Earlier this month, 1,100 people crammed into the function room of Miramare Gardens in Sydney’s Terrey Hills, to honour former prime minister and member for Warringah, Tony Abbott. It was said another 200 were turned away. After Abbott’s remarkable election win in 2013 which secured three terms of Coalition government and counting, paying homage to him was the least they could do.
Indeed, listening to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s speech as he and others praised the extraordinary achievements and selflessness of Tony Abbott’s 25 years of public service, it was hard to understand why he was no longer prime minister and member for Warringah.
Though the dinner tributes highlighted the former prime minister’s remarkable success in securing the nation’s borders, they could as easily have focused on his budget repair efforts, completing beneficial trade deals with Japan, Korea and China, scrapping the mining and carbon taxes, his early recognition of the threat of Islamic State, the response to the downing of MH17, agreeing to a second Sydney airport, ending wasteful corporate welfare, the repeal of unnecessary regulations and red-tape, reducing the public service by 12,000 and abolishing 300 unnecessary government boards and agencies. Not a bad record for a prime minister who was cut down just two years into office.
According to the Australian’s Greg Sheridan, Tony Abbott is no longer PM or, member for Warringah, because ‘the Left had success in establishing a media stereotype of Tony which was more or less the exact opposite of the real person.’ That success was aided and abetted by ungrateful, ruthlessly ambitious Liberal party colleagues, who resented the disciplines his office imposed on them and who feared Abbott would repeal many of their favourite Labor government programmes.
No sooner was Abbott sworn in as PM than the undermining and leaking began. With a partisan media providing amplification, he and his government experienced ever-deteriorating opinion polls. So, only 16 months after his stunning election victory, delusions of grandeur and lack of principle precipitated a spill motion. While nothing positive was achieved, it derailed Abbott’s urgent economic and social agenda.
Despite the failure of the motion, the character assassination continued. Abbott’s successes were either disparaged, distorted or drowned out. His enemies outside the party continued to receive active support from enemies within.The campaign against him and the deteriorating polls were self-fulfilling. Panic in the fragmented Liberal ranks set in.
The pre-ordained coup came seven months after the spill motion. But it had ramifications beyond the transaction of swapping one leader for another. It ended an important moral compact between the Liberal party and the voting public. Unlike Labor, the Liberals had made a virtue of not changing serving prime ministers. The betrayal of Abbott sent an unfortunate but powerful message that most MPs are simply mercenaries and not to be trusted. This cost the party dearly in the 2016 election.
The coup was also a seminal moment for the country’s economic and social development. It meant Australia had lost a critical opportunity to halt socialism’s relentless march.
Indeed, from the moment Malcolm Turnbull took office, he distanced himself from his predecessor. His ministry began to implement a broad soft-liberal agenda which rapidly became almost indistinguishable from the Labor/Green opposition’s.
The media were kind to Turnbull, granting an usually long honeymoon and extraordinary forgiveness. But it was to no avail. The public became increasingly frustrated by his habitual indecision and ineptitude as well as the growing divisions within the party. In the face of declining polls, it became obvious another change of leadership was inevitable and the party looked to treasurer, Scott Morrison. Given the Turnbull baggage, it is to his great credit that, against the odds, he won the 2019 election.
Recounting this history is important because as sweet as that victory must seem to the party faithful, the electorate at large remains suspicious of what the Morrison government really stands for and are concerned for their future.
The Turnbull years inflicted enduring damage on the nation. In the name of climate, it entrenched economic rigidities and ignored social cohesion. By appointing left-wingers to proliferating government agencies it made future policy reversals politically painful.
Scott Morrison won the election as the ‘lesser of two evils’, particularly on climate change policy. He received support from a new cohort of voters, many of whom felt abandoned by their traditional parties. Most live in the outer suburbs and country regions.They reside in industrial and mining electorates and have traditionally voted Labor. Their living standards are falling and they rightly feel their jobs are threatened by climate policies and excessive immigration. Compared to Labor, Morrison offered hope.
By contrast, Malcom Turnbull never did. He appealed to higher-income, virtue-signaling rent-seekers and inner-city professionals who are able to absorb higher electricity prices and who benefit from renewable energy subsidies. Their white-collar jobs weren’t threatened by immigration and they didn’t suffer the congestion and infrastructure deficit of migrant concentration. These are the Abbott-haters who voted him out of the seat of Warringah.
Whether the Morrison government accepts it or not, a collision between economic reality and climate change fantasy is rapidly approaching. Around the world, the rising price of energy is creating widening inequality and misery for the poor, particularly in winter. In the West, jobs are being lost to jurisdictions like China and India, neither of which have Paris Agreement emissions-reduction targets to meet
There are no quick fixes. Prime Minister Morrison has signalled a welcome revitalisation of the deregulation agenda. However, since the era of Tony Abbott, so much ground has been surrendered. There are multiple institutionalised distortions supporting strong vested interests and a large cohort who will fight to retain their privileges. Time will tell whether Mr Morrison has the stomach to confront them.
Australians may well look back on an extended Abbott prime ministership, as a critical opportunity missed.
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