Best Australian Political Cartoons 2013, from the Introduction

Remember when Tony Abbott was unelectable? He was too conservative; too Catholic; too aggressive; too extreme; women hated him. Remember the nervous shudder that went through the Liberal party (and everyone else) when he was elected in that caucus room cock-up in 2010? Even after removing one prime minister and taking the Coalition within a whisker of a miraculous return to office after only one term in opposition, the conventional wisdom was that he would never make the transition from total warrior to statesman, from chaos agent to creator. Three-word slogans are fine in opposition, but the wrecker and the builder ain’t the same thing.

After Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech had such resonance Abbott’s public image received a softening makeover and others, particularly deputy Julie Bishop, took over the role of chief mudslinger. His metamorphosis from street fighter to all round good bloke, from sexist macho man to daggy netball dad was not entirely convincing but when combined with a disciplined small target campaign it was enough to settle the nerves of the undecideds.

But Abbott’s electoral success owes at least as much to Labor’s extraordinary internal conflicts as it does to his political dexterity or innate charm. Following the passage of the carbon tax in 2012 Julia Gillard enjoyed a respite from eighteen months of unrelenting Opposition pressure. It was shortlived. After the election was called in January, signalling an eight-month campaign, the leadership drama restarted. Gillard’s dilemma was summed up beautifully by Dyson’s ‘Groundhog day’. There was Kevin, the little bugger secretly gnawing at the foundations and popping up at random to remind everyone he was still around. Convinced that Gillard could lead Labor only to electoral annihilation party elder Simon Crean precipitated a leadership spill. Still lacking the numbers Rudd refused to contest and a good chunk of Gillard’s front bench were dumped. But nothing was settled. Gillard’s two-front war against enemies within and without continued and a few months later Labor was finally ground down to Rudd’s self-serving view that he was indispensable to the future of the party.

With breathtaking hypocrisy Rudd called for a kinder, gentler polity and an end to the politics of negativity. He assured the party that he was a reformed man, a consultative team player, conveniently ignoring the blood sacrifice of Aztec proportions required to propitiate the poll gods and make the sun rise again. It needed a very tight mental image crop indeed to see in Rudd’s return anything other than Labor’s abject humiliation. In effect, they were hiring the guy who set the house on fire to come back and save the furniture.

Despite the mythology of Rudd’s campaigning brilliance, no one expected that he could do more that mitigate an inevitable Labor wipeout. But Kevin hadn’t come back to lose, and the initial buzz caused some anxiety in the Coalition. Like Gillard in 2010 he set out to nullify electoral problems left by the previous incumbent. The carbon tax was the first to go and the carbon-trading scheme was brought forward, while new depths of public policy were plumbed by the announcement of the so-called PNG solution to the problem of asylum-seekers.

But, as in 2010, Labor went into the 2013 election with a leader unwilling to discuss the government’s achievements. Economic management, health, education, disability insurance, even carbon pricing were all, in effect, disowned leaving an absence at Labor’s centre — a black hole more damaging to its prospects than any budget deficit. As usual, it was all about Kevin. The spectacle of a six-year-old government pretending it was freshly minted and offering a new way was as farcical as the increasingly desperate thought-bubble policies which floated into existence, such as moving the navy to Queensland, developing the North, and that old stalwart high speed trains.

The election was hardly a memorable or invigorating contest of ideas. Tony Abbott needed only to keep his head down and present an approximation of competence. His campaign pitch was little more than an uncosted policy wishlist to be taken on trust, though his paid parental leave scheme — disliked equally by friends and enemies alike — became a real point of policy difference.

Still, we had the usual trivia to keep us amused: selfies, suppositories, a candidate who thought Islam was a country and another with a six-point plan but could only count to one. Fortunately, at least one candidate had sex appeal.

The competing judgements of this period of Labor in power became partisan clichés long before it ended. Was it an illegitimate, morally bankrupt and incompetent government which clung desperately to power through shonky deals and against the wishes of the majority? Or was this just resentful whingeing about a democratically determined result — after all, somebody had to form a government. Was Gillard’s government, the invective surrounding it notwithstanding, an honourable and creative response to minority government?

After the 2010 election no one would have given odds on the minority government going anywhere near full term, much less achieving serious reform. Gillard’s strength was her extraordinary ability and willingness to negotiate a way through the conflicting demands of the minor parties and independents, Petty’s ‘magnificent 7’ (p25). But, in the end, a government has to be judged not by the reforms it initiates but by those which achieve a measure of legislative permanence. On this measure, disability insurance is Gillard’s great legacy.

As Rudd said in 2006 after the successful joint challenge to Kim Beazley’s leadership, Australia was at fork in the road — the one they took lead to an hallucinatory two-year honeymoon followed by a nightmarish four-year civil war. It’s amazing they got any governing done at all.

Despite everyone’s preconceptions about Tony Abbott we really don’t know what he will be like in office — his policy announcements have rarely gone beyond the three-word slogan. What we do know is that much of Labor’s hard-fought legislation will be headed for history’s dustbin.

— Russ Radcliffe, September 2013