THE opposites of rash, aggressive, impulsive, and frenetic are probably things like calm, consultative, methodical and steady. Unsurprisingly, these latter words are the ones Tony Abbott wants you to attach to his new government.
Abbott is building a public relations case for his administration against the negative backdrop of the “chaos” he replaced.
Clearly, the Rudd and Gillard incarnations of Labor were notable not just for their poisonous divisions but for their desperate attempts to rev up the news cycle.
But Abbott’s insistence on taking it slow and steady has as much to do with presenting an antidote to his own reputation as it does Labor’s.
For Abbott to be successful, he needs to turn around a persistent view of him as a jaw-jutting political bovver boy — a divisive, ideological green beret, gifted at destroying things but with no aptitude for nation-building, for governing.
Abbott in week one of his 2013 government is actually running against himself, or at least that version of himself.
The slowness of his start is almost jarring. Not one post-election press conference and no cabinet named or sworn in. So much for all the emergencies on the borders, in the budget, in the economy. He even wants politics off the front pages in favour of sport.
Abbott had actually been standing on the brake pedal before he won, such was his momentum towards office. The signs were there if you looked. Softening the rhetoric, toning down the outrage, winding back the expectations.
Witness his surplus promise, which does not even match Labor’s four-year path. It paid dividends. Abbott’s singular aim once the campaign was on was to reassure voters they could switch, that there was a safe alternative.
The story of Abbott’s stunning success is inseparable from his political maturation. Yet the case against him has been set in aspic. The political left’s fascination at his surprising one-vote victory over Malcolm Turnbull in 2009, the oft-cited proof of his shaky internal mandate and his capacity to divide his own MPs.
Yet as George Brandis points out, Abbott’s internal support is unrivalled. It is not that he won by a single vote that’s important, it is that he turned that tiny edge into genuine authority.
Those clinging to the view that the country’s new Prime Minister is some kind of one-dimensional throwback to the 1950s simply haven’t been paying attention.
Labor’s case against Abbott suffered from this very misconception, which goes a long way to explaining why it has serially underestimated him.
It may be one of the larger ironies of Australian politics that on the socially divisive issue of marriage equality, for example, it is the Catholic conservative Abbott, rather than the atheist progressive Julia Gillard, who eventually delivers, by allowing an unfettered conscience vote among his MPs and, perhaps even, by dropping his previous objections.
The left’s answer to the Abbott challenge has been to assume deceit. To posit that Abbott remains every bit the right-wing ideologue but has hidden his desire to deregulate the workplace, wind back advances for women, reoppress Aborigines and hand over the environment to big oil and big coal.
Abbott, it was asserted, was economically dry and socially wet.
Business worries that the reverse is true, pointing to his taxpayer-funded direct action plan to replace Labor’s market-based emissions trading scheme and his taxpayer-funded, gold-plated paid parental leave scheme.
Neither could be described as “dry”. Rather, they are entirely political, showing Abbott’s propensity to shape-shift and go beyond his programming to hold the centre.
Abbott in government is likely to be populist, political and pragmatic, rather than right-wing, reactionary and regressive.
And the longer the left takes to understand this, the longer it will take it to come to terms with its own failings.