This week we saw Tony Abbott make his last formal speech as prime minister before Malcolm Turnbull took over following a leadership spill.
So how did Abbott’s speech rate?
Speeches by prime ministers who’ve been ousted before ending their terms can be interesting viewing. We see our leaders as we’ve never seen them before, publicly facing up to the fact that their colleagues have decided they’re not up to the job. The speech is a chance to make a last impression, to have the last word.
Kevin Rudd gave one in 2010 when Julia Gillard took his job.
Then it was Gillard’s turn in 2013 when Rudd took the job back.
So how did Abbott’s speech shape up against those by Gillard and Rudd?
Well, Abbott didn’t cry. Australians are used to prime ministers weeping in public, including when losing office. Rudd struggled to control his tears during his speech in 2010.
Abbott came across as confident and unemotional. Perhaps the navy blue tie was a nod to the sombre nature of the occasion (Rudd’s in 2010 was mid-blue, by the way). Then again, it could have been chosen to match the Australian flags that flanked Abbott as he stood at the podium.
Nor did Abbott give us any laughs. Both Gillard and Rudd lightened the tone of their speeches. Gillard ended up saying she’d be “the most meddlesome great aunt in Australia’s history”. Rudd joked that he’d be prime minister for another 15 minutes – “anything could happen folks” – then finished by laughing at his own catchphrase, “we’ve got to zip”.
Abbott didn’t even make any of the gaffes or repetitions we’ve become used to. He stuck to his script and didn’t stumble.
What Abbott said
We can see speeches by politicians as “empty rhetoric” because they often trot out the same old self-serving claims and clichés.
Much of what Abbott said was what we’d expect him to say. He was grateful for the privilege of holding office, and for his supporters. He praised his party and listed his own and his government’s achievements. He also said he had the nation’s best interests at heart and looked to the future. Gillard and Rudd did much the same.
Abbott’s speech was shorter than the others. This suited his matter-of-fact approach to what had happened – “when you join the game, you accept the rules”.
What makes Abbott’s speech interesting is what he said about people who play another type of game. In pledging to ease the transition to the new leadership, Abbott promised “no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping”. He presented himself as an honourable person who’d fallen victim to treachery.
The media were singled out for blame. More polls and commentary had led to “mostly sour, bitter character assassination”, a harmful “revolving-door prime ministership” and a “media culture … that rewards treachery”.
In case we had any doubt about his own honour and legacy, Abbott ended by quoting Psalm 116 (verse 12): “What shall I render under the Lord, for all his blessings to me?” His answer? “I have rendered all, and I am proud of my service.”
Rudd also drew on his Christian faith towards the end of his speech when he thanked “the great God and creator of us all”. But Abbott’s choice of Psalm 116 (verse 12) was more pointed.
This was the text for the first Christian service in Australia, Abbott noted, and he had used it in his maiden speech to parliament. Psalm 116, one of the thanksgiving psalms, thanks God for deliverance from some kind of evil or persecution. Immediately preceding verse 12 is a reference to liars.
What Abbott didn’t say
As with any speech, what Abbott chose not to say is just as interesting as what he did say.
Abbott neither mentioned Malcolm Turnbull by name nor congratulated him. One of the first things Gillard did in her speech in 2013 was to congratulate Rudd. Rudd named and praised Gillard in his 2010 speech, even if he took a while to get around to it.
Abbott said nothing specific about his future. We know now that he intends staying in parliament, but we’re still left wondering what the relationship with Turnbull will be.
Did Abbott’s speech show a dignified leader focused on the greater good? Or did it show a leader intent on blaming others for his downfall? Did it show Abbott in a different light?
The answer will differ, depending on our own opinions of Abbott’s track record and even our memories of other speeches. It will also be influenced by what we expect from our leaders when they are at their most vulnerable.
The post-leadership spill speech quickly becomes yesterday’s news as attention shifts to the new prime minister. Perhaps in the long run the speech is most important for the outgoing prime minister who’s trying to set the record straight.
The author thanks Tim Williamson for his help with the Biblical quotation.