While Turnbull is embarking on a similar policy platform to his predecessor, and indeed a more radical one in some regards, he’s finding success in taking strategic shots, writes Max Chalmers.
Three times this week, Tony Abbott was mocked for political gain. Twice by the Coalition, once by Labor.
After a series of questions on the GST on Monday, shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen was asked about the government’s decision to rescind the chance to became a knight or dame of the Australian Order.
Bowen went in, battling the former PM, trying to tie him to the present one.
“It was a farce, a joke, a national disgrace that the Liberal National Government, of which Mr Turnbull was a Cabinet Minister, decided to set the rewind button on Australia’s national institutions and reinstate Knights and Dames,” he said. “I mean it was just a rolling farce.”
See what he did there.
One journalist asked whether it was really fair to blame Malcolm Turnbull for Abbott’s so-called ‘captain’s pick’.
“Sure. I am making the point. It was a government. It wasn’t you or me, it was the Government of Australia which reintroduced Knights and Dames,” Bowen replied. “Sure, Mr Abbott was the leader of Government. All these people sat around the Cabinet Room. We know that Mr Abbott didn’t take it to the Cabinet, I accept that point, but nevertheless, they were members of a government which engaged in this ridiculous farce of imperial honours in Australia in 2015.”
Meanwhile, someone else was having a more successful time drawing political capital from the fact the antiquated system was back on the agenda.
“Knights and dames are titles that are really anachronistic,” Malcolm Turnbull said at a press conference. “They’re out of date, they’re not appropriate, in 2015, in Australia.”
It must feel good to be Turnbull right now. It’s not just the improved polls, or the docile media, or the fact everybody in Australia appears to have forgotten just how much they loathed him at the time he crashed out as Opposition Leader.
No, the best feeling of all must be living the Paul Keating dream: he’s doing his enemy slowly.
It’s not Bill Shorten. The Leader of the Opposition has been roasting in his own political juices for some time. Shorten’s difficulty in presenting a big picture vision became almost self-aware this week when he let slip that 16-year-olds could get the vote under a Labor government.
It’s indicative of the more progressive planks of Shorten’s agenda: an inoffensive idea that is probably good and nobody asked for.
It won’t fix higher education, return any balance to private/public school funding, or make housing any cheaper. Refugees will still be sent to Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, or wherever the hell Peter Dutton dreams up next. But you can more or less slap the ‘progressive’ stamp on it and tell Young Labor you’re making their fervent dreams of change from within come true.
Labor came to office with some genuinely big ideas in 2007, and it’s struggling to find its raison d’etre after it watched them picked off, some by Abbott, some by of its own hand. Without Abbott, it’s Shorten who’s looking a bit juvenile.
So it’s the downfall of Turnbull’s other rival, Tony Abbott, that the Member for Wentworth is clearly relishing.
You could see it on his face the night of the leadership coup. And you could see it this week as he claimed the easiest political victory of his life, ditching a system of honours supported by a whopping 26 per cent of the population.
When the only opposition is David Flint you win by default.
Julie Bishop knows it too. On The Project on Monday night she was asked about the honours system, and herself drew attention to just how unpopular it was, claiming 90 per cent of Australians saw no need for it.
Both Turnbull and Bishop are fighting Abbott, and they’re winning. Instead of distinguishing themselves by gutting his agenda, they’re picking off the most unpopular pieces with great ceremony. The ugliest barnacles are being dislodged, held aloft, and tossed into the sea. Feeding the gulls isn’t so different from feeding the chooks, after all.
University deregulation is still very much on the agenda. The cuts to health care and education have not been reversed. Direct Action, incredibly, is still the government’s response to climate change. With no-one paying attention, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s cashless welfare card has been passed by the Senate, a policy that deserves at the very least strenuous debate. There’s more ‘anti-terror’ legislation to come.
And on top of all of that, it now looks certain the GST will be tampered with. As Ben Eltham noted yesterday, this would mean the progressive and environmentally beneficial taxes pushed by the previous Labor government have succumbed to a regressive one.
The whole process has felt like a protracted negotiation with the Australian people. The Coalition initially offered Abbott, but after years of protestation put Turnbull forward as a compromise, making it apparent just how slanted the first pitch was, and leaving an exhausted public ready to settle on almost any deal.
And you have to admit, it’s a relief. No matter how much you despair at the underlying policy ambitions and ideology, it’s pleasant to wake up and make it to work in the morning without hearing the phrase ‘death cult’.
It’s pleasing, you have to concede, to witness Andrew Bolt sulk.
So Turnbull picks his battles with Abbott and stages greater victories than Labor, his image refracted by his predecessor, from condescending toff to voice of reason.
In hindsight, it’s hard to believe Abbott’s entire time as Leader of the Opposition then Prime Minister was anything more than a heavily managed performance to rehabilitate Turnbull and help him into office. Abbott did all the hard work, all the sledging, all the openly nasty politics, and defeated Labor and himself in the process. Turnbull walked through the breach after the wrecking ball.
Even now Abbott dutifully pops up to remind us how utterly debased things had become under his leadership.
The pot-shots Turnbull started taking at the PM towards the end of his time are continuing. Tony Abbott – the Coalition’s greatest curse once if found itself in government – has finally become of use.