Julia Gillard is in Brussels right now on her first official overseas trip as Prime Minister. Apart from attending the Asia-Europe meeting, she’ll be expected to meet with as many other national leaders as possible. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s floated the idea of a new research and development treaty with the European Union, stopped off in Zurich to sweet-talk the heads of FIFA into awarding Australia the 2022 World Cup, visited troops in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province and talked with leaders in Kabul. To say this is a busy week is definitely an understatement.
Tony Abbott, meanwhile, is travelling to London to meet with the British Prime Minister David Cameron for the Tory party conference. He had been invited to accompany Gillard to Afghanistan, but declined the offer. When asked why, he initially said that he felt that travelling to Afghanistan before going on to London would leave him jetlagged. He added that he he felt it was important that he do the trip to England ‘justice’.
This is pretty much a gaffe of the first order. Media leaped on his remarks with glee, serving them up to Labor politicians in the hope of getting a snarky soundbite. Gillard indulged in a little comparison, commenting that she had managed to get eight hours’ sleep despite her busy schedule, but otherwise let the issue fall flat. Some members of the public, meanwhile, were outraged. The father of an Australian soldier recently killed in Oruzgan province was particularly scathing; for him, Abbott’s remarks were nothing short of disrespectful to his son’s memory.
Should Abbott have chosen his words more carefully? Of course he should have; no one suggested that he meant to be disrespectful to Australian troops, but he left himself wide open for criticism. But really? Talk about a non-story.
Except for what Abbott’s party men did a little later.
Senator George Brandis came out of his corner swinging on the subject. How dare anyone criticise Abbott, he thundered. Meeting with Cameron was the most important thing any politician could do in Europe. Gillard, he sneered, was simply ‘speed-dating’, while Abbott was consulting the leader of a sovereign country. “A profligate Labor government drove Britain into deeper levels of debt than Britain had ever known in peace time … just as we’ve had in Australia,” Brandis said, implying that Abbott would be discussing our dire economic situation with the Man Who Will Save Britain.
Joe Hockey wasn’t far behind. The invitation to visit Afghanistan was nothing more than ‘silly’, and by making it, Gillard was playing ‘political games’. Of course Abbott would visit the troops – in fact, he had always been planning to do just that – so Gillard’s inviting him to travel with her was ‘low-rent politics’. He finished up with a warning that made no sense at all: ‘It’s Julia Gillard that is playing this game of snakes and ladders, and I say to Julia Gillard, be very careful of where you are treading.’
Oddly, Senator Barnaby Joyce offered the most reasonable comment. Abbott knew he’d made a mistake, was now going to rectify that mistake by visiting the troops, and for that he should be commended.
It’s important to point out here that all these responses were far out of proportion to any comments made by Labor, and even by the media. The sudden, vicious attacks from Brandis and Hockey turned a momentary gaffe into an issue of note.
Brandis’ contribution sent the message to Europe that, in Australian eyes, it was simply unimportant compared to Great Britain. It trivialised Gillard’s meetings with the heads of NATO, the European Union, Korea and China. It was also sexist; I think it’s fair to say that no male Prime Minister would ever be accused of ‘speed-dating’ world leaders.
And Hockey? The notion that it’s ‘silly’ to invite the Opposition Leader undertake a bipartisan trip to visit Australia’s troops serving overseas defies logic. Even if Abbott had always planned to visit the troops later (which seems unlikely, given he said nothing about any such ideas until after his ‘jetlag’ comment), surely he could have said as much to Gillard and the public at the time the invitation was first extended? Hockey’s assertion goes further, however; apparently, even the very idea is laughable. Using Hockey’s reasoning, it is simply ridiculous to expect that both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader might appear in the same place at the same time to give support to the troops.
Both of Abbott’s would-be defenders have inflicted more damage on the Liberal leader than any of his own words. But why on earth would they do this? Was this a case of standard attack politics – divert attention from one’s own problems by creating an issue out of nothing? Were they just caught on the hop, and unable to come up with anything more substantial?
I suspect this is all a very clumsy diversion. Today, The Australian reported that several Coalition MPs had expressed dissatisfaction with Abbott’s hands-off position on industrial relations. Two of the loudest were Steve Ciobo, dumped from the Coalition’s frontbench after the election, and Jamie Briggs, the man appointed to head up the so-called ‘Committee to Scrutinise Government Waste’. These are not small voices, and for them to be so openly critical of their leader exposes the party to severe criticism.
Labor were quick to capitalise on the report, proclaiming that here was ‘proof’ that WorkChoices was not – as Abbott claimed – ‘dead, buried, cremated’. Coalition MPs scrambled to provide damage control, but there was real potential for this to become a real point of vulnerability that Labor could exploit, both in the House and to the media. The alternative was to meet the ‘jetlag’ comments head on, and attempt to spin that situation as both exemplary behaviour by Abbott and a matter for criticism of Labor.
Unfortunately, that strategy did more harm than good. Abbott now vehemently asserts that his trip to Afghanistan has been planned ‘for a long time’, but cannot explain why he did not volunteer the information earlier – nor can he justify why he made the ‘jetlag’ remarks in the first place. He apologised to the families of soldiers killed while serving overseas, but could only say that his words were ‘ill-chosen’.
Meanwhile, his defenders – intentionally or not – gave the impression that the Coalition is completely disinterested in bipartisanship where supporting our troops is concerned, trivialised important meetings with leaders from around the world and communicated to those leaders that they believe attending a political party conference is more important than treaty negotiations and briefings on the war in Afghanistan.
It’s a very bad look for the Coalition, and particularly for Abbott. They appear to be gambling that the industrial relations issue will be overtaken by ‘jetlag’. Labor certainly won’t forget about it, though – and hopefully, neither will the media.
Abbott should have to answer some very pointed questions about his words, his defenders and his dissenters. If this interview with Laurie Oakes tonight is any indication, such questions are likely to prove extremely uncomfortable for the Coalition.