Between a jock and a foot race

Poor Tony Abbott. As if life wasn’t already confusing enough, now his backers want him to change his ways yet again.

The Mad Monk’s career has always been a series of dilemmas and contradictions, and it must be admitted that he is yet to resolve even the most longstanding of them.

Many decades after abandoning the seminary for the soapbox, Abbott remains torn between the sacred and the secular. His continuing doubts could be seen not only as anti-democratic, but almost as blasphemous; after all the doctrine of the separation of church and state relies on the highest authority.

Jesus said: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” It could hardly be clearer. But Abbott still has trouble drawing the line and his political career continues to suffer as a result of his religious zeal.

The impasse also colours his social attitudes, which tend to swing wildly between the ultra-conservative and the free-wheeling liberal. Earlier this month he confessed that he felt “threatened” by homosexuality: “Gays and lesbians challenge the orthodox notions of the right order of things,” he avowed, in tones that could have come straight out of Leviticus. But then last week he appeared at the Melbourne Radio station JOY FM to insist that he was a great defender of gay rights and that he had lots of gay friends – well, at least three, and that wasn’t even counting Alan Jones.

But even this tergiversation was simple compared to what is now being demanded of him: less action man and more policy wonk. It seems so unfair: the Murdoch press, which is now demanding that he settle down into the role of serious and sober statesman, was previously the greatest promoter of his natural, he-man approach to the job, which it contrasted enthusiastically with that of the grey, spin-obsessed prime minister.

His unbridled physicality was supposed to appeal hugely to the laid back Australian voter, and especially to the women who might otherwise have been repelled by his Captain Catholic persona. The Australian’s resident dominatrix, Janet Albrechtsen, wrote breathlessly of his prowess as a surfer, boxer, cyclist and fighter of bushfires; she was all but orgasmic about his sheer hairiness. With a pelt like that, who needed policies?

But belatedly these same pundits have decided that policies are important after all, especially if Abbott is to have an outside chance of winning an election. Thus John Howard’s former guru Arthur Sinodinis (now howling with Rupert’s hyenas) advises Abbott to switch from the “crazy-brave populist” to the “Oxford-educated thinker,” and swap the Speedos and lycra for the suit and tie. Sinodinis refrained from suggesting that a spot of depilation might also help, but his message was unmistakable and reinforced by an editorial in The Weekend Australian: “To win power he must craft a more positive image and show real leadership to a broader group of Australians.” Janet Albrechtsen, apparently, was no longer enough.

Paul Kelly, even more pompous, pontificated in the same paper: “The test is whether Abbott supplements his populist firebrand image with the assurance and reliability the public expects from a Prime Minister. He needs to reflect deeply on this multidimensional issue in its personality and policy aspects.” Well, that must have given the lad something to think about during the Port Macquarie triathlon on Sunday in which he was beaten by two hours by some bloke two years older than him who just happened to be named Rudd.

But even before that event Abbot made it clear that he was not going to stop doing what came naturally to him, and that certainly included hitting the beaches, the cycle paths and the jogging tracks. The defiant response must have come as a relief to charity groups like the one which auctioned a pair of Abbott’s budgie smugglers on eBay. These raised more than $2000 after being worn on a mere two kilometre swim, a terrific precedent; just think what Abbott’s jock strap might bring in after the week long Pollie Pedal? You could just about retire Barnaby Joyce’s imaginary “net debt gross public and private.”

And speaking of Barnaby Joyce, his demotion (and let’s not pretend it was anything else) may not solve all Abbott’s problems. Getting him out of Finance was imperative, but finding a spot for what the leader describes as his “rare political talent” proved harder. After all, there are not many portfolios for which loud-mouthed ignorance is a prerequisite.

Regional Development, Infrastructure and Water obviously seemed the best fit: Joyce is now to be sent barnstorming around the countryside unleashing torrents of uninformed and probably inaccurate abuse, hopefully out of sight and sound of the national media. He will undoubtedly contradict Abbott’s policy on water (Abbott favours a federal takeover of the Murray Darling system while the Nationals and the irrigators do not) but this should prove less of a problem than his economic gaffes. And at least he will be out of the way.

Of course the opportunity to get rid of him was caused by the unexpected resignation of Senator Nick Minchin, which will pose its own problems. If Cardinal George Pell is Abbott’s personal confessor in matters spiritual, then the sinister senator performed the same role in matters temporal; he was always the grey eminence lurking behind Abbott’s leadership. No doubt he will continue to lurk, but his absence from cabinet meetings will remove Abbott’s most powerful ally.

The moderates, led by Joe Hockey and Chris Pyne (who refers to his fellow crow-eater in terms which are unprintable even in the most enlightened media) must be delighted. And what about the biggest moderate of all, Malcolm Turnbull? Suddenly Abbott’s rejection of his comeback offer looks less like prudent politics and more like a touch of funk.

Minchin will also be missed in his role as opposition senate leader, a position in which his unquestioned authority helped restrain his Coalition colleague, National Party senate leader Barnaby Joyce. His replacement, Eric Abetz, does not have the same clout. As his name implies, where Minchin took the lead, Eric merely abets.

Joyce is now to be sent barnstorming around the countryside unleashing torrents of uninformed and probably inaccurate abuse

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