A PIECE in yesterday’s issue of The Australian bluntly declared former Prime Minister Tony Abbott should “stop stirring and get a new job;” we agree, and whether the Liberal Right supports Malcolm Turnbull, or subscribes to his political direction, or not — or whether it feels aggrieved and seeks vengeance, or is merely misunderstood, or not — it should encourage its beaten figurehead to leave Parliament, and abandon political comment.
I confess I’ve been moved to write about this after the author of this article, David Crowe, remarked on Twitter yesterday that comment on the piece online was strongly “against” him: not to defend Crowe, but because what he wrote is a) exactly right and b), more to the point, completely in line with my own thoughts.
Readers know that for the duration of this column (and for many years before) I was one of Tony Abbott’s most trenchant supporters and advocates; during his time as opposition leader, as he faced a ceaseless barrage of baseless defamatory slurs from opponents, I defended him; and for most of his tenure as Prime Minister, this column was prepared to back Abbott even as it called him out over the abominable Chief of Staff he prioritised above his obligations to the electorate, and the resultant damage from whose handiwork made it inevitable he would be involuntarily removed from his post.
In the aftermath of the abortive leadership putsch in February, we all but abandoned him: the pledges of change and the winding back of Peta Credlin’s influence and power came to nought, and when the six month reprieve he purchased with promises of electoral competitiveness expired, it became certain that Abbott would be dumped in favour of Malcolm Turnbull.
This column — no subscriber to insipid moderate liberal policies — fought against the ascension of Turnbull, but the change proved unstoppable. And as we now see, the Coalition has leapt ahead in every reputable opinion poll, and has pulled further in front despite conventional wisdom suggesting that almost three months after the leadership switch, Turnbull should be coming back down to Earth by now.
Readers should peruse Crowe’s article, for I am not going to reiterate in full his neat summation of Abbott’s activities, most pertinently where national security and a response to the menace of ISIS are concerned following the disgraceful terrorist attack that organisation inflicted on Paris a couple of weeks ago.
But as a conservative Liberal, I do want to make some complementary observations of my own, and the bottom line is that having squandered his Prime Ministership on misplaced loyalties and lost the leadership of the Liberal Party, the most appropriate course of action for Abbott to now pursue is to resign from Parliament and to desist, as fully as the media will permit him to, from any further comment on political affairs.
It’s not as if he is John Howard, Mk II; Howard was and remains the most substantial figure produced by the conservative side of Australian politics in generations, and the termination of his first period as Liberal leader occurred in opposition, after losing an election that had been comprehensively sabotaged by the idiocy of the push to make Joh Bjelke-Petersen Prime Minister, amid a decade-long war with Andrew Peacock for leadership primacy, and at a time the Liberal Party itself was undergoing a fundamental transformation of its values and policies that saw it become a more conservative — as opposed to “liberal” in the classic sense — movement.
Howard was Prime Minister for four terms and almost 12 years; Abbott, by contrast, won just one election, and presided over a government so amateurish and inept that it has little, if anything, to boast of aside from ending the flow of asylum seeker boats and abolishing Labor’s hated carbon tax.
Perhaps Abbott thinks — as a former Prime Minister — that he has licence to air his views, and that those views carry authority and the imprimatur of a past leader in the same way Howard’s do today.
But to ascribe any legitimacy to such a viewpoint is to debase and insult the Howard legacy, and whilst Howard and his government weren’t perfect, there is much in Australia today that is better for their tenure in office; to a thinking, reasoning conservative — as opposed to a sycophant, or a clubby crony — nobody can say that about the Abbott government, which was nothing less than a monumental disappointment.
It is true that I (and many others with some knowledge of the man) saw enormous potential in Abbott as a Prime Minister; a Rhodes scholar with degrees in economics and law and a conservative thinker of some note, the wholesale abrogation of authority over the government he led to a staffer was unforgivable, and should be forgotten by anyone who follows him into high office only at their peril.
I have nothing personal against Credlin; in fact, I’ve never met her. I’ve heard she is riotous fun away from the office and I don’t have any trouble believing that. But it does seem she had something against me — vetoed from consideration for ministerial staffing duty by the vicious, malicious, ridiculous “star chamber” that also nobbled countless people better than myself — and I know plenty of people who have corroborated, from first-hand knowledge and in detail, some of the stories of her behaviour that found their way into the press.
It was impossible to turn a blind eye to the damage that was inflicted on the government as a direct consequence of the procedures and internal policies that were the practical form the structure she erected around it took, which is why this column campaigned, in the end, for her to be sacked: it had nothing to do with gender, or whether her name was spelt P-E-T-A or P-E-T-E-R, or any of the other nonsense uttered in her defence by Abbott; the whole thing reeked of amateurism, and the buck stopped with her. Failing that, the buck stopped with her boss — Abbott. And refusing to take responsibility, the party room did it for him — and dispensed with them both.
In the end, to say Credlin was well out of her depth in such a senior and pivotal role is probably something of an understatement; and whilst we’re talking about the notion of the Liberal Party having become a clubhouse during Abbott’s tenure, something should be said of Credlin’s husband — outgoing federal director Brian Loughnane — as well.
Loughnane is another member of the closed cabal of the Liberal Right whose record, judged on results, is at best chequered; the man himself, when announcing his imminent resignation from his post, jovially described his record as “two wins, a loss and a draw” in reference to federal elections in 2004, 2013, 2007 and 2010 respectively.
Yet 2004, once the hype over Mark Latham subsided, was always likely to see the Howard government solidly re-elected, and similarly, only a complete fool could have failed to steer the Coalition to a big win against the moribund Rudd-Gillard-Rudd outfit in 2013.
But as encouraging as the 2010 result might have been — creditworthy, even — Loughnane still has to wear responsibility for the campaign that ended the Howard era on his CV: a defeat, in frankness, that has cost Australia heavily, whether in monetary terms (foreign debt, the budget deficit) or socially (the entrenchment of the Left in the national discourse, virtually unchallenged and almost completely untouched, that continues even with the ALP in opposition under a useless “leader”). Socialists would disagree with that of course, but they would. The rest of us — the majority of Australians — will be adversely affected by the bullshit being vigorously installed as the “new normal paradigm” in Australian society, and the 2007 election loss is a causative factor in this problem.
And the one result Loughnane didn’t mention (but which should have terminated his career as a “strategist” at a stroke) was the state election campaign he presided over as state director of the Liberal Party in Victoria in 2002, which saw the party reduced to just 17 of 88 lower house seats and almost annihilated in its worst showing at an election in its home state since 1952, and its second-worst ever since its formation in 1944.
Where all of this becomes relevant to Abbott now — to his public utterances, seemingly at odds with the direction of the new Turnbull government, or his continued tenure in Parliament — is where questions of exactly what Abbott and his acolytes might think they are defending are concerned, or the structures and personnel they seek to sustain.
Abbott and his lieutenant Kevin Andrews have been critical of Turnbull’s response to the ISIS attack on Paris, advocating military strikes rather than talk, strategy, and more subtle endeavours to deal with the growing scourge of Islamic terrorism. I have to say, in fact, that I agree with them.
But actions have consequences — and the end result of everything I have covered is that little or no credibility remains vested in the individuals involved.
Abbott, for all his promise, is vastly and irretrievably diminished by the government he led and by his dumping as Prime Minister. The humiliation is compounded, and easily visible, by the fact he could have avoided it: by protecting Credlin instead of the government, he brought his downfall upon himself. Nobody is very interested in anything Abbott has to say now, and nobody will be.
There will be no return to the Liberal Party leadership. Not now, not ever.
Andrews — archly conservative, and someone I have time for at a personal level — has nonetheless earned a reputation for buggering up everything he has touched. The botch he made of WorkChoices was a huge factor in setting the Howard government on the path towards defeat. The botch he made of Immigration, and his handling of the Mohamed Haneef affair in particular, threw fuel on the same fire. As Social Security minister under Abbott, Andrews was arguably one of the biggest sources of grief for the government, between draconian welfare proposals on one hand and an ill-advised initiative of free marriage counselling vouchers for all Australian couples on the other.
Andrews, like Abbott, has long passed his use-by date.
And it brings up the fact that the Liberal Right, for all its outrage that the detested Turnbull was able to return as leader at all and become Prime Minister, has no obvious leader, and no candidate of its own for the Liberal leadership. Scott Morrison is a moderate who is acceptable to the Right on account of his own stewardship of the Immigration portfolio, but that’s the end of the list for the immediate future.
Peter Dutton was a terrible ambassador as Health minister who did not deserve to survive the leadership change. Abbott is finished, and Andrews was never a publicly acceptable starter. Andrew Robb is too old, insufficiently telegenic, and comes across badly in the press (even if he has been the ministerial superstar of the government). Everyone else is up-and-coming, and years away from being ready. It’s an indictment on the Right, and another symptom of the same clubby cabal that calcified around a stagnant group of (the wrong) people when it should have been paying due care to succession planning years ago.
For those Liberals who viscerally detest Turnbull, come election day, they can at least partly salve their abhorrence of the moderates by voting for National Party candidates in the Senate; as for the House of Representatives, can anyone seriously argue that a government led by Turnbull is not preferable to one formed by the ALP, under Bill Shorten no less, and in cahoots with — God forbid — the
Communist Party Greens, whose policies of state socialism would damage this country almost irretrievably?
The indisputable reality that Turnbull is better than the alternative any day is the sole reason I will vote Liberal. Any further attempt to pursue a moderate conservative agenda instead of the small “l” liberal direction Turnbull wishes to pursue will have to wait, although it must be hoped that when that opportunity eventually arrives there are defter hands and cleverer minds behind the effort than Abbott, and Andrews, and Loughnane, and Credlin, and the rest of that failed junta.
Former Treasurer Joe Hockey — an excellent fellow indeed, but also easily the worst Treasurer produced by any Liberal government since the days of Menzies — has had the grace and good sense to leave Parliament; yes, it may well be on the end of a diplomatic posting. But the simple fact is that at the earliest opportunity to leave that presented itself, Hockey took it.
Whether they agree with what Turnbull is doing or not, any critique of government policy is best left to the observers and scribes who opine on such matters; and if opinion is sought by the press from Abbott as a former Prime Minister, the most astute response would be to politely decline.
The perceived prestige of his past office is at odds with both the public perception of his performance in it and with the direction of the continuing government. There is an adage about politicians not being commentators that Abbott and Co would be wise to follow. And in the time that comes after a political career, the shrewdness to know that — unlike Howard — the articulation of contrary views as private citizens really isn’t appropriate.
It might be a bitter pill to swallow, but the best service Abbott could render to the Liberal Party now is to resign his ultra-safe seat of Warringah and leave politics; take his equally irrelevant colleague Andrews with him, and encourage some others (Bronwyn Bishop, Ian Macfarlane, Dutton, and Senators such as Eric Abetz and even George Brandis) to also go to make way for the next generation of conservative leaders to start out, and to give the rest of us on the Right something to rally around and champion over the medium term..
The resignations don’t have to take effect now, triggering a rash of by-elections: announcements about going quietly at the looming election would be just fine.
The Turnbull government is not invulnerable. There are indications Turnbull has not fully learned the lessons of his dumping as leader six years ago. Some of what emanates from the government — especially concerning ISIS and how to respond after the Paris attack — is, in short, alarming.
But these are issues for consideration at another time, and they are not issues with which Abbott can speak with the authority of a former Prime Minister because, in the final analysis, he has none of that authority to draw upon.
It didn’t have to be like this, but it is, and Abbott only has himself to blame. He must leave politics. It is the only decent course to take if the welfare of the Liberal Party is important to him. And once he has gone, he should desist from commenting on issues at all.
But Abbott ignored good advice from many, many people whilst Prime Minister, and it is difficult to believe that will change any time soon.