Coalition would not return to the nightmare of Tony Abbott

December 4, 2015 – 11:45PM

Jack Waterford

Canberra Times columnist

Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin were the main problem during the Abbott prime ministership.

Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin were the main problem during the Abbott prime ministership.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Only Tony Abbott, and his most diehard supporters, could believe that there is any appetite, whether in his party or the electorate, for the restoration of the man endorsed by the electorate two years ago to be prime minister. But that he is maintaining an insurgency, contrary to his promises, may do the usurper, Malcolm Turnbull, more good than harm.

About 30 per cent of the parliamentary Liberal Party would be natural supporters of a conservative leader rather than the moderate Turnbull. But more than three quarters of these know where their bread is buttered and have no desire to walk the electoral plank in support of some ideological principle, even if Abbott could invent one. I doubt there would be 10, if that, who would support a restoration of Abbott, even if Turnbull’s popularity dived. They would choose another Tory. No one could now believe that Abbott could change his leadership style, suddenly become wise and consultative, or popular as opposed to respected in the electorate.

If Turnbull were to fall under a bus, conservatives would be looking for a different standard bearer, not a return to the nightmare of Abbott. All the more so if it appears, as it presently does, that a return to Abbott necessarily involves a restoration of Peta Credlin as his chief lieutenant and adviser.

Abbott and Credlin were a formidable team in opposition, and Abbott credits Credlin with the negative slogan-based tactics that won him government. But even were the Coalition to lose government, soon or after more terms in government, it is doubtful whether the party would look to Abbott, based on his opposition credentials, to lead it back into power. The circumstances would be different, and it is doubtful that tactics which worked on a divided and inept Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government would work again on a different Labor team.

When Abbott became leader in 2009, Liberals knew they were taking a considerable risk with Abbott’s personality and style. The bet paid off twice, in the sense of delivering an unexpected hung parliament in 2010 and victory in 2013, but it soon became manifestly clear that Abbott was a man for opposition, not for government. Even Abbott’s admirers and friends recognise that. The electorate formed that judgment as well. They would not be willing to have another go with Abbott..

But while there is a threat of active insurgency, sabotage, open settling of scores, and sniping at players seen by those who are now in the darkness, Turnbull has a degree of excuse for failing to deliver much in the way of change.

Just what promises and deals were made to and with potential supporters has never been publicly spelled it. But it is obvious that there were restraining undertakings about same-sex marriage, carbon taxes, and, probably a republic. Their currency seems to run at least to the election.

A breach of such promises would cause deep unease in some parts of the party, although the consequences would depend rather more about whether Turnbull appeared to be on target with his most important, if implicit undertaking, that he can lead the Coalition back to comfortable re-election next year.

Adherence to his word does not appear, yet, to have dented his popularity with voters. This does not mean that most voters, or even Coalition voters, support the policies on which he is constrained. Turnbull has been around for long enough that voters have a feel for his instincts and core beliefs. Many, particularly soft Labor and Green voters, confidently expect that Turnbull will chafe at the restraints, or that his adherence will be to their letter rather than their spirit. That forms a part of the hopes and expectations that have raised Turnbull to massive popularity, made a comfortable Coalition return seem inevitable.

Sooner or later, however, voters in the middle ground will expect not only a change of tone and mood – already delivered — but clear evidence of changed policies – evidence that having Turnbull has made a material difference to policies and programs of government.

That may be slightly more difficult while Abbott and a few loyalists (and the ALP) are loudly proclaiming that there has been no change of substance, and that Turnbull is simply carrying on with Abbott policies, if with a different style. The longer that appears to be so, the more Turnbull’s support will ebb away, at least if it appears that there is a Labor alternative.

But any disadvantage that causes is more than over-weighed by the appearance of pressure on Turnbull from a Tory insurgency, political sabotage and leaking, and other continuing recriminations. Right now at least, most of the Coalition, and most of the electorate actually want Turnbull to succeed. Their attitude to him differs from that towards Abbott, Gillard and Rudd, even perhaps John Howard towards the end of his term. A part of the charm of Turnbull is that there is no natural group of Turnbull-haters in the sense that there are instinctive and reflex Abbott-haters, Gillard-haters and Rudd-haters. Not everybody loves him – indeed he can be quite bruising and abrasive – but few of his enemies resort to voodoo.

The idea that Turnbull is having to govern with a hand tied behind his back because of the ideological demands of discontents located around Abbott may get him sympathy and some understanding from voters. This is empathy that Gillard never got while being undermined by Rudd. Likewise, efforts by Abbott to enforce the promises (as if they had been made to him) could even achieve some Abbot own-goals, in that even some people who might have been disposed to prefer Abbott will be exasperated and angry if his efforts threaten the Coalition’s standing in the opinion polls.

Abbott’s best (though still slight) hope of coming back to power depends on a collapse of Turnbull’s popularity and of two-party preferred support in the opinion polls. Few in the party want that.

Abbott might well say that Turnbull is now leader by undermining and use of opinion polls. But that would seem to underline what appears to be Abbott’s central delusion: that the leadership was stolen from him as a result of leaking, back-stabbing and treachery by others.

Abbott and Credlin (and, as now also seems plain, the federal Liberal Party organisation under Credlin’s husband Brian Loughnane) threw their power away. They lost the confidence of Abbott’s supporters by their own actions and omissions. It is not someone else’s fault.

Abbott is now ex-prime minister because people who had preferred him to Turnbull lost their faith and their patience in him. He was thrown out by his own, including his own friends.

I am reminded that 43 years ago, Billy McMahon, the prime minister whose record most resembles Abbott, said self-effacingly to his caucus, “You know, I am my own worst enemy.” Jim Killen, a backbencher, immediately responded, “Not while I’m alive, you aren’t”. Abbott, by contrast, was his own worst enemy – if it wasn’t Credlin.

That the Abbott Government was in serious trouble was obvious by this time a year ago. A somewhat weary Abbott agreed that there were barnacles to be scraped off over the Christmas holidays and some refocusing and reshaping of the party needed. There was no shortage of anxious backbenchers and ministers keen to offer friendly advice about what could be improved. It was clear, at least to everyone but Abbott and Credlin, that the main problem was with Abbott and Credlin, and the hapless performance of Joe Hockey, the latter at least partly Abbott’s fault.

But Abbott’s weaknesses and want of judgment remained on active display in January. The party’s revolt took Abbott by surprise – itself a measure of how out of touch he was . He begged for another chance, an opportunity to show that he could change his style and public perception of his hopelessness. Most of those who gave him that further chance had no real hope of expectation that Abbott could or would change. It was obviously a personality thing. Yet they shrank from execution, realising that it would be an awful look, after the disasters of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period.

Only a few superficial things changed, at first. Soon it became obvious that Abbott had not learnt, had not changed, was almost, it seemed, willfully trying the patience of the party and his colleagues. His friends were in despair, but he was listening less and less. That there were leaks, and consecutive public relations disasters were evidences of a government in chaos, not the causes of it.

Worse, some of his excesses, not least in building up national security tensions, and in demanding (and appearing to get) from his national security advisers a regular diet of confected crises and “announcibles”, involved dangerous abuse of power.

It is by no means necessary (indeed I think it wrong in principle) that there be a completely bipartisan policy on defence and national security. But it is a bad, and sometimes a wicked thing, to play party political games with our armed forces, or our national security establishment, simply in (generally failing) efforts to wrong-foot the other side for domestic purposes rather than defence of the national interest. The cynic might remark that it is equally bad to engage in similar plays in efforts to undermine people on one’s own political side. Yet there is evidence that the Abbott strategy, such as it is, is to paint Turnbull as “weak” and indecisive on terrorism. I have a Christmas suspicion that it will be overreach in just this area that ultimately serves to utterly discredit Abbott even to diehards.

Increasingly too he was limiting the government’s options and capacity to steady the economy by decisions focused on sharpening the political divide. Were Abbott in power right now, only a few months after his deposition, the economic outlook, business and consumer confidence and, probably, unemployment, would be quite different. Such figures are not mere functions of lever-pulling or inputs and outputs; they are measures of morale, of expectations and general optimism. That the coup changed such figures immediately (as well as the opinion of voters) is itself a justification for the coup.

Turnbull cannot, of course, blame Abbott for his problems with Mal Brough, though he now has the luxury of some private space to hope that the problem goes away, probably by Brough’s going into the library. Abbott was involved in the general war against Peter Slipper, but the various actions of Queensland politicians, including Brough, in creating some of the particular scandals were frolics of their own, and so as to further their own ambitions and agendas. It is by no means clear that Brough has committed any criminal or civil offence against Slipper, but it is clear (if it wasn’t by 2007) that his political judgment is seriously awry. And he looks grubby, even if it were to be accepted (and there is no reason why it should) that he was actuated only by a noble and disinterested desire to get a Liberal rorter out of the public sphere.

Brough (and Wyatt Roy, who also has a bit part in the affair) were key Turnbull supporters while Abbott was slowly committing political suicide. But they were promoting their own agendas too and, if they really think that the ascension of Turnbull was a good thing, it would be better putting his interests ahead of their own, in Brough’s case by resignation with such dignity as he can muster.

Down the track, he would, like Abbott, make an admirable administrator of Norfolk Island, ambassador to the Marshall Islands, or some similar position allowing him to showcase all of his abilities, skills, political nous and contribution to public affairs.

Canberra Times

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