Tony Abbott: Australia’s last good prime minister?

It’s often said that Australia needs to become a republic because of our lagging reputation in Asia. Many believe, for example, that our institutional attachment to the British Monarchy puzzles the masses and implies an old-world attachment that tugs on our standing in the region.

Much less discussed, however, is how silly we must look changing leaders as often as our dirty clothes. Until recently the turbulence of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years was behind us. We weren’t suffering from closed-door union deals and the disruptive leadership of the Australian Labor Party. Abbott had stopped illegal boat arrivals to Australia, was fiercely paying down Rudd’s debt, ending silly government programs and restoring a relative lack of prestige to the executive arm of government.

Yet Australia’s modern media cycle won’t permit such stable conduct: it is, after all, boring. The constant scan for sensationalism means that minor issues like giving out awards (Abbott’s honour to Prince Phillip) and, most recently, harmless jokes about rising sea levels in the South Pacific choke out issues of substance and having a steady pair of hands on the nation’s wheel.

What qualifies as ‘news’ in Australia today, from a Kim Kardashian selfie to the lethal simplicity of hashtag I’ll-ride-with-you symbolism, is embarrassing for Australia where interest on debt is now one of the nation’s biggest expenses and where fused unemployment, sagging productivity, and a mix of red and green tape are becoming common features of the economic landscape. Entitlement spending, in a country with unprecedented affluence, is not decreasing but growing year after year.

A sobering look at the Abbott leadership will see a conservative leader that, after less than two years in the job, was never really given a chance, especially by so many that were eager to see him fail and constantly paint him as a buffoon, sexist, gaffe-prone and too knockabout to be Australia’s leader.

The lesson of history is that good democracies benefit from elected leaders who aren’t always charming or charismatic. “For each Washington and Lincoln,” writes the American historian Patrick Allitt, “there have been half a dozen nonentities, presidents like Van Buren, Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Taft and Harding, who are deservedly forgotten by all but the professional historians. There’s a lot to be said for their lack of charisma; what the system needed was caretakers, and this was the role they played.”

Eyes now turn to Australia’s new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull who, even many conservatives believe, is not a caretaker but someone cut in the mould of Bill Clinton – constantly seeking power and the public spotlight over any seasoned path of principle or reform. “Whether Turnbull wins the next election or loses,” says Australian columnist Andrew Bolt, “conservative Liberals will feel they have lost already, now that a man of such “progressive” views has snatched the leadership of their party.”

Not so long ago Australia benefitted from leaders like John Howard, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – strong reformers from both sides of the aisle who were given time and space to pursue their agendas without the constant need to always capture headlines. None, it seems, could be granted such room in the hyper-kaleidoscopic arena of today’s public discussion.

Turnbull, with a strong background of achievement, clearly has decent ideas for solving some of Australia’s biggest hurdles. But as Abbott’s demise shows that isn’t always enough: it will only be a matter of time before the same impatience that destroyed Abbott will pursue Turnbull.

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