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The Abbot Experiment

By Simon Grose

A political career is different to any other in the highs and lows it offers, and it almost always ends badly.

One theory affirmed by the failure of Tony Abbot’s prime ministership is that all political careers end in failure, a rule affirmed by the fates of predecessors Julia, Kevin, John, Paul, Bob, Malcolm, Gough, Billy, and John. (Bob Brown is the exception that proves it).

Anyone engaged in scientific research knows that more experiments fail than are successful, and you often learn more from the failures than the successes. Abbot’s failure is a window into the potential for greatness and desolation in a political life.

Consider the (true) story of a man who boarded a Qantas plane in New York early last year for the haul back to Sydney. After settling into his Economy seat, he received the kind of invitation that can inspire belief in a gratuitously beneficient almighty: “Would you like to move up to Business, sir?”.

Padding up the aisle past the luckless 99%, who does he find behind the hallowed drapes but (then) Treasurer Joe Hockey heading for the same seat. Joe was coming down from First because it’s a bad look for pollies to fly at the front of the plane where the wine is finer and the food diviner.

The stewards deferred to the Treasurer’s imperative. But rather than sharing the joy by upgrading a real Business passenger, they ushered our man further forward to Joe’s seat in First. As he looked around he found himself sharing the elite dormitory with (then) Secretary of the Treasury, Martin Parkinson, and Reserve Bank Governor, Glenn Stevens.

They both earned more per year than Hockey, didn’t need endorsement from the hoi poloi every 3 years to keep their gig, didn’t have to front rabid journos from Sunrise to Lateline, didn’t have to ruin weekends by doorknocking their constituencies… and they fly First with impunity, literally under the media radar.

This contrast between the fates of those who choose a political life and the rest of us occurs at all levels. It’s almost 30 years since “new” Parliament House was opened. In that time hundreds of pollies have been and gone, while many others who work there – journalists and cleaners, security guards and public servants – have been doing so for the duration.

Perhaps more so than any other, a political career carries the risk of rising too high, beyond your level of competence, something you only discover when you crash. This happened to Abbot and Hockey.

As Opposition leader Abbot’s discipline and slogans enabled him to win an election against a messy Labor team, while as Shadow Treasurer Hockey was seen to be a star Coalition performer.

But it took just 2 years in government for the remorselessly Darwinian system of politics to expose their flaws and shoot them down.

It’s a character-building experiment, politics. Good luck, Malcolm.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (canberraiq.com.au)