How Maestro Abbott’s sluggish tempi (and that thing about onions) led to a rebellious orchestra tearing up his contract.

It seems Australia changes political leaders almost as often as I change my underpants. Maybe by the time you read this some crisis or scandal will have engulfed Malcolm Turnbull and he will have been made to eat the proverbial onion. He’ll be back on the back benches and Bronwyn Bishop will be our new Prime Minister, her bun vibrating tightly in the downdraft of her RAAF Chinook tandem rotor helicopter. 

I was out of the country when it all happened, conducting in Hong Kong. By the time I walked onto the plane to come back the leadership spill was on, and as I got off the plane Tony Abbott had been replaced. No bloodshed in Canberra, no tanks in the streets, a highly effective and seamless transition. Every Prime Minister in this country now knows that unless they provide good solid leadership reflected in healthy polling they will be out on their ear. If Tony Abbott wants to know what went wrong, he could do worse than visit an orchestra to see how true leadership works.

“Parliamentary parties are like orchestras, full of ego and determination”

Parliamentary parties are like orchestras, full of ego and restless determination. Who would not go into parliament without some deep ambition to rise to the top and become a soloist (cabinet minister) or even conductor (Prime Minister). The world of conducting is full of egomaniacs and narcissists, but most good ones instinctively realise that they are only as good as the players in front of them. In effect, Tony Abbott was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and whilst he had brought them to a shiny new concert hall (called Government), after two years they didn’t think his conducting was up to it. 

The tempi were wrong; he would eat onions at the break; he gave knighthoods to viola players who were already knights from another country. His rehearsals were boring and he kept repeating himself on the podium. (Orchestras hate that sort of thing, they just want to get on and play.) Critics started to complain about slow tempi in his Mahler and Beethoven and the orchestra’s lacklustre dynamic range. Concertmaster Julie Bishop did her best to keep morale high, but Associate Concertmaster Joe Hockey kept on playing bum notes and blaming others for it. That irritated principal trumpet Malcolm Turnbull no end, because he had once also played violin and knew that Hockey was making a mess of it. 

Maestro Abbott still had the support of the double basses over on the extreme right (Andrews, Bernardi and Abetz), but the rest of the orchestra started to rumble and mumble. They called him in for a meeting and told him unless things got better and he stopped eating onions at the break he would have to go. 

Maestro promised he would turn the ship round in six months, improve his rehearsal technique and grow the audience but sadly nothing changed. Reviews started to head south, even from his own supporters. Audience numbers declined for 30 concerts in a row. Eventually the orchestra decided to tear up his contract and get in a new conductor with more glamour, someone who could blow his own trumpet, string together complex sentences, not confuse a repository with a suppository and would never under any circumstances eat a raw onion on camera. 

Maestro Abbott was obviously hurt by what they had done to him, but instead of walking out the door in a huff he elected to sit at the back of the viola section and play rank and file. From there he could glare at Maestro Turnbull and hope that the new conductor will one day turn two pages at once, make a dreadful mistake in a Bruckner symphony and the orchestra will invite him back to the podium as it did in 2009. But I wouldn’t hold my onion breath.