Yes, it is true that the buck stops with him, and that he is responsible for his decisions and actions, but one wonders at the strategic political advice given to Tony Abbott lately.
Abbott’s interventions in the Adler shotgun for legislative vote farrago badly, possibly fatally, damaged his prospects of a leadership return in his rush to defend his own honour. They fuelled the Government’s political woes as it struggled to defuse an issue of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s clumsy making. Abbott followed his impetuous instincts to jump into an issue when, in strategic terms, he should have followed Napoleon Bonaparte’s policy of never interrupting a rival while he is making a mistake. If zealous colleagues and advisers egged him on, they did him not a grave disservice. Even his great friend Catherine McGregor wrote in the Daily Telegraph this week that ‘There is no credible alternative to Turnbull at present…When I say that there is no credible leadership contender it gives me little joy. Tony Abbott has harmed himself among his colleagues though not irreparably.’
Knowing Abbott’s personality and strong sense of personal honour, if he was egged on to speak out when restraint should have been counselled strongly, he was very poorly served by people who should have known better.
But in her Telegraph piece McGregor herself has not served Abbott well either. What she did, by saying she’d spoken with Abbott and Abbott knew his views may be reported, stated not only Abbott’s desire to return to cabinet, but his terms of returning: a suitable ministry, ideally Indigenous Affairs. Through McGregor, a strong hint was given to Turnbull that the obligations of cabinet solidarity would be accepted by Abbott as curbing his freedom to speak at will on issues that matter to him.
McGregor’s piece aimed to showcase Abbott as a parliamentarian par excellence, with a fervent love of his MP’s role and the institution itself transcending his personal ambitions. Those who have worked closely with Abbott can vouch for that and can envision him, years from now, still a figure in the House like Winston Churchill or David Lloyd George, using his prestige as a former PM in ways no common backbencher can aspire to, and his nemesis Turnbull long gone. Indeed, McGregor compared Tony Abbott, parliamentarian, to notoriously hard-to-dismiss English batsman Geoffrey Boycott: presumably she meant in terms of Boycott’s legendary tenacity at the crease, not his odious qualities as an utterly selfish batsman who batted for his average and not the team, and delighted in running out his batting partners to preserve his own wicket.
Commenting on the McGregor piece, the Guardian’s Katherine Murphy noted ‘Abbott’s recent behaviour has not won plaudits from his colleagues, even from conservative supporters, and some MPs see the McGregor column as an effort by Abbott to bargain for some kind of truce’. She’s right. McGregor meant well, but ‘reporting’ Abbott’s views on a return to the frontbench doesn’t help her friend’s cause. It read like an ultimatum to Turnbull and Abbott’s more enthusiastic detractors, like Fairfax’s Mark Kenny, could paint it as such: give me what I want Malcolm, or I’ll blow the place up. Surely that wasn’t the intention of either McGregor or Abbott, but what was written can be interpreted that way easily enough. No doubt Niki Savva will go to town on it this in her next Australian anti-Abbott spray.
McGregor is right about one thing, however: lingering Turnbull-Abbott tension is corroding this government. But if McGregor did reflect Abbott’s thinking, then Abbott shouldn’t communicate with Turnbull through surrogates. He should take the initiative, approach Turnbull out of the public gaze and simply say: ‘Mate, let’s end this for the good of the team. I will not challenge you, but this soap opera is affecting both your judgment and mine. I just want to serve our common cause to the best of my ability, and you have nothing to fear from me.’
If nothing else, this would put the onus on Turnbull to accept or reject Abbott once and for all. Part of Turnbull’s problem is his own pride and inability to treat Abbott with the respect his leading the Coalition from the wilderness deserves: if he can reach into himself and say ‘Tony, I accept your offer in the terms you’ve made it, and I want you in the team to make it the strongest it can be to defeat Labor’, he would be doing himself, his party and his country a great service. A cabinet without Abbott is not the Coalition’s best team and perpetuates the tensions within the government. But if Turnbull doesn’t see this by now, a thousand Cate McGregors won’t change his mind.
Whatever the outcome of such a delicate dance may be, Abbott needs to remember that public silence is golden and is now his best path to political redemption: Turnbull needs to realise showing honour and trust to a beaten foe is not weakness.
Whether these big beasts can achieve such wisdom is key to the viability of the Coalition government beyond next year. If they can’t, the electoral toast already is starting to smoulder.