Most of the media just don’t ‘get’ Tony Abbott. They think he’s critical of Malcolm Turnbull because he wants his old job back. But after all Abbott’s been through, why would he want, for a second, to have to again work closely with the likes of Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison?
Actually, Abbott is thinking of the future of the Liberal Party and the fate of the government in trying to alert his colleagues to their peril while it may still be averted.
You’d never know it from the bile regularly directed at him by the likes of Niki Savva, Laura Tingle, Laurie Oakes, Peter Van Onselen and Mark Kenny, but most of Abbott’s life has been devoted to public service. A selfishly ambitious man would not have spent three years of his life training to be a priest. If Abbott were merely interested in his own advancement, he would not have been John Howard’s one-man Praetorian Guard at such risk to his own reputation and would not have spent so much time as opposition leader defending Howard’s legacy.
If it was ‘all about Abbott’, he would not have stuck by Joe Hockey and Peta Credlin when even Howard was semi-publicly urging their sacking. A politically vain person would not have allowed Morrison to take credit for stopping the boats, Andrew Robb to take credit for the big three FTAs, and Bishop to take credit for the international kudos Australia gained as a strong and dependable ally.
For all his faults, Abbott was not only the most reliable political warrior of the Howard government, but he kept the Liberal Party and the Coalition together for four tough years after the first disastrous Turnbull experiment. Moreover only Abbott – along with Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and Howard – has ever brought the Liberal Party from federal opposition to national government.
Despite the most public humiliation by the party he’d served, Abbott campaigned hard last year for the re-election of the Turnbull government. In fact he deserves praise, not last week’s over-the-top attack from Mathias Cormann, a minister whose career he’d nurtured.
Unlike our current multi-millionaire prime minister who boasts about making large donations to charity, Abbott – for the past 20 years – has actually ridden his bike to promote the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, Carers Australia and Soldier On, and raised nearly $5 million.
Even as prime minister, Abbott kept up surf lifesaving patrols and did duty crews with the Rural Fire Service. And he kept his promise to spend a week each year in Australia’s remote indigenous communities. Imagine how a Labor politician, or even a left-wing Liberal with this record would be feted! At a time when voters have never been more cynical about politicians, ask yourself who is more likely to restore trust: a person who lives in a modest suburban house with a hefty mortgage and who reluctantly moved to Kirribilli House to save taxpayers a $1 million a year; or the bloke who insists on living in his own far grander harbourside mansion at a cost to taxpayers of a reported $3 million a year?
Cormann may not have been coached by the PM’s office before his attack on Abbott, but it’s inconceivable that he wouldn’t have spoken to the PMO before the interview. Then Cormann was wheeled out again on Sunday, although then he at least had the grace to concede that Abbott had a very strong record in just two years as PM. Turnbull’s backers are now trying to blame Abbott for wrecking a good few weeks for the PM. But it was Cormann’s intervention that turned Abbott’s book-launch speech urging conservatives to maintain faith in the Liberal Party into such a public brawl.
I still think that Abbott is by far the best person to lead the Liberal Party and the country. But if not Abbott that leaves Bishop, who has been a bridesmaid far too often ever to be a bride, and Peter Dutton who has yet to do the hard yards and prove himself. Then, somewhat out of left field there is the Minister for the Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg, who, if he were to replace the Labor-lite Turnbull, would be Australia’s first Jewish PM.
But as Abbott’s highly publicised speech last week demonstrated, he’s not focused on who should lead but on the task to be performed – whoever the leader might be. Because it’s the ‘what’, not the ‘who’ that really matters if the federal coalition is to have a reasonable chance of winning the next election.
It wasn’t the first time that Abbott raised freezing the renewable energy target to make power more reliable and more affordable, and allowing a joint sitting to decide bills rejected twice in the senate without the need for a double dissolution election. What Abbott did last week was to formulate a potential manifesto that the Liberals could take into the next election. As usual, it is crystal clear and quite specific: freeze the RET to take the pressure off power prices; scale back immigration (at least until land supply and infrastructure have caught up) to take the pressure off housing prices; avoid all new expenditure and end all frivolous spending to stop ripping off our grandkids; de-fund the Human Rights Commission to end official bullying of people who refuse to be politically correct; and reform the senate so that we might have effective government instead of gridlock.
Abbott’s five point plan has the great virtue of being exactly what most Liberal voters and even some Labor voters would instinctively support.
Turnbull and his backers should spend less time backgrounding against Abbott and more time delivering good government. As Peta Credlin recently observed, Turnbull branch-stacked his way into parliament, back-stabbed his way into the opposition leadership and then back-stabbed his way into the prime ministership. Since then, he’s failed to keep Cory Bernardi in the party, is about to lose George Christensen from the Coalition, has been One Nation’s chief recruiting agent and has made it clear that he’ll never have Abbott in his cabinet (even though Abbott had Turnbull in his). A Liberal leader with no capacity to keep the conservative side of politics united, should be grateful for advice from someone who could.
If Turnbull actually took Abbott’s advice and showed his wronged predecessor some magnanimity, he might finally start to be worthy of the job.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and author of 39 books, including the political/sexual satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure.’