It might be a little unfair to describe the announced departures of very senior Liberals Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne as ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’, but they’d hardly be scurrying for the door if they thought their ministerial careers would continue. With only four Liberal cabinet ministers left from the Abbott government’s starting line-up (Morrison, Dutton, Hunt and Cormann), not only has there been a changing of the guard but there won’t be much leadership experience to draw on if, as expected, the Libs go into opposition.
That’s why the coming election in Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah is so important for the future of the Liberal party. If Abbott holds on but the Liberals lose hugely, he’d be the most obvious choice to lead the opposition. After all, he’d be by far the most senior Liberal remaining and the only one with a proven record of winning seats off Labor. If the loss is narrow, and Scott Morrison stays on; or if the loss is more substantial, and Josh Frydenberg takes over as a ‘fresh face’, Abbott would certainly add some ‘adult supervision’ to what could otherwise be a very callow team.
With Abbott re-elected, the parliamentary Liberal party will remain broadly of the centre-right. With Abbott gone, the Libs could easily become a party of the soggy centre or even a kind of Labor-lite.
What’s left of the Malcolm Turnbull fan club understands this, which is why a small minority of ‘progressive’ Liberals won’t do more in the Warringah campaign than perfunctorily patrol booths on polling day. The Green-Left understands this, which is why the left-wing activist group GetUp!, the unions, and a cabal of Labor operatives are putting so much effort into the Warringah campaign. They know that a centrist parliamentary Liberal party will spend more time arguing about itself and competing with minor parties further to the right, than focussing on beating Labor.
In 2016, GetUp! supported the left-wing media personality James Mathison against Abbott. Mathison garnered just over 11 per cent of the vote but fielded almost as many booth workers as the Liberals. Abbott’s overall margin fell by 4 per cent (about the national average) but his primary margin fell by 9 per cent. Plainly, it was a dress rehearsal for this year’s election campaign. GetUp! has had three more years to prepare and now has a much more plausible candidate in the former Olympic skier and barrister Zali Steggall – even though she’s admitted to never voting Liberal in her life at a federal election.
So far, GetUp! has organised at least two meetings for potential Warringah campaigners, each with over 500 attendees. There’s been at least one weekend-door-knocking blitz with several hundred involved. Steggall’s campaign launch was so media-savvy that she drove to it with the ABC’s 7.30 beside her in the car. Every Sunday morning, up to two-dozen activists have been promenading along both Manly and Balmoral beaches, originally wearing ‘Time’s Up Tony’ T-shirts but now pro-Steggall ones. Moreover, several mornings a week, there’s a fake dinosaur near Spit Bridge urging people to dump Abbott, while anti-Abbott phone canvassers are blitzing the electorate.
Late last year, there were reports that unions would put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the seat and that three wealthy climate campaigners would each contribute $250,000. GetUp! has a separate grass roots appeal to raise a further $250,000. Six weeks before the campaign has formally begun, Steggall already has her own campaign office with a former Labor ministerial chief of staff as her campaign director!
In the aftermath of Turnbull’s dumping, left-wing Liberals had tried to stop Abbott’s re-endorsement as the Liberal candidate. They even briefed journalists that he’d barely survived – even though he triumphed two to one. For many months, under the guise of an informal group, ‘North Shore Environmental Stewards’, left-inclined activists have been trying to join Liberal party branches in Warringah. Indeed this Saturday, just two of them were enough to generate a ‘Libs against Abbott’ story on the front page of the local paper by ostentatiously resigning over Abbott’s position on climate change. It takes a high level of organisation and commitment to join a political party solely for the purpose of embarrassing a politician who’d led the Libs into government.
Sensing danger, Abbott has been campaigning since late last year. The former PM has been a regular at local bus stops and ferry wharves canvassing voters. There are now Liberal door-knocking teams out on Saturdays and phone canvassers too. Last week, the conservative activist group, ‘Advance Australia’, began social media advertising that voting independent would bring a Labor government closer.
By far the biggest local issue is overdevelopment and traffic congestion, so Abbott has ramped up his long-term support for the Northern Beaches tunnel. And with more than 10,000 Warringah retirees and others affected, he’s also stressing that the only way to stop the abolition of franking credits is to vote Liberal.
Abbott’s campaign is already distilled to two elemental propositions: ‘If you want the tunnel, you’ve got to vote Liberal’ and ‘Vote Steggall, get Shorten.’
Will it be enough? The bookies have Abbott ahead but the polls don’t. The latest GetUp! ReachTEL poll has Steggall in front 54 to 46. Liberal insiders say that their polling also has Abbott behind although they’re not pressing the panic button yet because he’s been behind in other elections. That’s why it was a tad curious that PM Morrison swiftly announced that the capable but little-known Senator Linda Reynolds would take the junior defence job now and the senior one after the election if the Libs win.
If he’s to win, Morrison needs the Libs’ best political warrior by his side. And it sure would help Abbott in his seat if his parliamentary leader seemed more concerned to keep him on the team.
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. He is the author of 40 books, most recently the political/sexual satires ‘So Far, So Good’ And ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’, both published by Hybrid in Melbourne