Leading article Australia

Heart and soul

9 March 2017

3:00 PM

9 March 2017

3:00 PM

‘He [Tony Abbott] knows exactly what he’s doing. I’m not going to go into what private conversations I have with him, but he knows exactly what he’s doing, and so do his colleagues,’ seethed Malcolm Turnbull, before adding Mathias Cormann’s pre-tested line: ‘It’s sad.’

This was the bizarre response from one prime minister to a former prime minister’s policy manifesto for victory at the next election. Mr Abbott had put forward his five point plan during a book launch and TV interview – the book is a compilation of writers, incuding several regular Speccie columnists, pointing the way forward for conservative politics in Australia. Mr Abbott laid out positive and powerful ideas for the Coalition to seize back the intiative from a resurgent Labor party in the face of mounting concern in the electorate about energy blackouts, budget blowouts and in light of the new world of Trump.

This was clearly a manifesto designed to save the Liberal party from splintering into pieces; to stop members from walking away from what will be a rump of lobbyists, apparatchiks and careerists; to ensure the party has members to man booths come 2019; and to derail the One Nation juggernaut.

‘Sad’? Hardly.

A far better response would have been for Mr Turnbull to either welcome Mr Abbott back into the cabinet, as we have repeatedly suggested, to make a sorely-needed contribution in a difficult period, or at the very least, to welcome his policy suggestions for further consideration in the coming months.

After all, it is inconceivable that the government will be able to win the next election whilst clinging on to the costly, punishing and utterly pointless Renewables Energy Target; without taking action to amend or repeal 18C and/or greaty reduce the Orwellian powers of the Human Rights Commission; and without recognising community angst over our high levels of immigration and our half trillion dollar debt.

For Mr Turnbull to instead rail against his predecessor was petty, ridiculous and hypocritical. And the public recognise it as such.

As they well know, it was Mr Turnbull who, as a minister, constantly sniped and leaked against the Abbott government (who can forget the endless Q&A ‘leather jacket’ appearances, or the stunt on a Melbourne train in the midst of the Bronwyn Bishop debacle?). It was Mr Turnbull who coerced fellow ministers and backbenchers to overthrow their leader at a critical moment on the cusp of a by-election win.

Let no one suggest that the party room voted for Mr Turnbull over Mr Abbott in the ‘traditional’ fashion. Usually, in our system, a minister goes to the backbench and then challenges from a distance – à la Keating and Hawke.

The Turnbull coup was an investment banker’s transaction, masterminded in the most manipulative way, cleverly designed to put the press off the true nature of the ‘deal’. Like the Labor challenges that preceded it, this transaction presumably necessitated the involvement of factional operatives outside the party room, and a monumental breach of collective ministerial responsibility by most of the then ministry. This was a Labor-style execution, and even though Mr Abbott implored ‘We are not Labor’, the success of the transaction proved that that was exactly what the Liberals have become: another mainstream party infiltrated by factional careerists with no genuine respect for the institutions, conventions or even principles upon which their taxpayer-funded salaries rely.

It was Mr Turnbull who, upon seizing power, rebranded the party in his own name, such was his lack of respect for the traditional Liberal brand.

Mr Turnbull is completely compromised by the manner in which he took power. The ‘transition’ would not have been possible without, we assume, the involvement of wheeling and dealing factions and lobbyists. Otherwise, the coup would not have been possible. Scott Morrison’s ascension to Treasurer was a direct result. Julie Bishop, it would appear, was rewarded with two new Western Australians in cabinet.

The leadership coup was about self-interest, not about conviction, nor about specific policies, nor even principles. Unsurprisingly, the party now finds itself in a compromised state. Mr Abbott – whose vision for the party and whose personal values have remained constant for his entire political career – knows it. Which is why, we believe, he has decided to fight for the heart and soul of the Liberal Party. He sees it as his duty. It’s not about him, nor his returning to the leadership. It’s about the long term survival of the party.

Whatever your opinions of Mr Abbott, at least he’s upfront and open. There are no shady backroom dealings, no clandestine plots. The press gallery may well write him off, as they root for Mr Turnbull. To them Mr Abbott is ‘sad’, ‘pathetic’ and ‘finished’.

But the members know better. Mr Abbott is their man. A recent Essential poll showed strong support for the policies behind Mr Abbott’s five point manifesto. That support shot up even higher when the respondents were told these were actually Mr Abbott’s policies.

Draw your own conclusions.

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