Snatching Major Defeats From The Jaws Of Small Victories: The End Of Tony Abbott


In life, Don Randall – the former federal Member for Canning – didn’t think very much of Tony Abbott. Which is strange, because the two appeared to share similar values, and instincts.

In October 2010, it was Randall who referred to the national broadcaster as the ‘GayBC’.

In mid-2011, Randall described the mining industry’s relationship with Prime Minister Julia Gillard as “pussy-whipped”.

And it was Randall who – like Abbott – diddled his travel allowance.

In late 2012, Randall charged taxpayers $10,000 to travel to Cairns with his wife, only to sign a contract a week later on an investment property in the Far North Queensland metropolis.

Abbott had already ripped off taxpayers by charging them for a tour to promote his book, Battlelines, so of course he leapt to Randall’s defence, claiming the trip was legitimate and important parliamentary business.

But by February 2015, it was clear there was no love lost between the two. Randall was one of the public agitators for a spill against the PM, a spill which, obviously, Abbott survived.

Randall, however, did not. He died on July 21 of a heart attack after attending a function his electorate of Canning.

So while in life, Randall didn’t think much of Abbott, ironically, in death he did the Prime Minister a very big favour by buying him a few extra months in the The Lodge.

Don Randall, the former member for Canning who passed away while in office in mid-2015.

When Abbott survived the February spill, Liberal MPs gave him six months to turn the government’s fortunes around. That six months expired just 13 days after Randall’s death.

Needless to say, the government’s fortunes – obviously – have not turned.

A Morgan poll in mid-February had the LNP on 37.5 per cent (primary votes), trailing the ALP on 40.5 per cent.

By early August – when the six months expired – both major parties had gone backwards, but Labor still lead.

On primaries, the ALP was on 37, with the LNP on 36.5, but on a two party preferred (TPP) basis, Labor would have convincingly won the election, and the Greens would have polled 15 per cent – their highest vote ever.

Today, the LNP is 10 per cent behind Labor on TPP votes, and that pattern is entrenched – on the Morgan polling, the LNP has only led Labor in two polls in two years, and both were in the first months after the election.

Individual polls don’t necessarily mean anything – but long-term trends do. And the trends show Abbott has decimated the vote for the LNP, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

With that in mind, it’s hard to believe that, had Randall not died in July, we would still be referring to Tony Abbott as ‘Prime Minister’ by September. But once he died, Liberal MPs keen for a change were locked out of a leadership challenge until after the Canning by-election.

News reports this weekend suggesting a spill might come on next week – before the by-election – seem inconceivable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but surely they’re not that desperate?

Or maybe, after last week, they are.

September started comparatively well for the government. They snookered Labor on Syrian refugees, offering 2,000 places more than Bill Shorten, and they managed to keep the public discussion on national security and an escalation of the war in the Middle East, an area of perceived strength for the Liberals.

But by Friday, the PM was caught on tape laughing at a joke by Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton that Pacific Island nations weren’t worried about punctuality because they had water lapping at their doorstep.

It came, of course, not even a full day after Abbott returned from the Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby, where we was summonsed to discuss the affects of climate change on small island nations, telling Pacific leaders that Australia was taking their concerns ‘seriously’.

Thus, the Liberals ended the week once again defending the government from leadership speculation, and hosing down the impossibility of a future with Tony Abbott at the helm.

Based on the limited media reporting of the gaffe (News Corporation, of course, has barely touched it), the impact might not seem substantial, but it’s no coincidence that the weekend papers are once again focused on a leadership spill.

Abbott’s guffawing has damaged the government where it hurts the most – in the minds of frustrated conservatives like the late Don Randall.

These voters don’t trust the ABC. They didn’t support the National Apology (Randall was one of the MPs who boycotted it), and they think trade unions are a hive of corruption.

They do believe government spending needs to be reigned in; they’re supportive of bombing raids in Syria and they think taking in 12,000 predominantly Christian refugees is a good thing.

They like Bronwyn Bishop personally, but they think she should have resigned quickly, and if she didn’t, then they think Abbott should have pushed her much earlier than he did.

They’re suspicious about efforts to tackle climate change, and they want Abbott to hold the line on coal.

But what they don’t like is watching a Prime Minister laugh about the fate of Pacific Island nations. It’s not about the climate change, or even about the Pafcific Islanders – it’s about the dignity of office, and Abbott, in the minds of many conservatives, has trashed it beyond repair.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott (centre) laughs at a joke by Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton (right) about climate change wiping out small Pacific Islands nations. On the left is Minister for Families, Scott Morrison, who warned the pair a boom microphone was nearby.

In the minds of serious, genuine conservatives, Friday’s stupidity is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rusted on Liberal voters might vote for Tony Abbott no matter how ridiculous he becomes, but real conservatives are sick of watching a Prime Minister snatch big defeats from the jaws of small victories.

Like Don Randall, these conservative voters want change, and they’re prepared to shift their vote to get it.

At this point, they’re not particularly fussed whether its Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison – they’ll take anyone but the leadership team of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey.

The Canning by-election may, or may not, deliver a defeat to the Liberals. As a staunch Christian and a former SAS soldier, Andrew Hastie, the LNP candidate, is a poster boy for conservative values.

Labor is running a local boy, Matt Keogh, a lawyer born and raised in the electorate. Which is a problem for Hastie – he doesn’t even get to vote in the election, because he only moved to the electorate in August, after the poll was declared (Hastie was parachute in, having grown up in Victoria and then NSW).

But while the polls suggest the contest is tight, if there’s one thing West Australians trust less than lefties, it’s people not from West Australia.

That’s something Don Randall knew well – he was fond of claiming, at every available opportunity, that the east coast was consistently ripping off the poor, long-suffering taxpayers of the west.

It’s something Hastie appears to have cottoned onto as well – yesterday, he was defending Tony Abbott by claiming no-one in Canning cared what the “East Coast Twitterati” think about a leadership battle.

Which is, of course, nonsense. The good voters of Canning – like Australians from all over the nation forced to a by-election – will be relishing the opportunity to ‘shirt-front’ a government that is desperately out of touch.

A stunning victory in Canning – which seems impossible – might delay the exit of Tony Abbott, but regardless of the result his leadership is doomed. Conservatives know you can’t fix stupid, and with Abbott only ever a syllable away from another national or international screw-up, it’s a matter of when, not if.

His death warrant was signed the minute he was caught by the ‘GayBC’ laughing about the fate of Pacific Islanders, an irony Don Randall would no doubt appreciate.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.