Coalition minister Scott Ryan said Abbott’s comments weren’t helpful. Photo: ABC Q&AFor roughly the 147th time in its nearly 10 years on air – spanning the entirety of ‘s Pin The Tail On The Donkey era of national governance – Q&A got right down to business on Monday with a debate about which donkey the tail might next be pinned upon. And as has become custom, Canberra’s least dopey donkeys are not merely allowed but are actively encouraged to come around for a second go.
Which is why it will come as no surprise, even to voters who barely pause between bangs of their head against the nearest hard surface, that a prominent donkey from previous turns in this arena is again keen to proffer his rear end for prime ministerial posterity.
Like Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten and quite likely Kevin Rudd before him, a man familiar to many as Tony Abbott has been recently making noises we instinctively recognise as those of a donkey hankering for that tail.
Sometimes it’s a squelching sound, sometimes an outright bray, but we know it well enough by now that it effortlessly prompts questions like this opener on Q&A: “When Tony Abbott lost the prime ministership, one of the things he said is he never leaked against anyone and he wouldn’t. Now that he has, how does that – especially given he was so gung-ho with having a go at the ALP for doing the same things when Rudd and Gillard were in power – how does that go for people trusting someone who seems to be the parliament’s biggest hypocrite?”
The beauty of that question is that if you changed the names around, it could have been asked in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and would quite probably serve you perfectly well for several years to come. Indeed, Q&A questions about the leadership of the major parties may reflect the nation’s only concrete commitment to a reliable source of renewable energy. They could power South through a nuclear winter, even as the answers to them sap your will to live.
On Monday night, it fell to the Special Minister of State Scott Ryan to prove that having the temporary occupant of the Prime Minister’s office designate you as “Special” doesn’t count for much in these fraught times.
Ryan, a Turnbull backer, is no novice at this Pin The Tail On The Donkey business. He knows that even when withholding the tail from a donkey you regard as way too flighty, you must scan the black-cloud horizon for some sign of a silver lining.
Heroically, he came up with this: “Well, it wasn’t helpful last week but what I’d say is – it was public. It wasn’t on background.”
For newcomers to our national pastime, a translation of Ryan’s assessment: “This particular donkey to whom you refer was no hypocrite; he was being a right bastard in public.”
This is also known as grasping at straws while the donkey in question is trying to bite your hand off.
“It wasn’t helpful, as has been commented on by my colleagues late last week,” Ryan went on. “It’s not a distraction to what I do. I don’t worry about that. I go to work every day to do my job, which is what the PM gives me to do.”
You had to feel sorry for the man; you even had to admire his restraint in not pointing out that the job the PM has given him to do is, actually, Special, and not concerned with this barnyard foolery.
But Tony Jones pushed on: “The question raises the issue of trust. Should the n public trust Tony Abbott, after having said that he wouldn’t destabilise. Should they trust him still?”
Ryan went for the thing you say when you’re really screaming “that bloody mongrel” in your head: “I try to avoid making public commentary on my colleagues. I’ll be honest and say it would have been better if it didn’t happen last week.”
And as is tradition at this stage of the Pin The Tail On The Donkey game, he offered this: “It’s a distraction for the media but it doesn’t distract me between 8 and 6 when I go to work every day.”
Tony Jones: “What do you think he was trying to achieve?”
Ryan: “I try and not pretend I have windows into men’s souls. Ask Tony. It’s best not to ask me to comment on someone else in that sense.”
Other panellists were asked for their views.
Former Abbott adviser Ted Lapkin summoned Napoleon: “Napoleon once said every private in his army has a field marshall’s knapsack. These people are not shrinking violets … does Tony Abbott want to be PM? I’m sure he does. But then so does everybody else.”
The ethicist Peter Singer thought that while Abbott had a right to speak, “having a right to something doesn’t mean you ought to do it. We have lots of rights … but it’s better to restrain yourself.”
And then to the key question: would the tail ever again be pinned on the donkey in question?
Scott Ryan: “I don’t think so. No is the simple answer.”
In the prize ceremony of a braying donkey’s mind, however, we imagine that debate ends somewhat differently.
In this fantasy, the big Oz car – numberplate C1, the PM’s wheels – goes once again to Tony Abbott.
And we cross to him now.
In la-la land.
And then… whoops!
Sorry, Tony. Wrong envelope.