Disunity is death, according to many of the voices critical of Tony Abbott. They point to the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd episode the poisoning of the ALP’s chances of beating Tony Abbott in 2013. Reaching back in time there was the Hawke-Keating jockeying in the 1990s and, for the Coalition, the Joh-for-Canberra campaign of Bjelke-Petersen in 1987 and the oscillating Liberal Party leadership of John Howard and Andrew Peacock.
One feature of these episodes is that they were based on personality politics. There were no substantive policy differences between challenger and incumbent. The leader was under pressure because the polls suggested electoral defeat.
Style-versus-substance is what differentiates these earlier events from more recent ones, starting with Tony Abbott’s 2009 wrestling of the Liberal leadership from Malcolm Turnbull on the issue that remains the left-right fault line: climate change policies. Other matters delineating leadership aspirants from incumbents, especially migration, crime and trade, are more prominent overseas.
But where leadership tussles arise on the basis of policy substance, not aesthetics, disunity need not lead to loss of office and can bring about resurgence. This was certainly true of Abbott post-2009, when he displaced Turnbull, whose climate change policy (and sentiments) were identical to Labor. Abbott went on to overtake what had been a popular government – at least among the media elites.
More rcently we saw Donald Trump winning power, not only by contesting the ground against Democrats but also while fighting within his own party against both grandees and similar-minded parvenus like Ted Cruz. In Europe we see parties previously regarded as minor players on the right achieving prominence, if not yet leadership, in France, the Netherlands, and Germany.
This is similar to the situation in Australia, where Hanson and Cory Bernadi are hoovering support from conservative Liberals/Nationals, just as the Greens have done for decades with the Labor left.
Last week, Tony Abbott speaking at the launch of Making Australia Right, injected into the debate five policies he considers the Liberals need to take on board if they are to become competitive. These policies are:
- closing or curtailing the renewable-energy poison,
- reducing immigration — ostensibly to combat house prices, but arguably a dog whistle against those rejecting the existing rule of law, particularly Muslims
- re-allowing freedom of speech by scrapping the Human Rights Commission
- stopping all new spending
- reforming Parliament to reduce the Senate’s veto powers.
Abbott may have been using the address to launch his return as prime minister — or he may have been laying out an agenda which others could embrace. In any event, his speech was most definitely a challenge to Turnbull, whom he was well aware would find the key issue in this quintet — Abbott’s energy-policy proposals — to be utterly unacceptable. Far from changing course on a policy that has brought about his political downfall once already, Turnbull is seeking solutions to maintaining the renewable surge via vacuous technological fixes being conjured by his latest mystic, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel.
Forcing the demise of coal is a premium goal of the “elite media”. Terrified of politics falling into a philosophical realm that they have spent their lives contesting, its response to Abbott’s “manifesto” was epitomised by the most recent of AFR pundit Laura Tingle’s frothing rants (“Abbott an utter waste of space”).
Abbott’s detractors have a case. While he got rid of the Mining Tax and the Carbon Tax, he also embarked on spending programs that have been his hallmark: health R&D spending and a whole clutch of expenditures for the welfare sector and telecoms inherited from the previous administration. And, one new commissioner aside, he did nothing to de-fang the Human Rights Commission. Moreover, his efforts to turn the tide on green energy regulations were totally inadequate.
While Turnbull has not achieved much, he has made some advances in industrial relations and chipped away at spending.
The reaction of Abbott’s colleagues has ranged from one of sadness to one of visceral abhorrence.
This reflects three different interests within the Coalition. First there are the wets, presently holding the commanding positions, who never liked Abbott’s deviations from the centre and were not mollified by his disappointing follow-through, as seen by dries.
Secondly, there are those, in some cases overlapping the first group, who see a new Abbott administration as cruelling their own chances of seizing the field-marshall’s baton or, more immediately, of seeing themselves knocked down the pecking order. Stand up Josh Frydenberg, Mathias Cormann, Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop.
Thirdly, there are those – comprising any member with less than a 10% margin and, as George Christensen’s resignation demonstrates, even some with huge margins, who fear the politics of disruption. Most MPs, like the fictional Peter Mannion MP in the Thick of It, will say they entered the vocation “to make a difference”– but the key difference is to their own lifestyles. Most will bend over backwards to retain it. Almost all politicians recognise that the Brexit and Trump polls have announced seismic shifts away from the positions and worldviews endorsed and beloved of the elites. They cannot, however, find a way to exploit this development.
Abbott is, like all politicians, doubtless motivated by personal ambition. But he is also promoting policy positions that might prevent the haemorrhaging of support to the right while proving attractive to the sort of blue collar ALP supporters — those being slugged with jaw-dropping electricity bills, for starters — whose US equivalents flocked to the Trump banner.
Alan Moran’s new book CLIMATE CHANGE: Treaties and Policies in the Trump era, is to be published by Connor Court next week.