and ‘a complete and utter fraud’. Even his former mental health adviser has said that he is ‘not fit’ to be prime minister. Australia’s voters now seem certain to endorse that judgment.
Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia.