If Malcolm Turnbull’s mainstream and social media defenders have their way, the parliamentary Liberal party’s mayhem last week will be framed very simply. For them the ‘insurgency’ blamed by Turnbull for his demise is all Tony Abbott’s fault.
According to this narrative, eagerly jumped upon by professional Abbott-haters like John Hewson, Amanda Vanstone and even Kevin Rudd (who knows a thing or two about insurgencies), Abbott is the ‘wrecker’, the ‘terrorist’, the ‘suicide bomber’ prepared to blow up his party and any chance it had of winning the next election if it meant destroying Turnbull’s leadership. According to them, Peter Dutton mounted his challenge as Abbott’s proxy: if Tony wasn’t going to achieve his own restoration, he wanted to be kingmaker. Many in the commentariat, Labor and his own party, took open satisfaction in Turnbull’s inventing the rules of engagement as he went along, buying time for him successfully to promote Scott Morrison as his candidate.
This week’s Newspoll highlighted how dim a view the Australian public takes of its MPs yet again acting out the final scenes of Hamlet. But laying the blame for this Shakespearean tragedy at Abbott’s feet is wishful leftist thinking. As this magazine pointed out in its leader last week, had the leather-jacketed Q&A Turnbull delivered against the stratospheric expectations he raised when undermining and then knifing Abbott in 2014 and 2015, Abbott would already be a mere historical footnote. It was not Abbott who turned a thumping majority into a single seat (and it is not Abbott who threatens to remove even that by quitting immediately). It was not Abbott who wasted his political capital on the Paris Agreement and reducing carbon emissions while not doing anywhere near enough to reduce power bills for Australian families and businesses. It was not Abbott who treated retirees with contempt by raiding their superannuation nest eggs. It was not Abbott who sacrificed a whole year of precious political time to one marginal issue, same-sex marriage.
Had Turnbull had more strength of character, recent history might have been different. After the 2010 election, opposition leader Abbott brought his vanquished predecessor back into the shadow cabinet. Unfortunately for the Liberal party and the country, Turnbull could not bring himself to reciprocate after the 2016 election, and last week tipped a bucket on Abbott on his way out. With a dangerously weakened government after that election, this would have strengthened Turnbull’s authority, not diminished it: a man who can extend the hand of comradeship to a defeated foe is a leader who has the strength of character to lead with confidence. Had that hand been offered, Abbott would have grasped it. Instead, and not always prudently, a spurned Abbott used his backbench freedom to speak his mind on the direction of the government, not least on its ill-fated Left-appeasing National Energy Guarantee.
For the past three years, consequently, Abbott has been attacked by his internal and external detractors. Few political figures have had as much merde dropped on them so viciously from all quarters, and generally he has borne the slings and arrows with fortitude. Only rarely, however, did Abbott’s frustration at his treatment bubble to the surface, and it is understandable that he showed a touch of schadenfreude during last week’s events.
Despite how it happened, a Scott Morrison – Josh Frydenberg Liberal leadership team is, as the new Prime Minister said in his first press conference, a generational change. Neither Abbott nor Turnbull is prime minister, nor will be again. One of them, Turnbull, is taking his bat and ball home in high dudgeon. The question now is what role the other, Abbott, can play in at least making the Coalition competitive with Labor at an election now less than nine months away.
Many grassroots Liberals are disappointed that Morrison sidelined Abbott from his reconstructed ministry. The former PM would have been an ideal fit in defence, certainly a better one than the actual appointment, Christopher Pyne, whose skills as a warrior are more suited to picking fights with enemies within than enemies without. Yet this is understandable given the new Prime Minister’s determination to show a generational change and, in remarks to the Centre for Independent Studies this week, Abbott accepted this in giving full public backing to Morrison and his new team.
A vaguely-defined role for Abbott as a ‘special envoy to Indigenous Australia’, offered by Morrison, is a symbolic olive branch. His underemployed predecessor rates, however, more than just a keep-busy role. Abbott, his talents and experience must be harnessed by the new PM to working for the government’s re-election. Just as Paul Keating defeated John Hewson in 1993, the only way the Coalition can defeat Labor is by playing the de facto opposition to the Shorten government-in-waiting. Whatever way he ensures it, Morrison needs the best opposition leader in memory at his side.
A good start would be Morrison doing Abbott the recognition and honour that Turnbull wouldn’t. Abbott gave Morrison his big break as minister for stopping the boats, and fast-tracked Frydenberg’s advancement in government. Abbott put the whole team in government by leading the Coalition to a decisive victory in 2013, when after John Howard’s 2007 loss the wilderness beckoned for a decade or more. Just acknowledging that is more than the graceless Turnbull ever could manage.
Tony Abbott has been treated as a pariah for too long, and sometimes very simple things trump any grand gestures or appointments. A simple public ‘thank you’ to Abbott may do more to respect him, and reassure Abbott’s wide but disillusioned support in the Liberal conservative ‘base’, than any formal role. With some well-chosen words, the new Liberal leader can publicly honour Abbott for his contribution to the Liberal cause over a long career, and recruit his predecessor’s talents for the diabolically tough electoral fight ahead.
Over to you, Prime Minister.
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