CANBERRA OBSERVED: by our national correspondentNews Weekly
Abbott's victory took media by surprise
, December 12, 2009
The most intensely observed and reported leadership challenge in Australian political history failed spectacularly in one basic aspect - virtually no-one among the Parliamentary Press Gallery or among the leading political observers managed to correctly predict the outcome.
As Tony Abbott emerged from the three-way contest as the new Opposition leader, almost everyone was taken by surprise, not least of whom were the media and the Rudd Government. Labor had been hoping against hope that Malcolm Turnbull might survive, or perhaps that Joe Hockey would emerge as victor.
Both Turnbull and Hockey were true "global warming believers" and had handcuffed themselves to Labor, pledging to support Labor's ETS legislation.
Mr Turnbull had unilaterally demanded that Liberal senators vote for the ETS, regardless of the deep reservations of the country's conservative heartland, while Mr Hockey had wanted to give MPs a "free vote" to decide the issue for themselves.Resentment
A victory for the pro-ETS faction would have been a godsend for Labor, leaving Liberal MPs at odds with their party members, and ongoing resentment among opponents of the scheme.
In fact, if Turnbull had survived, the Liberal Party would have remained bitterly divided, with many MPs throwing in the towel in the lead-up to the election, and the Nationals, led by Barnaby Joyce, splitting from the Coalition.
Instead, Mr Abbott declared his opposition to the passage of the legislation on the basis that there was no urgency other than pressure to follow Kevin Rudd's Copenhagen timetable.
Over the past decade or two, the daily reporting of news has become pervasive through the constant streaming of radio bulletins and CNN-style television. The internet added another dimension, ushering in the arrival of minute-by-minute reporting and images of events.
But now the "twittering" craze and phone text-messaging have lifted reporting to a whole new level. However, the torrent of words does not necessarily represent what is really going on.
During the lead-up to the leadership challenge, journalists engaged in "twitter" dialogue with MPs and visa versa, allowing anyone on their twitter trails to learn instantly what was going on. Against party rules many Liberal MPs used their mobile phones to text and "twitter" reporters during party-room meetings.
The reporting of developments and party gossip was often relayed without verification and sent to internet news sites, and television and radio news rooms.
Yet, amid all this "noise", Tony Abbott emerged victorious, suggesting a fundamental disconnect between the media and the mood of the Liberal Party.
It could be argued that the only accurate prediction of Tony Abbott becoming Opposition leader was made in this column in News Weekly
as far back as October 31, when it was suggested that Mr Hockey's reluctance to stand would open the way for Mr Abbott to take over from Mr Turnbull.
Of course, the December 1 Liberal Party vote was a narrow victory - in Mr Abbott's words, a "landslide" of just one vote (42 to 41).
And, admittedly, had Mr Turnbull not been so stubborn and had he conceded his leadership was finished, Mr Hockey probably would have beaten Mr Abbott in a two-horse contest.
But, as it turned out, the media's favourite, Mr Hockey, was knocked out in the first round, gaining just 23 votes, while the media's second favourite, Malcolm Turnbull received 26 votes. Mr Abbott won the first round decisively with 35 votes.
Mr Turnbull made a monumental misjudgement about the mood of the party on the ETS.
And if he had been prepared to listen to the deep concerns within the Liberal Party heartland about being seen to side with Kevin Rudd on the ETS, he may well have still been leader now.
Instead he decided, in a not dissimilar manner to the way he behaved during the Republic debate, to impose his will and his model on the party and on the Australian people.
His political career is now over.
Immediately after becoming leader, Mr Abbott offered his MPs a secret vote on whether they wanted to pass Rudd's tax.
The vote was an emphatic 55 to 29, giving him a strong mandate to oppose the ETS. Mr Abbott will now take the fight up to Labor.
He has declared the ETS a gigantic "money-go-round", a huge tax and probably pointless impost on ordinary Australians.Abbott's character
Mr Abbott is a fighter. He is courageous, unpredictable, smart and fit.
He has his flaws as well as his strengths. He may burn out or blow up under the enormous pressures of being Opposition leader. But, then again, he may surprise everyone.
To be fair, Mr Turnbull's views on the ETS probably were closely aligned to those in his affluent Sydney electorate of Wentworth.
But the further from the wealthy suburbs you go, the more antipathy there is towards an ETS.
Once it is understood for what it is, from the outer suburbs to the bush, voters are likely to be extremely wary of a massive new tax which has negligible affect on the environment, and which puts Australia at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world.
Mr Abbott has a battle ahead of him to win the next election.
But at least there will be a clear distinction between the two major parties, and more time for all voters to consider the merits or otherwise of the ETS tax.