The former Prime Minister is hurting the Turnbull government. He’s hurting it a lot, writes Ben Eltham.
This week marked the first anniversary of the 2016 election – an election that Turnbull and the Coalition won. And yet, just one year into the Coalition’s second term, the anniversary is anything but happy.
By rights, Turnbull should be having a good period just now. The government has just passed a major bill in the schools reform package. The budget was not hated by voters – a real achievement compared with previous efforts. And the economic news lately has been good: unemployment is down a touch, while job ads are up.
In the whispered hopes of Turnbull’s supporters, this is the beginning of a comeback story. If the economy really started to take off, many of the government’s current problems, including stagnant wages and the deficit, would start to melt away. With his mojo back, a more disciplined and politically effective Turnbull could then take the fight up to Bill Shorten and coax the government back to popularity.
Turnbull’s government is in fact in deep trouble. The Liberal Party is adrift in the polls, and mired in political division. Treasurer Scott Morrison has openly admitted that voters are switching off. Calls to end the division simply serve to remind everyone how much division there is. With his party split, Turnbull hasn’t been given the time or space to pursue his strategy.
And we all know the reason why: Tony Abbott.
Tony is back in the game. It’s the only game he has ever been good at. The wrecking game.
The Abbott insurgency moved to a different phase this week, as the former prime minister began to openly campaign against Malcolm Turnbull and the government.
Look at some of the things he has been up to lately.
On Tuesday he was stumping Sydney’s northern beaches – home turf for the northern suburbs MP. Someone helpfully arranged to leak the speech to the Daily Telegraph’s Sharri Markson.
“It’s important for someone to stand up for those Liberals feeling a bit let down and disenfranchised, because we do not want the more traditional or conservative Liberals to leave the party and join some other party,” Abbott said.
Also on Tuesday he gave an interview to a local newspaper, the Manly Daily. “No, I am very happy being a backbench member of the Government, because it gives me the freedom to speak as I think best, and it gives me more time to be a very conscious local member,” he told the paper.
On Monday he was in Melbourne, giving a speech to the Liberal Party faithful in Michael Sukkar’s leafy electorate of Deakin.
“We have had to bring forward a budget which is second-best,” Abbott told them. “A taxing and spending budget. Not because we believe in these things, but because the Senate made us do it.” It was Abbott in vintage form.
Turnbull can do little to stop Abbott’s destruction. As Abbott gleefully acknowledges, his position as a backbencher with a profile gives him a license to comment widely and vocally about the government’s failings.
In response, Turnbull has tried to ignore Abbott. At a media conference this week, the Prime Minister refused to even utter Abbott’s name, calling him simply “the gentleman”.
The sophistry fooled no-one. It also gifted acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek the chance to make a quip about “the Lord Voldemort of the Liberal Party”.
The idea of ignoring Abbott appears to have been to try and frame the former prime minister as irrelevant. Abbott was never personally popular, even when leading a party that was well ahead in the polls. A recent poll published by the Guardian showed that a near majority of Australians wanted him to leave politics. On this analysis, Abbott is at worst simply “background noise”.
But ignoring Abbott isn’t working. Indeed, it is playing into his hands. Abbott is hurting the government. He’s hurting it a lot.
It’s hardly a surprise. Everything we know about Tony Abbott’s career tells us he is an effective opposition leader. As the Liberal leader from 2009 to 2013, he played a key role in the destruction of two Labor prime ministers.
Abbott’s tragedy lay precisely in his inability to transition to governing, driven by a fundamentally unpopular policy agenda. But now that he is back in the wilderness, Abbott is in his element.
Abbott has always been at his strongest when striking. He is a devastating framer. He has a rare ability to hone incisive messages of political attack. The phrase “cut through” is woefully abused, but Abbott really is good at cutting through with his messaging. I bet you can still recite some of his three-word slogans.
So, yes, this is a big problem for Turnbull and the Coalition. We only have to look at the Rudd-Gillard years to see the debilitating political damage that parties in disorder can inflict on themselves.
As we observed last week, the Abbott instability is about more than just power and revenge. It is also about ideology. There are yawning ideological splits in the Liberal Party.
Waleed Aly pointed out this week that the breakdown of the neoliberal ascendancy has exposed deep intellectual disagreements in the Liberal political coalition. “The question isn’t whether Turnbull survives,” Aly wrote. “It’s whether in the long run the Liberal Party does.”
If that seems rather melodramatic, consider the divergent belief systems of the movement conservatism of the Liberal far right, compared to the moderate liberalism of the Liberal left. There are grave disagreements on both social and economic policy: between fiscal hawks and the tax-and-spend current Treasurer, between gay marriage advocates and conservative marriage defenders, between middle-of-the-road social moderates and the angry populist right.
Turnbull has spent a precious year of government trying to navigate the rampant tensions within his government. After months of drift, a viable strategy has emerged since the May budget: the tack to the centre.
Only time will tell whether the centrist manoeuvre will lure back some of the Coalition’s lost voters. There is no firm opinion poll evidence yet. But, almost from the beginning, the operation has been compromised by the attacks from Abbott to the right.
The right of the Liberal party cannot be placated, let alone appeased, short of a major realignment of the cabinet and firm commitments to tack back to the right. If Turnbull presses ahead with his centrism, he will have to fight the conservatives in the party every inch of the way.
Acknowledging the reality of the factional balance, Abbott and the Liberal right have settled in for a long campaign of destabilisation. With Turnbull and the moderates ascendant, and Abbott the de facto leader of the opposing right, the stage is set for a destructive battle for the future of the Liberal Party.
It will be bloody, protracted and devastating for the Coalitions’ chances of re-election.
There was a time when Abbott was angling for a prominent cabinet position, ideally Defence. That time was long ago. Abbott can’t be bought off anymore. Why should he? He’s winning.