Sunday 15 December 2019

Eoin Hahessy: Abbott may be good for the Irish, but his rise to top is bizarre

Tony Abbott flanked by his family, from left, daughter Frances, wife Margie, daughters Louise and Bridget
Tony Abbott flanked by his family, from left, daughter Frances, wife Margie, daughters Louise and Bridget

Eoin Hahessy

For more than a year, Australia has been caught in a neverending election groundhog day. The days began with one breathless electioneering announcement after another, political footballs being hoofed around as the media jostled to cover a truly surreal campaign.

It wasn't long before the Irish, or to be more precise the 457 visa that has allowed 12,500 of us to start new lives Down Under, got drawn into the melee. The 457 visa has been Australia's main mechanism to bring skilled migrants to its shores. In 1998, 30,000 visas were issued but in recent years this has risen to more than 120,000 and a disenchanted, but ill-informed, union base of Kevin Rudd's Labour Party had had enough. 'Protect local jobs' became the rallying cry as anti-visa stories were fed to a hungry media.

With a useful re-energised political base created, the ever-acquiescent Rudd duly ensured changes were suitably made. He pumped up the cost, and the bar, to obtain the 457 visa and promised more once he retained the reins of power. As the third highest recipients of 457 visas, we Irish felt the cool unloved chill. We listened humbly to error-strewn debates while gently spying our bags and contemplating their packing.

But lycra-clad, cycling crazy, robot-like Tony Abbott would ride in to be our saviour. A former Rhodes scholar and champion boxer at Oxford, he allegedly punched the wall either side of a female political rival in his '70s' student days.

Combative in nature, Tony served as political minister in previous governments before narrowly assuming the mantle of Australia's opposition in 2009. Not even being declared a misogynist in a speech by Julia Gillard that went viral was enough to knock Tony off his feet. No, this was going to be Tony's time. An army of minders kept him on message and his typical boorish persona hidden. Twenty-two years of continuous economic growth was a flag of little use to the government as the opposition strategists capitalised on a disorganised and disunited Labour Party.

"Stop the boats, repeal the carbon tax and cut the waste," Abbott repeated ad nauseam for 12 months, and the Aussies lapped it up.

He once trained briefly as a priest. Abortion is "a question of a mother's convenience", Abbott previously summarised while also declaring climate change as "absolute crap".

In an effort to mollify his abrasive image and shift focus from his frequent missteps – for instance, confusing suppository for repository and declaring that one of his female candidates had "sex appeal" – his handlers rolled out his strikingly-styled daughters. Usually dressed in virginal white, 22-year-old Frances, 20-year-old Bridget and 19-year-old Louise, with proud giggles, spoke about their 'Daggy' (untrendy) dad.

It worked, removing focus from the absence of opposition policy detail and lending female elegance to a campaign that former prime minister Gillard had opined was crowded with men in blue ties.

The rise and rise of Tony in this election was bizarre, even in a country where life constantly tips into the surreal. We had Australia's Sarah Palin, who with noble assertions didn't oppose Islam "as a country". There was also the election candidate that cringingly self-destructed in a live TV interview by forgetting his party's six policy points on immigration and spent the rest of the election hiding from the media and the electorate.

Then there were the candidates. Think Jackie Healy-Rae is odd? Australia has Bob Katter. A tall, rugged Queenslander who plays the cowboy while masking his inherent racism with a 10-gallon white hat. Then there were the policies. The Australian Sex Party outlined a creative plan to boost Tasmania's economy through large-scale production of cannabis while the Australian Sports Party unveiled a comprehensive policy brief – more sports.

IN truly GUBU-like moments we had the incoming government give every Indonesian fisherman a smile when it announced it would buy their boats to stop illegal migration to Australia. Then we had the insightful analysis by prime minster-elect Abbott that the Syrian conflict was one of simply "baddies versus baddies".

Buying all the fishing boats in Indonesia or playing cops and robbers with geopolitics was not going to stop the march of Tony, and this is good news for the Irish. All-action Tony has already broken the hinges from the doors of parliament to convene worried bureaucrats to repeal Australia's carbon tax. In a country where the business community leapt to the defence of the 457 system, Tony will do little to stem the steady pour of educated and skilled migrants keeping a vast country ticking over.

A right-wing future has been signposted Down Under and as many Irish exhale a sigh of relief, many Australians are taking a deep breath.

Eoin Hahessy – University of Melbourne –

Irish Independent

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