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Abbott’s battleground smoulders on

12 December 2015 338 views 3 Comments

Battleground: Why the Liberal Party Shirtfronted Tony Abbott
By Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen
MUP, 234pp, $29.99

This hastily put-together book is unambiguously focused on the failure of leadership of the 28th prime minister. It relies heavily on anonymous sources. However, it is worth pointing out that Tony Abbott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin both refused to be interviewed by authors Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen.

The title has echoes of Abbott’s 2009 memoir ‘Battlelines’, also published by Melbourne University Press. Intriguingly, Abbott’s book was published while he was a Liberal Party backbencher and Malcolm Turnbull was opposition leader.

In ‘Battleground’ the intellectual underpinnings of the allegations made about Abbott are sometimes less than brave. The authors not only do not attribute by name many of Abbott’s trenchant critics but it seems they haven’t sought the views of politicians and political staffers with a different perspective to their own.

In their acknowledgments Errington and van Onselen write that they “interviewed dozens of MPs and staffers … many of whom wish to remain anonymous. They offer “special thanks to those who provided quotes and helped us with behind-the-scenes details.

The reality is the authors have harvested ­numerous anti-Abbott stories from people who were plotting against him. Moreover, little is said and few are quoted in defence of Abbott as prime minister.

To be fair, Errington and van Onselen write: “When historians search for Australia’s best ever opposition leader, on either side of the major party divide, they may well settle on ­Abbott.

And if this book is to be believed, Abbott is not the brutal attack dog and misogynist (as claimed by Labor pre-election) but a wimp, largely controlled by his chief of staff.

In fact, much of the material that forms the core of this book often tells us far more about journalistic and ministerial advocacy than it does about the former prime minister.

In particular Abbott is pilloried for his loyalty to Credlin and his treasurer Joe Hockey. If only he’d dumped them, the argument runs, he might have survived. But removing Hockey as treasurer would have been proof of failure, especially as he and Abbott were co-authors of the 2014 budget. Dumping his chief of staff would have been absolute proof of the dysfunction of the PM’s office.

The idea that Turnbull would have been content to remain a minister if only Hockey and Credlin had departed is hard to believe. As Abbott has said publicly, Turnbull “didn’t stay in the parliament to be someone else’s minister. Turnbull didn’t want to be treasurer; he wanted to be prime minister. Making him treasurer, as many urged Abbott to do, would have given the challenger even more opportunity for elegant mischief-making.

There was a time when journalists and other writers were taught not to report claims to which informants were not prepared to put their names, without at least one corroborating source. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard certainly were early victims of advocacy journalism, but as this book reveals, it became much more intense in the campaign to undermine Abbott.

After admitting the deficit the Abbott government faced in opinion polls midyear was far from insurmountable, Errington and van Onselen argue “Abbott’s problem was that neither his ministry nor the backbench had any confidence that the prime minister had the leadership skills to win again.

As we know, however, a number of ministers not only supported Abbott remaining PM but also believed that he could defeat Bill Shorten in the next federal election.

Of course Abbott made mistakes. As Norton Hobson, my schoolmaster at Melbourne High School, told us in the late 1950s: “That’s why they put erasers at the end of pencils. Abbott’s errors as PM include promoting so few women into cabinet; breaking key election promises, including no cuts to health, education, the ABC and SBS; and reinstating knighthoods. In particular his captain’s call to make Prince Philip a Knight of the Order of Australia on January 26 this year was a significant error of judgment.

Even so, a more even-handed analysis would at least involve highlighting some of his government’s achievements. How the Abbott government managed to stop the boats, repeal taxes, remove a mass of unnecessary regulations, initiate major infrastructure, start the task of budget repair, finalise three free-trade agreements and keep the nation safe under such difficult circumstances is also a story that needs to be told. To my mind, Errington and Van Onselen in their punchy exegesis don’t even try to begin telling it.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, December 12-13, 2015, review, Books, pp 28-29

3 Comments »

  • Tony Abbott said:

    There was no engagement

    In his review of Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen’s book Battleground, Ross Fitzgerald doesn’t quite say it’s a hatchet job but he stresses the authors’ eagerness to find fault based on anonymous sources ­(“Abbott’s battleground smoulders on’’, 12-13/12).

    The book is riddled with errors of fact but one is especially egregious.

    On page 213, the authors state: “We would like to thank Tony Abbott for engaging with us. He helped shape our arguments in this book even if he may not like the conclusions we reached.”

    I did not “engage” with the ­authors. They requested an interview and emailed questions. These were so obviously a stitch up that I declined to answer other than to deny some of their claims.

    The book — to put it at its kindest — is partisan advocacy rather than disinterested scholarship.

    Tony Abbott, Canberra, ACT

    Letter to the editor The Australian, December 15, 2015, p 13.

  • Myriam Robin said:

    The meaning of “engagement”.

    There was a time when every pronouncement Tony Abbott made was splashed on the front pages of Australia’s newspapers. But his criticisms of the first of several books about him was made in an unusual place this morning — in the letters page of The Australian.

    It wasn’t even the top letter. On page 3 of today’s ‘The Australian’ in a response to a review written by Ross Fitzgerald of Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen’s ‘Battleground: Why the Liberal Party Shirtfronted Tony Abbott’, Abbott writes that the book is “riddled with errors of fact”. But he takes special issue with one:

    “On page 213, the authors state: ‘We would like to thank Tony Abbott for engaging with us. He helped shape our arguments in this book even if he may not like the conclusions we reached.’

    “I did not ‘engage’ with the ­authors. They requested an interview and emailed questions. These were so obviously a stitch up that I declined to answer other than to deny some of their claims.”

    Abbott also dismissed the book as “partisan advocacy rather than disinterested scholarship”.

    So what exactly was Abbott’s input to the book? Crikey asked both van Onselen and Errington this morning but didn’t hear back by deadline. But on Twitter, van Onselen, a contributing editor at ‘The Australian’, Sky News host and University of Western Australia professor, has been explaining the issue to his critics.

    “He answered email questions, but said it was background so I had to be vague,” PVO wrote when asked to outline his exact “engagement” with Abbott. “How’s it not engaging?”

    “He just doesn’t like that we found his email answers telling enough to say he helped shape our thinking.”

    Peter van Onselen used to work as an adviser for Abbott when he was industrial relations minister, but the two haven’t seen eye-to-eye for some time. Abbott refused to grace PVO’s show while he was PM, a fact the journalist has not been shy in complaining about.

    Myriam Robin, Crikey.com. December 15, 2015

  • News.com said:

    TONY Abbott is not the type to let others fight his battles for him.

    So when faced with an unsatisfactory situation, the former prime minister did what any other aggrieved citizen would do — he penned a strongly worded letter to the editor.

    Mr Abbott’s letter was published in ‘The Australian’ today and responded to Ross Fitzgerald’s review of the book ‘Battleground’, which explores his failed leadership.

    Fitzgerald was no fan of the book penned by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen, and described it as “hastily put-together”. He also noted that it relied heavily on anonymous sources, and that Mr Abbott and his former chief of staff Peta Credlin had refused to be interviewed.

    “The reality is the authors have harvested ­numerous anti-Abbott stories from people who were plotting against him. Moreover, little is said and few are quoted in defence of Abbott as prime minister,” Fitzgerald said in his review.

    But not content with someone else fighting his battles for him, Mr Abbott could not resist pointing out another failing of the book.

    In a letter to the editor attributed to ‘Tony Abbott of Canberra’, he points to a claim on page 213 of the book where the authors state: “We would like to thank Tony Abbott for engaging with us”.
    “He helped shaped our arguments in this book even if he may not like the conclusions we reached.”

    Not so, Mr Abbott declared.

    “I did not ‘engage’ with the authors,” Mr Abbott wrote.
    “They requested an interview and emailed questions. These were so obviously a stitch up that I declined to answer other than to deny some of their claims.
    “The book — to put it at its kindest — is partisan advocacy rather than disinterested scholarship,” he stated.

    Van Onselen responded to Mr Abbott’s criticism today on Twitter saying: “If the most ‘egregious’ error in our book is Abbott believing that him answering email questions isn’t ‘engaging’ (his opinion) that’s great.”

    News.com. 15 December 2015

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