19/11/2015 6:02 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Why Tony Was Toppled

How does a successful opposition leader make such a mess of the prime ministership -- a position to which he had aspired all his life?

FILE - In this Sept. 19, 2014 file photo, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks during a press conference, in Sydney. Beleaguered Prime Minister Abbott will face a second challenge to his position this year, with a ballot of government colleagues late Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, hours after a senior minister challenged him for his party leadership. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, File)

How does a successful opposition leader make such a mess of the prime ministership -- a position to which he had aspired all his life?

Tony Abbott is a man of contradictions. He projected a confident air when he despatched Malcolm Turnbull to win the leadership of the opposition in 2009, and then set about destroying Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Rudd once again to seize the top job in 2013.

The devastating negativity and three-word slogans, though, were a front for a more complex figure who doubted his ability to relate to the modern Australian electorate. This lack of self-belief helps explain why he was unable to make the changes necessary to make his transition from opposition to government more successful. He couldn't even change his leadership style in order to maintain power after he was given the ultimate warning by the Liberal Party in February this year.

There were some very poor political judgements early in Abbott's term, such as finding room for just one woman in his cabinet. None were more important, though, than the 2014 budget. Joe Hockey's first budget was criticised on two main grounds: that it broke promises and that it was unfair. The government may have been able to fight on one of these fronts but not both. Backbenchers warned Abbott that their constituents hated the budget and wanted a change of direction. However, Abbott denied for more than a year that his government had broken any promises, wasting precious time.

To understand all this, we need to look at Abbott's personality. He considered himself honest and loyal, and believed that he was running a government that consulted widely among his parliamentary colleagues. By the time he was defeated, Abbott had only conceded one broken promise -- that there would be no cuts to funding public broadcasters.

Abbott was no more nor less honest than your average political leader but his period in opposition was peppered with rhetoric about Gillard's dishonesty and his commitment to be different. When he inevitably had to make compromises in government, he played word games about what he had and had not promised before the election. This was Abbott's natural stubbornness combined with a doomed determination to prove to the electorate that he was keeping faith with them.

Abbott also considered himself loyal. He was too loyal to some friends like Bronwyn Bishop, whose copter-gate entitlements farce hurt the government soon after a well-received 2015 budget. Abbott should have encouraged Bishop to stand aside much earlier than he did.

He stayed loyal to Hockey when many colleagues and observers were calling on the prime minister to sacrifice his treasurer in order to signal a change of direction on economic policy. Yet, when Abbott came under pressure from Turnbull in September, he was willing to let Hockey go if Scott Morrison accepted the deputy leadership -- and, by implication, the treasury portfolio.

Abbott's self-image as a man of principle prevented him from making the right decisions about Hockey and Bronwyn Bishop when it could have made a difference. Again, Abbott's personality affected his political judgement.

None of this need have been fatal to Abbott's leadership. Long-serving prime ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard both had rocky starts in the job, losing seats at their second elections but surviving to perfect their leadership formula. When his backbenchers sounded Abbott a warning in February this year, they hoped that he would change his policies but also his leadership style. They wanted him to succeed. They wanted him to consult with them about how he could succeed.

But what Abbott was unable to do was change himself or his political strategy. He was risk-averse because he felt indebted to his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and refused to listen to criticism of her. In the past week we have seen deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop's loyalty to Abbott questioned because she delayed warning him about the looming September coup.

Yet, in spite of the poisoned relationship between her and Credlin, Bishop gave Abbott the best piece of advice he has ever received when he questioned her loyalty around the time of the February leadership spill: "I'm not your problem," she told him. "You are your own worst enemy."

Abbott, of course, refused to listen. Self -examination wasn't in his character.


Wayne Errington is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Adelaide and the co-author, with Peter van Onselen, of Battleground: Why the Liberal Party Shirtfronted Tony Abbott, which is published this week by Melbourne University Press.