Paradoxically, we see that the same mistake is being made by the neo Rudd-haters as was made by the Howard-haters, who in many cases are one and the same people. The more vitriolic or unreasonable the attacks, the more they work for the Prime Minister, as voters inclined not to like him pause, take stock and decide their misgivings are really not so grave that they need to join the frenzy. Distaste for the attacks soon turns to regard for the victim.
As Noel Pearson once described it, the Teflon which coated Howard for so long was made from the spit of his opponents. Rudd may soon discover similar Teflon attaching itself to his thick skin.
But in the upcoming election Teflon will be an equal opportunity protector, since the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has always been the most obvious beneficiary of the Howard-hater effect. In fact he inherited many of Howard’s enemies who, if it is possible, have become even more unhinged in the face of Abbott’s intellectual version of pragmatic social conservatism.
Abbott has focused attention so astutely on the government’s failings that the spittle has barely had a chance to land on him yet.
But, as government hard man Anthony Albanese signalled on the ABC’s Lateline on Tuesday night, with his blitzkrieg on Abbott as “a throwback”, “a huge risk to our economy”, “a huge risk to national security”, “the most extreme ideological leader” the Liberal Party has ever had the misfortune of harbouring, it’s clear Labor’s election strategy will be to destroy Abbott personally.
Labor’s only glimmer of light in fading opinion polls has been that Abbott has not benefited much personally from the Prime Minister’s catastrophic loss of popularity, even though the party he leads is in a competitive position for the first time in three leaders.
But, just as interpretations of Rudd’s decline have been skewed in favour of a progressive storyline, so too has Abbott’s success. They’re hating Rudd for the wrong reasons – all emissions trading scheme betrayal, not a prosaic cocktail of voter disappointments, from a cigarette tax to electrocution by pink batt, from a $600,000 education revolution canteen to FuelWatch and GroceryChoice, from record numbers of unauthorised boat arrivals to the new mining tax which threatens to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
The line on Abbott’s success, even from some within his own party, is that he is simply the beneficiary of luck and good timing, having arrived at the leadership at the precise moment that Rudd’s fortunes were heading south; further, that his fundamental shortcomings are the reason he has been unable to turn Rudd’s popularity to his own advantage, as if any opposition leader engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a once-popular prime minister has ever emerged unscathed.
An opposition leader who acts like a statesman and stands above the fray, enlisting henchmen to do the bruising work, may burnish his own reputation, but he doesn’t shift the polls like Abbott has. People expect you to have your own skin in the game.
But this reluctance to give Abbott credit for the plunge in the government’s fortunes encourages potential challengers such as Joe Hockey and the failed opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, seen by the Fraser rump of the Liberals as the last hope against conservatism in the conservative party. Their chutzpah is astonishing.
Thus we have a reinvigorated Turnbull giving a speech at the weekend containing a carefully worded sideswipe at his leader, while ostensibly criticising Rudd over climate change.
”Our efforts to deal with climate change have been betrayed by a lack of leadership, a political cowardice, the likes of which I have never seen in my lifetime.” There wouldn’t have been a political junkie in the country who didn’t think he was talking as much about Abbott as Rudd.
Equally unhelpful to his leader, the former head of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, was news at the weekend that Hockey has rekindled the republic debate, for no apparent reason, by beginning talks with the Australian Republican Movement. That’s called wedging yourself.
With the government bleeding on so many issues, on the eve of what was always going to be a crucial two weeks in Parliament, the weekend contributions of two of the opposition’s most innocent-eyed politicians were self-defeating, to say the least.
In the case of our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, if Teflon is the protection they receive from the hatred of their enemies, then mischief by their friends is the Kryptonite that makes them vulnerable.