A couple of years ago I was doing some part-time study at a language institute. After a couple of terms with one teacher, she informed the class one evening that she had been sacked and would not be returning the following term. The reason for her sudden dismissal, she said, was that she had made an intemperate remark at a staff meeting and the new Director had taken exception to it (she illustrated this point by using various intemperate words in the language in question which I won’t repeat here, but which increased my colloquial understanding of the language no end).
Over the next few weeks we learned that it was not just those remarks that had caused her dismissal, but a long string of small incidents which, when taken individually, were insignificant, but when considered over a longer period of time built up a negative perception. She was a great teacher, a good communicator and my proficiency in the language improved vastly under her tutelage, but she was a loose cannon for the organisation: a shit-stirrer, as Tony Abbott might say.
Which brings me to the point of this piece: as regular readers of this blog will be aware, I am not exactly a fan of the Opposition Leader. However, the Channel 7 ambush of him last night was gutter journalism as its lowest. Footage of his post-election visit to Afghanistan was played, where he is heard commenting in a discussion with a senior officer that ‘shit happens’ when referring to the death of an Australian soldier. He was then cornered yesterday by a journalist demanding he explain the comment, which was made many months ago.
Shit does happen in war. It’s called ‘war’ for a reason. If really nasty shit didn’t happen it would probably be called holiday camp. Furthermore, if Abbott’s hero and mentor, John Winston Howard, hadn’t committed Australia to trotting along behind Bush’s invasion then shit wouldn’t be happening to Australian troops, but that’s neither here nor there right now. Abbott’s comment, made in conversation to the commanding officer was not taken ‘out of context’ as his office was quick to claim, but its use has been carefully manipulated with the purpose of showing Abbott to be dismissive of the death of a soldier.
I do not believe for one moment that Abbott would take a soldier’s death lightly. I don’t believe he meant any disrespect and I believe his commitment to Australia’s military effort in Afghanistan is entirely honourable. Misguided, perhaps, but honourable. His only real crime in making the statement was doing so in the presence of a live microphone. He should have known better. The comment, made in conversation in a war zone some months ago, sounds shocking to our sensitive ears as we sit in our comfortable chairs in our safe living rooms. That, presumably, was Channel 7’s intent.
What the whole incident does do, however, is add to a growing perception that Tony Abbott is loose with his comments and has trouble responding when put on the spot. At a time when people are complaining about politicians repeating scripted lines and reciting banal slogans, Abbott’s down-to-earth, blokey, candid remarks have come as a refreshing change and won him a lot of friends and supporters. It is this, more than any differences in party policies, that has set him apart from the Prime Minister, whose statements are carefully worded to the point where she often comes across as robotic: a point I’ve made before.
Questions are being asked now, however, both within the Liberal Party and in the public domain, as to whether such candidness and occasional bad language on Abbott’s part are appropriate for a parliamentary leader and alternative Prime Minister. This latest incident, on its own, and putting aside Channel 7’s blatant, gutter-press, publicity-seeking sensationalism, is of no great consequence, but it does add to that perception. Abbott’s inability to deal with the situation he found himself in has compounded the situation. It was what he didn’t say, far more than the offending comment itself that will be of concern to the Liberal Party. Having allowed the media opportunity in Afghanistan he made a comment which he now fails to defend beyond the standard, ‘taken out of context’ line. His anger at the Channel 7 journalist was palpable, but I wonder how much was anger at his own failure to see the punch coming and be ready with a counter punch or a quick sidestep and duck
If Tony Abbott is replaced as Opposition Leader over this single remark it will be a shameful indictment of the media. There are a lot of reasons why Abbott should be replaced, but not this. It will, however, add another doubt to the minds of his party colleagues as to his suitability for party leadership. A trend is emerging of verbal intemperance and it remains to be seen how much more they are willing to forgive before he is shown the door.