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Tony Abbott

Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott in the Howard government, and contributes regularly to the Australian edition of The Spectator.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s swift, firm and decisive response to the shooting down last week of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 has marked a decisive turning point for his premiership.  Unexpectedly, he has transformed from a narrow, partisan warrior to a genuine national leader speaking for all Australians, and he has shown counterparts including David Cameron and Barack Obama how to stand firm against an international bully.

Abbott is a divisive figure in Australia because he is such a successful partisan politician.  As the most successful Opposition leader in Australia’s history, in less than four years he saw off Labor Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, twice in Rudd’s case.  Because of his political success, Abbott has a strong core of Liberal party support, but among those supporters he is more respected than loved.  And for the Left, who dominate social media, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Fairfax newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, he generally can do nothing right.

Given how he achieved his victory, and the Left-leaning revanchists ranged against him, Abbott has struggled to make the transition from opposition to government.  His manifesto agenda has been stymied by an elected Senate in which he does not have a majority.  Until the beginning of this month,  the balance of power was helped by Labor and the Australian Greens.  Now it belongs to a motley crew of unlikely senators of the Palmer United Party, founded by populist mining magnate Clive Palmer (who also is a lower house MP),and an accidentally-elected fellow traveller senator from the otherwise unknown Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party.

Abbott’s Coalition also made major political missteps that badly damaged its standing.  The Government produced an aggressively-cutting Budget ten weeks ago that generated savings necessary to rein in a substantial public debt inherited from Rudd and Gillard, but contained nasty policy surprises and sold so poorly that the Government looked to be stealing widow’s mites’ and babies’ lollipops to no real purpose.

In short, Abbott’s government was in the doldrums, and Labor – having left a fiscal and policy mess – was sitting pretty.

Yet even many “Abbott-haters” can’t deny that the Australian PM of recent days is performing very impressively.  By standing up from the outset to Russian president Vladimir Putin, Abbott gave voice to the 38 Australian citizens and residents who perished so violently and senselessly in skies above strife-torn eastern Ukraine, their grieving families and the many others aboard MH17 who were winging their way to Australia.

That the UN Security Council, including Russia, adopted unanimously Australia’s resolution to ensure the rebel-held crime scene is secured and international investigations are unfettered, reflected intense personal lobbying by both Abbott and his underrated deputy Liberal leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  While negotiations on UN resolutions can drag on for months or even years, or are vetoed by a permanent member, Australia successfully forged a binding international consensus in just 48 hours.

Nevertheless, MH17 is one of two events last week that transformed Abbott’s leadership.  The other was the Coalition finally binning Julia Gillard’s “carbon tax” – a fixed price on carbon emissions set at a level way in excess of the EU’s or any other comparable economy.  Having been elected with an overwhelming mandate to abolish the carbon tax, Abbott was stymied at every turn in the Senate by his Labor and Green opponents defending their legacy to the last ditch.

Worse, Abbott became hostage to Clive Palmer using his eponymous party’s new balance of Senate power to demonstrate who now called the parliamentary shots.

Palmer’s bully-boy behaviour earlier this month brought the Abbott government to its lowest point since last year’s election. In its desperation to achieve its holy grail of repeal, the Government conveyed an impression that it would agree to anything Palmer demanded in return for his support.  The Government looked and sounded like it had lost control of its destiny.

On 17 July, following some hasty refinements of Palmer’s last-gasp amendments to avoid unintended consequences for Australian businesses, his senators finally deigned to repeal the carbon tax.  But instead of reinforcing Coalition impotence, Palmer’s shenanigans achieved the opposite: they removed the monkey that had been on Abbott’s back ever since the 2010 election deadlock with Julia Gillard.

Having pursued the carbon tax doggedly, even obsessively, for four years, Abbott himself had become a political Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick.  The PM’s, and his team’s, loss of perspective and proportion affected the Government’s performance, agenda and political judgment in general, and its Budget in particular.

Then everything changed.  The obsession threatening the Government’s long-time survival was suddenly lifted.  In Parliament that day and interviewed that night on the ABC, the relief in Abbott’s voice and demeanour was palpable.

When, just hours later, the MH17 crisis struck out of clear Ukrainian skies, this newly-liberated Abbott was much better-placed to deal with it.  Putting his domestic difficulties behind him, he rose to the occasion, backing his own instincts by confronting Putin from the outset about Russian complicity.  In doing so, Abbott set an example for other world leaders to follow, reached out to grieving families and, in his controlled anger at the senseless slaughter, spoke sincerely for all of us. For the first time, Tony Abbott truly became a Prime Minister, and his shift from partisan chieftain to statesmanlike national leader is as overdue as it is welcome.

When he was a Howard government cabinet minister, Abbott was notable for his strong and charismatic personal leadership.  He excelled at problem-solving, building positive one-on-one relationships, defusing tricky policy issues and practising give-and-take negotiation.  These attributes were suppressed in Abbott’s take-no-prisoners approach to being Opposition leader, and since his election victory last September his innate ability to build consensus largely went walkabout until the last few days. Now, all these elements are part and parcel of Abbott’s success.

As John Howard discovered in 1996 with the Port Arthur gun massacre in Tasmania, sometimes it takes a searing crisis for a political leader to reach beyond their political comfort zone.  They learn by hard experience that statesmen shape events rather than react to them.  This metamorphosis is transforming Abbott as he’s confronted by and responds to Australians’ tragedy, anger and grief over MH17.

As his quest for justice for the victims continues, Abbott’s broader challenge is to put what he’s relearned about leadership in recent days into lasting practice.  If the PM keeps doing what is right for his nation rather than what is merely partisan, and deals with the likes of schoolyard bully Palmer and as firmly and decisively as he is dealing with Vladimir Putin, he can yet reboot his stalled domestic agenda and look forward more confidently to a second term.

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