The four big losers in the May election were Bill Shorten, Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi and Malcolm Turnbull. Perhaps only one of them – it is easy to guess which – has emerged with dignity and reputation intact. He has acted with the grace one would expect, without fuss, not looking about the place for redemption or justification or excuses, or for his next well paid gig.
As noted by more than one commentator, Abbott’s concession speech in Warringah on election night was a master class in, well, class.
Looking back, Tony Abbott’s fall from his perch atop the Australian political scene a mere three and a half years ago has been quite astonishing and monumental. This is especially so given his immense political and communication skills, his fundamental decency, his long record of public service, his popularity with those he touches personally, his grace and, finally, his focus and inner drive.
Moreover, in the view of many, Abbott still had much to offer in the public square. We have as a nation indeed lost a great talent, a politician of considerable stature and achievement. Conservatives in particular have cause for grief. They have lost a powerful voice close to the apex of public life, a figure whose gravitas, coherence and spine in relation to the issues of the day that matter is matched now only by that other object of an earlier dual biography (by Michael Duffy), Mark Latham.
Abbott was the last, really, of the links back to the Howard Government, whose other leading warriors have long since left the building.
The Government itself, despite the “miracle” election victory over the intellectually and politically challenged Bill Shorten, is looking very threadbare indeed in the talent department, early in the new term, and could have benefited massively from Abbott’s drive, backbone, will to succeed and overall smarts. (If Morrison had given him a portfolio – a big if, as it happens).
Yet the silence of the Liberal Party power brokers about Abbott since May 18 – about his untimely political demise, the ghastly nature of the campaign against him, his legacy, his lifetime contributions to Australian politics and to his party, his unflinching loyalty to the Liberals in the face of his appalling treatment by his colleagues in 2015 – has been breathtaking. I am aware of only three encomia in the media – a brief paragraph in an article by News columnist Janet Albrechtsen, a measured, decent and perhaps surprisingly positive tribute from, of all people, David Oldfield, and a touching recollection by Kristy McSweeny, a former Abbott staff member, in the Spectator Australia. But, to my knowledge, in the mainstream media there has been a giant blank screen.
In one respect this is astonishing. But in another way, the post-election silence of the many Abbott haters, who have long regarded him as some sort of weird and dangerous “far right” conservative uncle, is entirely to be expected. Some journalists, most notably News columnists Peter Van Onselen and Niki Savva, have seemed, on occasion, motivated to get out of bed only because of their hard-wired loathing of the continuing public presence of “Mr Rabbit”. Their own reasons for the bitter bilge they have endlessly expressed might have related to old matters of a personal nature, or to assumed roles in making Turnbull’s job harder, or perhaps even to Abbott’s much reviled conservative Catholicism.
The GetUp crowd haven’t especially felt the need to gloat. A man’s income, career and reputation shredded is its own reward. And they have, no doubt, been relatively quiet over Abbott’s loss as a result of their glumness at the overall election result.
But also we can sense in the Liberal Party’s own ongoing silence about Abbott utter relief on the part of many in the freshly returned, Morrison-led senior team and party apparatchiks. Yes, the Abbott-Turnbull rivalry exhibited a toxicity not seen since the old Howard-Peacock days, so there is probably a sense of innocent relief that both those protagonists have now exited the scene. Yet there remains something a little creepy about the absence of reflection on Abbott’s achievements, his outstanding service to the Liberal Party and his electoral loss. No question, a la Jim Molan, of a Senate casual vacancy to get him back. No, they just didn’t want Tony Abbott around.
The backstory of the Liberal silence is where the story gets interesting.
Three people in particular would be very, very happy Abbott has departed the scene – in descending order of obviousness, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison and Michael Photios. Turnbull’s sheer spite, borne of a soaring ego based on not much, and his sense of revenge are quite possibly unmatched in Australian political history. Abbott gone is one more box ticked, given Turnbull couldn’t get his big result – the loss of government by Morrison, and therefore partial redemption, no doubt to be broadcast to the public in graphic detail over time by Niki Savva.
Morrison as well must be delighted Abbott is longer around, despite smiling photos. I suspect he would still not have offered Abbott a portfolio of substance in the new Government. He has “moved on”. It is his show now. Abbott, whatever his skills and potential contribution to the team, would be seen as a lingering and unwelcome reminder of battles past. And Morrison’s role in both regicides was not nothing, despite his immaculate talent for blending into the background when blood is being spilled. No, what Morrison feared most was Abbott retaining his seat and the Libs losing government. Abbott — arguably one of Australia’s best-ever opposition leaders, along with Whitlam and Fraser — would surely have been exceedingly well placed to take up his old job yet again. And he would again have done a great job.
What of Photios, the string-puller-in-chief of the NSW party machine? With Abbott gone, there also went the only NSW conservative of stature in the party, a former factional enemy, an opponent of Photios’ role as a lobbyist while holding senior Party positions and a warrior for the internal party reform that might, just might, bring some measure of good sense and democracy to the simply awful NSW branch of the Liberal Party.
So key Libs are happy Abbott lost. Delighted, in fact. But did they do more? Did they “help send him on his way”?
The “Get Abbott” campaign began in earnest after his decapitation by Turnbull, Pyne, Bishop, Mal Brough, Sinodinos and the rest of the gang in late 2015. Yes the incoming Australian Ambassador to the United States was up to his armpits in it.
“He’s been integral,” one Turnbull backer said of Sinodinos’ role in Monday’s leadership challenge. “He was extremely involved,” an Abbott loyalist said.
Moreover, Abbott’s (perhaps) unexpected decision in 2015 to continue in politics, even if on the backbench, and his later decision to go on for a decade more, voters permitting, would have caused the plotters much grief indeed. They thought that Abbott would just go away, and thereby leave the political and policy stage to the Black Hand wets, who already control the party in Abbott’s (and Morrison’s) home state.
Plan A hatched by the broad anti-Abbott coalition within and outside the party was to infiltrate the Warringah branch to kill him off in the pre-selection. Branch stacking was part of the game plan. A new group of environmental wets, the North Shore Environmental Stewards, was formed with the express aim of getting rid of Abbott the climate sceptic and conservative. Through the Liberal Party. It was driven by Photios’s wife, and one meeting of the group was addressed by the man himself. A report around that time began: “President of the Mosman branch of the Liberal Party says progressive agitators tried to infiltrate the branch.” What was going on was widely known at the time, clearly identified and understood, within and outside the Liberal Party. It was “game on”, as expressed by one member of the Liberal ginger group: “Tony Abbott is a handbrake on climate change [action] and also on economic and social progress.”
(There was and remains, by the by, massive ideological alignment here with the so-called “modern Liberals” like Tim Wilson and Dave Sharma, who took it upon themselves to brand their local efforts in May slightly to the side of the formal Liberal campaign, but without the opprobrium piled onto the former Liberal Senator, then appallingly demoted, Jim Molan).
Some obsequious and probably prevaricating wet suggested:
… they never intended to roll Mr Abbott on Friday [at the pre-selection] but were intent on sending a strong message that he needed to adapt his behaviour.
The “destroy Abbott through the Liberal Party” strategy hadn’t worked. He won his pre-selection comfortably, though not without some pushback, in September 2018, though no sooner was that done and dusted than very quickly there emerged the threat of a challenge at the general election by a yet-to-emerge well-known local. There seemed to be a single-minded, organised push in play.
Then Plan B began.
What was needed was a “credible”, green-tinged but at the same time respectable “name” candidate “with deep roots in the electorate” who could finally kill Abbott once and for all. The legendarily embarrassing Tim “Sandbags” Flannery was a policy adviser.
According to The Guardian, in 2018:
There will be constant attempts to either paint Steggall as a Labor plant or a tool of the Liberal moderate faction, which in New South Wales is locked in a vicious war for control of the heart and soul of the party.
Her campaign has signed on Anthony Reed, the former chief of staff to former NSW Labor politician Phil Costa, and she is already being asked about who is funding it.
The former Liberal moderate convener Michael Photios and other former Liberal Party members were sighted at anti-Abbott and climate change events in the electorate almost a year ago. Alex Turnbull, the son of Abbott’s bitter rival, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, has also offered support for the Vote Tony Out campaign.
The Turnbull family’s involvement is not surprising, nor is it news. The possible involvement of backroom boy and recipient of much Liberal lobbying largesse Photios is more significant, and disturbing. The re-election of two Liberal Governments in NSW and nationally, together with the removal of NSW factional opponents Abbott and Molan, will considerably smooth Photios’ future pathway. The removal of factional opponents of standing is icing on his cake.
Great factional operators either skilfully cover their tracks, letting other mere mortals do the dirty work, or they simply have so much power they have nothing to worry about in conducting more open warfare against their opponents. But Abbott was an elder statesman of considerable standing, a former Howard confidant, a past Prime Minister, and an ongoing presence as an influencer, in the media and the community, in Australia and, indeed, internationally. Someone who demanded respect. Therefore, as a factional bully, one needed to tread warily, and distance oneself from any too-obvious Liberal affiliated cheer-squadding for the eventually anointed candidate Zali Steggall.
Now, with Abbott safely flushed down the drain, we come to the latest development – the rumoured Steggall negotiations with, yes, the Liberal Party! This would seem to be the perfect result for the Eco warriors who had infiltrated the Libs. Plan A failed – the pre-selection following the branch stack.
Ben James at The Manly Daily notes:
Senior Liberals are in talks about trying to entice Zali Steggall to join the party in a bid to turn Warringah blue once more.
Party sources have said several informal discussions and briefings have been had since the Olympian ended Tony Abbott’s 25 year tenure in May.
“There definitely have been people reaching out to Zali from the Liberal Party,” one source told the Manly Daily.
“A senior Liberal source said she ticked many of the boxes as a future Liberal Warringah MP.”
“She particularly appeals to the moderate section of the party.
“The conservative side of the party would be against it. But the moderates, who are becoming more and more dominant on the northern beaches, would be in favour. She would absolutely fit the moderate model.
… “And there have been discussions among senior Liberals which haven’t been minuted about getting her to join.”
On the face of it, the whole thing stinks to high heaven. None of this can (so far) be proven. The evidence is circumstantial, though extremely suggestive.
Of course, there might be a far less conspiratorial explanation for the latest move – the Libs, who on one view care about not much other gaining and retaining office, just want another bum on a seat on their side of the aisle. It doesn’t matter much whose bum it is. Here is Ben James again, quoting a “senior Liberal source”:
“Many Liberals are very pragmatic. Her joining would create more of a buffer. Seventy-eight seats is better than 77.”
In the end, perhaps the destruction of Abbott was not so much the result of an orchestrated, highly connected, singly conceived campaign, but rather the result of the various fevered efforts of a more loosely connected archipelago of differently focused Abbott haters, whose objectives nonetheless neatly aligned and who adopted an “agile strategy”, a sequential steps approach to his much sought political destruction.
Either way, a bunch of political pygmies has won, while the nation, sadly, has lost. Big time. Someone should remind the Liberal Party.