My husband is a retired LtCol, and he tells me that there are unspoken rules around communication, particularly involving military officials from another country.
It's okay for the blokes to say "shit happens" to eachother; it's even okay for "the brass" to say "shit happens" to eachother. It's not okay for a civilian to say "shit happens" to a group of senior officers, especially when discussing operations in which Aussies are dying. For us, "shit happens" is a paper cut. For these guys, it's different by a factor of infinity.
It's also unstatesmanlike. Yes, it was a blokey environment, and yes, Tony likes to get blokey with the blokes, but was it appropriate? Tony Abbott wants us to accept him as a credible alternative Prime Minister - literally, Australia's ultimate statesman. "Shit happens" is not good out-loud language for a PM. Imagine the furore if Julia Gillard's already strangled vocals had produced "shit happens" in the presence of senior military officials.
As for his motives, no-one really thinks that Mr Abbott was being dismissive of a soldier's death or deliberately disrespectful to his family; it was a poor choice of words. Again, this is not something I want in a potential Prime Minister.
And Cantwell Agreed
Now that a more complete picture is emerging, we can look at Major General Cantwell's nodding agreement that shit does in fact happen. Again, no-one is arguing the unargueable: of course shit happens, and when it happens in war, it's nasty and people die.
I'm hearing a lot of chatter that Cantwell's agreement with Mr Abbott makes it okay, as though this expression has been blessed by the Uniform and is now somehow immune from criticism.
Let me suggest why Cantwell reacted with agreement: it's because he is a senior military officer in command of Australian troops. It is simply not done for an officer in his position to argue with or contradict a VIP civilian in front of the cameras. In any case, what could he have said? "No, Sir! Shit is not an option, Sir!" Any response other than quiet agreement would looked like a senior military officer humiliating a senior politician.
Enter Channel Seven
And who's Mark Riley anyway? If you don't watch Seven, you probably don't know. He's an experienced journalist and member of the Canberra press corps, but he's always had a bit of a "loose cannon" aura. He doesn't suffer from the earnest, respected tag that so many of the press corps have: Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oakes, even Latika Bourke have gravitas, and Riley does not. It's not surprising that Riley would be at the pointy end of this ship of fools. He even does political comedy for the morning gigglefest that is Sunrise.
So, let's look at Riley's behaviour on shithappensgate. Yes, it looked like ambush journalism. Today Tonight would be proud. If there had been a door, Riley's foot would have been wedged there. What we've only learned today is that Abbott's team - and presumably Abbott himself - knew what was coming. So no, not exactly the ambush we saw on tellie. We must assume Seven chose to make it look that way.
There's no doubt that Riley pushed the question, and no doubt that Seven initially edited out Cantwell's agreement. We should also consider Riley's motives. Was he trying to make Abbott look bad, or was he trying to get a story. He's employed to get the story that will get the ratings. Mission accomplished.
I have questions, though:
- Why has it taken Seven 3 months to access the footage via FOI? If it was pool footage, and unclassified, what was the delay? Who was restricting access to it and why?
- How did Riley come by this story?
I think its fair to say that Tony Abbott is neither a media whore, nor a media darling. Media is just not his strong point. Knowing that, his staffers agreed to a one-on-one with an adversarial journalist in the courtyard at Parliament House on the first sitting day of the year. It was a day that was already sodden with emotion. Clearly, Abbott knew the moment he saw the footage on Riley's laptop that this was bad for him. Actually, he knew over two hours earlier, as Abbott's office had even been briefed by Riley as to the subject of the interview, and had a transcript of the "incriminating" footage. Abbott's office named the time and place for the interview. Nevertheless, The Leader of the Opposition was unprepared. You could see the wheels spinning out of control, right up to when they stopped.
"...Out of context" stutters Abbott. Riley invites Abbott to clarify the context. Clarification was not forthcoming. Nor was anything else. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Shake & Bake. Not just for the 24 seconds shown on Channel 7, either: the raw footage shows the quivering went on for a little over 70 seconds. That's an eternity. Conservatively, it's about 200 words that weren't spoken.
I can't help but reflect on those months last year when Abbott repeatedly walked out of press conferences before they were finished. Was yesterday's dear-in-the-headlights tremors because Abbott was been counselled by media boffins not to walk out on journos asking questions?
Don't bother answering; it doesn't matter.
And the Damage Done
But why didn't Tony just explain the context, clarify the comment, apologise if anyone was offended? That's all it would've taken to curtail the media circus he was so determined to avoid.
Instead, Tony just stood there, grinding his teeth. He may have been summoning all his self-control to stop himself from snotting Riley; commentators and tweeters alike have said that they admire his restraint. But why do we admire restraint in a grown adult? The man who wants to be our Prime Minister was able to stifle his desire to thump someone on national television. Does that really deserve our applause and admiration?
Maybe I'm wrong, and Abbott does deserve our admiration. We could all see the effort it cost him to stay in control. Again - is that what we want in a PM? The wicket gets sticky and he shakes with speechless, impotent rage? Again, I use the word "unstatesmanlike". For as much stress Abbott appears to be under now; it will triple if he makes it to the Lodge. Remember, Abbott's team agreed to this interview. He'll cop this, and so much more on a daily basis if he is PM, and usually without the benefit of two hours' notice.
Another hallmark of leadership is "manning up", and unfortunately, this latest incident is just another one in a series for Abbott. A leader takes responsibility for his actions and those of his team. Now I'm not offended by "shit happens", but the deceased soldier's father is. He's had overnight to stew on it because Abbott failed to address the issue. Last week, Abbott was suggesting, via his website, that instead of donating to flood victims, donate to a political party: His. Last year, he said his decision not to visit our troops in a bipartisan grip-n-grin in Afghanistan with the PM was because of the dangers of jet lag. Prior to that, there was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, unless it wasn't gospel, written down words. And there was, of course, Bernie Banton. This is a pattern.
Media, Social & Otherwise
Less than a week after mocking Julia Gillard for being "wooden" during her dealings with flood survivors, Liberal party faithful are defending Abbott for ... being wooden. On the same day that those same Lib supporters are hurling insults at Julia Gillard about her emotional display in parliament, they're also urging their leader to vent his emotion by decking a journalist.
I have a theory: is it just because we're basically good people who hate to see anyone suffer? There's no doubt that watching the Abbott footage was uncomfortable. It was excruciating. Perhaps our inner-child-minds only see that Riley made Abbott feel bad. Poor Tony suffered, and as compassionate humans, perhaps we responded to that with sympathy for the victim.
Or maybe it was just that we accept "shit happens" as part of our Aussie lexicon, and it's our failure, along with Abbott's, that context isn't a factor when we chose our words. If that's the case, we must do better.
And why are so many established media types backing Abbott on this? Is Riley, or even the Seven Network, so unpopular that newscaff types will back Abbott to make Riley and Seven look bad? Notably, Oakes and Hinch seems to be missing the Seven-bashing gene.
In Tony Abbott's case, shit doesn't just happen. He's either a shit magnet or shit generator. I'm not sure which. In any case, he seems to be teflon coated.
And that should be the story.