Abbott suffering a Labor Party stoning
Illustration: Michael Mucci
Tony Abbott is a hack. A dog. An aggressive, carping, bitter, mindless, deceptive, dodgy, mendacious, rancid, negative, nasty, muck-raking, untruthful, obstructionist, opportunistic, sexist, political Neanderthal. He is unfit for high office. He cannot control his temper. No trick is too low for him. No stunt is too wild. He is a bully. A thug. A snake oil salesman. A poster child for vile bully-boy values. He has repulsive double standards. He hates women. He stands for nothing. He has unhealthy obsessions. He is nuts.
Abbott behaves like Jack the Ripper.
He is Gina Rinehart's butler.
He is Nancy Reagan without the astrology. He is a douchebag.
I'm quoting here, mostly from Hansard. These are not comments from media figures, or feral demonstrators, or dredged up from 10 or even 30 years ago. These are insults delivered this year, by federal Labor MPs, directed at one person, and orchestrated by Julia Gillard. The level of personal insult has been on an industrial scale.
The Parliament is not a chamber of innocents. Many members, on both sides, including Abbott, have frequently engaged in invective, over-statement, dissembling and rampant double standards. There is also a more general coarsening of public discourse on the internet, thanks in part to the impact of social media. But it is this government's concentration on Abbott's character that sets it apart. It is the tactic on which the Gillard government has staked its survival, the politics of the personal, of targeting character, of hammering the same message about the same person, by every minister, until it seeps into the public mind.
The strategy was unveiled at the beginning of the year with some of the worst political bastardry from the nation's leadership seen in a long time. It started with an Australia Day address at the National Press Club delivered by Anthony Albanese on January 25. By convention this is a respite from political hatchet jobs, but Albanese launched into Abbott's character, describing him as ''One Trick Tony'', that one trick being ''more negativity, more nastiness, more obstructionism''.
This was standard from Albanese, but something much nastier came out of the Prime Minister's own office the next day, Australia Day. A group of Aboriginal demonstrators had gathered at the tent eyesore in Canberra. A member of Gillard's staff alerted one of the people at the demonstration and said, falsely, that Abbott was nearby and had just denigrated the Aboriginal tent embassy.
Australia Day 2012 was thus marked by a hostile mob surrounding the Leader of the Opposition, berating him, banging on windows, making threats. In an irony that could become a metaphor, the Prime Minister, herself at the same function, got caught up in the mess.
The staff member who made the call, Tony Hodges, was obliged to resign. But the tone and the strategy had been set. On the first day of Parliament, February 7, Gillard re-set the template when she described the ''relentless negativity'' of the Leader of the Opposition.
That phrase, or variations on it, can be found hundreds of times in Hansard this year from Labor members. If you want to check the original insults quoted above, I have compiled a top 40 of the government's most self-revealing personal insults so far this year on smh.com.au.
The Prime Minister set the mantra and two days later the leader of government business in the House, Albanese, took it up a notch: ''In your guts, you know he's nuts.'' Albanese thought this was so hilarious he repeated it on February 13, February 16, February 29 and June 25.
The leader's theme was picked up by her chorus. Jason Clare, a junior minister: ''He stands for nothing. He is the Nancy Reagan of Australian politics without the astrology - say no to everything, just rancid, dripping, relentless negativity.'' Hansard, February 29.
After the ''relentless negativity'' line wore thin, the rhetoric was ramped up again.
''He is Gina Rinehart's butler.'' Gillard, Hansard, May 28.
''Tony Abbott is … a dog of a candidate.'' Richard Marles, Labor MP, interview, May 29.
''Abbott is a Neanderthal.'' Rob Mitchell, Labor MP, on Twitter, May 29.
''He is a dodgy snake oil salesman.'' Wayne Swan, Hansard, June 18.
''[He] sees political advantage in people dying.'' Mark Dreyfus, Labor MP, interview, June 26.
''Like Jack the Ripper, he is going to be there wielding his knife.'' Gillard, Hansard, August 20.
''He wants to go the biff day after day after day.'' Swan, Hansard, September 11.
''He is a thug.'' Swan, Hansard, September 11.
''Tony Abbott is the poster child for the vile, bully-boy values.'' Swan, on Twitter, September 19.
Then came the climax last week, when Gillard exploded in rage in the Parliament after she had been caught in the implosion of the reputation of the Speaker, Peter Slipper, a failure by the Prime Minister in every respect, tactical, ethical, moral and political.
Abbott was ruthless in exploiting the failure and Gillard was ruthless in defending it: ''It is misogyny, sexism, every day from this Leader of the Opposition. Every day, in every way … I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man … If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia … he needs a mirror … I am offended by the sexism, by the misogyny, of the Leader of the Opposition …''
It was mesmerising. It was great television. Of course Twitter went into a fever (Labor MP Steve Gibbons tweeted: ''That douchebag Tony Abbott.'') Of course the speech went viral on social media. The Prime Minister's outrage would have resonated with every woman who has endured boorish men. But was the accusation of misogyny true? No. Was it ethical? No. Was it a diversion? Yes. Was it part of a pattern? Yes. Was it good politics? We shall see.
- Paul Sheehan is on Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_