Tony Abbott, sensibly, kept his head down. Photo: Lee Besford
We can all be grateful that our federal politicians have more or less respected voters by leaving them alone since Christmas. With any luck this might continue into the week after Australia Day.
The more so given that the year ahead, with an election, probably in September, threatens much more politics, and much political personality, than the average voter seems likely to appreciate. Neither of the alternative prime ministers is greatly popular with voters, and, although both deserve rather more respect and attention than they get, it is unlikely that either becomes more popular or respected with familiarity.
How nice it would be if the forthcoming contest, when resumed, was less focused on abuse than ideas, on the future rather than the present, and on ideals than meaningless factoids or slogans. Alas, neither thinks that this is how politics works, or even how it works for them.
Julia Gillard had the presentationals about right in her rare post-Christmas interventions, all of which were rather more presidential or gubernatorial missions than forays by a combatant. January is, as ever, our primary natural disasters month, and scenes of a leader listening, empathising and just being there are what, these days, people seem to expect.
Gillard seemed to behave no differently than she did last year or the year before, but she had the advantage this year of not having her appearances compared unfavourably with a Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, thought at the time by many, and opinion pollsters, to have managed very well, and to have connected, intellectually and emotionally, with Queenslanders. (That was an impression which was not confirmed by an election soon after, when Bligh and her party were routed, and all of the federal assistance in the world, including some political targeting, made no difference.)
No one this time, was making adverse comparisons of Gillard's words, empathy or dignity with those of Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings, who, sadly, had to be summoned from her holidays, or with NSW counterpart Barry O'Farrell. Queensland's Campbell Newman was graceless, as ever, but largely unnoticed abroad.
No one was making obvious personal or political points, and Tony Abbott, sensibly, kept his head down. Indeed, Abbott was reprising one of his identities as a relentless volunteer, doing a spell in a bushfire brigade, and, if some publicity was organised, it had the sense to concentrate on images, rather than attacks on the Prime Minister, or efforts to complain about carbon taxes, AWU governance or Labor sleaze.
Abbott deserves more credit for his capacity to play loyal Leader of the Opposition than he usually gets. Even on days when he is snarling at Gillard and her ministers he can listen carefully and patiently (often just before question time) to a well-crafted tribute by Gillard to some fallen soldier, former politician or sound citizen, and himself respond, not only with similarly well-scripted words, but generous and supportive words about what has been said by the Prime Minister. It is usually likewise at funerals, or state events.
This is by no means a self-denying ordinance on the part of Abbott. He himself has learnt, as have others in his position in both parties, that voters do not want every event or occasion politicised, any more than they want politicians hogging the limelight while others are in pain, grief or triumph. Simply being there is generally more than enough, and, if the times suggest it might be opportune to criticise one's rival for something unconnected with the occasion, that it be done well away from the backdrop, lest you be accusing of exploiting the occasion or the bully pulpit it gave.
Some might think the announcement of the royal commission on the management of sexual abuse of children in institutions had Gillard stepping out of a presidential role and into active politics - as it were, declaring the end of the silly season.
This could have been so had not Abbott contrived so carefully to make it a non-political event, and had he not avoided a number of
opportunities to make political criticisms about it. These could have included going much harder on suspicions that the commission is a ''fit-up'' designed to embarrass the Catholic Church and some of its senior hierarchy, and, by association, Tony Abbott as personal friend and Captain Catholic.
It could have included fears about the commission's capacity to go on forever, on terms of reference more or less able to be defined by the commissioners themselves, at enormous public expense during times of tight budgets. He could have attacked the commissioners - if not for being Labor luvvies so much as coming from the cultural classes and attitudes of what Abbott's mentor, John Howard, would have called ''the usual suspects''. Or warned that the terms of reference were creating an expectation of compensation that would revive quiescent campaigns for compensation to Aboriginal victims of the stolen generations, welfare children seized by institutions, ''orphaned'' children sent from Britain to Australia and both parties in the cases of forced adoptions.
All of these might have been respectable and responsible notes of caution, or have involved careful positioning so his powder is dry on some future occasion when it is opportune to attack the commission, its procedures, or the conclusions to which it appears to be going.
For the moment, however, the opposition can recognise a potential wedge. It understands that Labor has ulterior motives for this inquiry, even as it presents it as a logically necessary non-partisan attempt to get at the truth and to bring ''closure'' to the victims, vindication for their advocates and rich due rewards for everyone professionally on their bandwagon, especially lawyers.
That even the non-political is ferociously political is not particularly new. John Howard and Paul Keating, each in his own way, were masters of manoeuvres designed to trap their opponents on the wrong side of an issue. It was also a bonus, of course, even if the other side were nimble enough to avoid trouble, if, in their doing so they ceded valuable territory.
Thus the government might well calculate that a Catholic Church preoccupied with defending its good name over child sexual abuse might be a little less strident in putting the interests of children in stand-alone Catholic private schools ahead of the interests of the many more children in Catholic systemic schools. Or perhaps a little less high-minded in inconveniently arguing for the rights and the dignity of refugees. Or, in any event, perhaps a little less credible with either, or with any other causes at a time when its leadership, stewardship and moral right to criticise others is in sharp contest.
The Catholic Church is, of course, only one of the interest groups bound to be on the defensive at the commission. But some in the government will have noted with satisfaction how many of the others are often thorns in the side of government, whether from the left, or right, or both.
Thus, just as conservative Catholics attack governments over issues such as abortion, anti-discrimination legislation, drugs and biothethics, liberal Catholics are attacking it over refugees, Aborigines, drug cultures, foreign aid and war. Neither sets of advice are welcome.
Much the same is true of earnest and sometimes interested advice from other religious groups, including the Anglican and Uniting churches, even if, in some congregations, such as the more fundamentalist and Baptist ones, most of the pressure comes from the right.
Likewise governments rarely find helpful the well-meaning hortatory interventions of scout leaders, sporting luminaries or television stars, particularly given they are usually newsworthy only if they are critical of the status quo.
It goes without saying that social workers, welfare officers, prison governors and various others likely to face questioning over their responses to allegations of child abuse also largely come from the general profession of usual suspects and do-gooders. In public they must be given deferential attention, but are regarded, privately, as busybodies and pains in the arse.
Some in Labor (and almost certainly many in the Greens) will derive enormous pleasure from the royal commission even if Abbott is not embarrassed, or in some manner smeared by association with some perpetrators or those accused of sheltering them.
It might be enough simply to see some critics put on the defensive, so their views carry less weight on a pet issue, say on the environment or laws about discrimination.
Abbott's caution is as that of Kevin Rudd when Howard announced the Aboriginal intervention in the Northern Territory. Rudd hugged Howard on the issue so closely that there was not a chink of light between Labor and the Coalition. Yet many in Labor were appalled by it. Rudd had seen from Howard's exploitation of the Tampa affair in 2001 that, on issues which could be litmus ones for voters, there is no value in being a teensy-weensy bit more liberal than the other side - anything less than full commitment is characterised as weakness, gutlessness or code for being part of the problem.
In the meantime, that Abbott has been so quiet - or passively supportive - about the inquiry means that if, down the track, the inquiry starts to bite him, he can express his ''growing concerns'' with somewhat more pretended outrage than had he simply been negative from the start. This gives him somewhat more traction than he has been able to find over issues such as the Slipper affair, or the Craig Thomson affair, or even, despite an early willingness to let others do the dirty work, the Gillard-AWU affair.
To suggest that Labor, or the government, might have partisan intentions over child sex abuse, or that it will not be itself much discomforted by attacks on state welfare administrations and others whose activities are primarily the responsibilities of state governments might sound cynical. All the more so, perhaps, when the government is supposedly left of centre and led by a politician who was herself, at least at one time, a leading luminary and ideologue of the left, which has always claimed to carry a big candle for the poor, the vulnerable and the innocent.
But the left from which Gillard has come has never been particularly of the bleeding-heart variety, and she has hardly ever had common cause with (or even much factional support from) that so-called inner-city left whose focus is on an underclass. Her leftism, so far as any remains after her compacts with the party's Right, is more of the straitening big-government type. Some might say hers is a party of working Australians - decent people ''who get up by the alarm clock'' and believe in self improvement. In this vision, Labor is not a coalition of out groups - single mums, Aborigines, migrants, refugees, homosexuals and hippies - characterised by some of the non-bleeding heart left as scroungers, layabouts and wannabees living off, or desiring to live off, welfare. Curiously, proponents of such views are called the soft Left, while the bleeding-heart, cafe-latte types are called the hard Left.
Jack Waterford is The Canberra Times Editor-at-Large.