What’s really behind Tony Abbott’s Rebel Tour of 2016?

Two main arguments are being advanced for Tony Abbott’s Rebel Tour of 2016, which has recently concluded its international leg and is reportedly due to play at a number of Australian venues in coming months.

One school of thought is that the former prime minister is simply defending his legacy. The theory certainly accords with comments made by the man himself, as well as the two lengthy essays he’s written so far on the “economic case” and the “national security case” for the Abbott Government.

It does invite the question however whether Abbott’s “legacy” is actually under attack. Conservative commentator Chris Kenny seems to think so, arguing on the weekend that “Abbott haters”, particularly in the media, are provoking the ex-PM by denigrating his legacy and that he will not be silent while those attacks continue.

However Kenny’s fellow traveller on the right side of the political spectrum, columnist Miranda Devine, dismissed Abbott’s right to determine his legacy, saying it will be decided by history – not him – in due course.

It’s difficult also to argue that Abbott’s record is being diminished when his successor has gone to considerable lengths to heap acclaim upon the former PM.

Abbott moved early to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his ousting, noting that nothing had changed in the Government’s policies or narrative and that “Whatever else the changes of last week were about, they plainly weren’t about policy”.

He then told one of his favourite conservative shock jocks that Coalition voters needed to support the Turnbull Government, even if it was through gritted teeth.

Yet Turnbull turned the other cheek, taking two prominent opportunities to acknowledge and thank the man he deposed.

In a public address to the NSW Liberals, Turnbull said the party owed Abbott “an enormous debt” and that Abbott had “achieved great things, great reforms, great commitments”, in helping to “build the future of our economy” and “ensure the prosperity of our children and our grandchildren”.

A few days later, the PM doubled down on that praise, telling the Parliament that the Government owed “a great debt to Tony Abbott”, and that Australia had been “improved” and “better led” during his time as prime minister.

In the face of that prime ministerial acclamation, it’s hard to sustain the argument that Abbott’s legacy has been undermined.

So if the member for Warringah’s frequent sallies into the voting public’s consciousness are not about writing history, a second theory suggests Abbott is simply a vengeful wrecker unable to come to terms with his fall, who is driven to short-sightedly cause grief for his usurper without fully thinking through the electoral consequences.

This theory points to Abbott’s ongoing attempts at self-aggrandisement, the contrived snapshots on Twitter and leaked stories to the tabloid media of “exclusive” and private meetings with various world leaders.

And then there are the pointed jabs at the Prime Minister, such as the Facebook post that played on Turnbull’s signature phrase or the unsubtle geeing-up of a loyalist crowd that proved only too happy to jeer at Abbott’s mention of the Turnbull Government.

The “Abbott is a vengeful wrecker” complaint ratcheted up an octave yesterday when the backbencher announced he would conduct his own national election campaign because the Liberal Party had not given him a formal role in the Coalition’s 2016 campaign.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge in response to this news is the number of conservatives who have expressed concerns about Abbott’s campaigning plans.

Right-winger Cory Bernardi is quoted today saying Abbott has a significant role to play “and I hope it is a positive one because … the country is going to be better served by a Liberal government than a Labor one.”

Another conservative MP, not quite as brave as Bernardi to put their name to their comments, said it was time Abbott behaved liked backbencher and that he would be “enormously disruptive” if he campaigned in other seats.

Yet another MP, who reportedly voted for Abbott when Turnbull challenged for the Liberal leadership, was even more damning of Abbott’s plan to embark on a national tour.

I love the guy to bits, but I don’t want him remembered as our version of Kevin Rudd, and that is a real risk.

“What we need is unity of purpose,” the MP reportedly said, “and I am concerned [Abbott’s] campaign is not necessarily about the election of Malcolm Turnbull.”

“I love the guy to bits, but I don’t want him remembered as our version of Kevin Rudd, and that is a real risk.”

The comparison between Abbott and Rudd is tempting, even for this writer, but it may distract us from the real reason for the backbencher’s behaviour. Somewhat ironically, Abbott’s political machinations may actually be about policy as well as the hearts and minds of Liberal voters.

This third, and arguably more compelling, theory was espoused by political analyst Peter Brent on The Drum last week.

Brent argues that conservative culture warriors in the Liberal Party, spoilt by 12 years of coddling from prime ministers Howard and Abbott, are terrified that a re-elected Turnbull, with a strengthened mandate, could move the Government and therefore the party closer to the political centre.

Considered from this perspective, Abbott’s recent behaviour can be seen as an effort to paint Turnbull into a corner on as many conservative policies as possible, so that a re-elected Turnbull has minimal flexibility to adopt more centrist policies even with his own mandate.

To date, Abbott has been surprisingly successful in doing so.

His controversial warnings about Europe’s porous borders in last year’s Thatcher Lecture, essentially linking them with terrorism, were echoed in Turnbull’s Lowy Lecture just last week.

“For all intents and purposes there are no internal borders in Europe, that has been a great achievement of openness,” said the PM, however noting the external borders are difficult to manage and “recent intelligence indicates that ISIL is using the refugee crisis to send operatives into Europe.”

Abbott’s speech in January defending traditional marriage neatly dovetailed with calls for his preferred way of dealing with the matter – a gay marriage plebiscite – to be scrapped. By reaffirming his support for the national vote in the speech, the backbencher effectively wedged the PM into reconfirming it would take place.

It’s also likely Abbott’s decision to denounce the Safe Schools program as social engineering and sign the rogue petition calling for its end that influenced the subsequent gutting of the scheme.

Granted, Abbott hasn’t been able to shift Turnbull on everything, with the PM so far holding his ground on the timing of the submarine-building program and sending more troops to the Middle East.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s possible Abbott could do Turnbull the most damage on economic matters rather than the social issues over which conservatives and progressives traditionally tussle.

The week after intervening during a government party room meeting to warn against cuts to negative gearing concessions, Abbott rolled out an unsanctioned campaign slogan while electioneering in Tasmania. In slamming Labor’s “five new taxes” – on housing, wealth, seniors, smokers and carbon – the former PM is trying to tap into the negative campaigning mojo that made him a lethal opposition leader against Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

It’s also an unambiguous attempt to make it impossible for the Turnbull Government to adopt any of the so-called taxes, thereby forcing the PM and his Treasurer to resort to the spending cuts that made Abbott so unpopular.

Where is Abbott going with this approach? If he succeeds in browbeating Turnbull into adopting more and more conservative policies prior to the election, voters may abandon the Government altogether. Even if Turnbull scrapes in, Abbott could launch a leadership bid claiming Turnbull was merely a proxy for him and his policies.

However it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Abbott would be most content with the defeat of the Turnbull Government. Only in this way could he return to the role that he did best – being Opposition Leader.

Unfortunately for the former PM, his colleagues may not have a similar view of his capabilities, particularly after watching him tear the party down. They may look to younger conservative warriors – or perhaps even the prodigal son Scott Morrison – to lead the Liberal Party back to government.

The double dissolution trigger has been all but pulled

Today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finally put paid to the numerous calls for decisions and certainty by drawing a line in the sand, daring the Senate to thwart him, and declaring a double dissolution election would be held on July 2 if it did.

He also confirmed the federal budget would be brought forward a week and delivered on May 3.

The PM announced he had asked the Governor-General to recall Parliament on April 18, neatly over-ruling any objection the Senate might have to re-convening, so that the once-rejected bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission can be reconsidered by the Upper House.

If the ABCC bill is rejected again, Turnbull will have demonstrated to the Governor-General that a DD election is needed to clear the log-jam created by the obstructionist Senate.

There is a slight but unlikely possibility the Senate crossbench, having just been consigned to the electoral rubbish bin by last week’s voting reforms, could call the PM’s bluff and pass the ABCC bill. But they will be under considerable pressure from Labor, the Greens and the unions not to bring back the union nemesis.

Either way, Turnbull has risked doing what only one prime minister has done before – and very badly at that – which is to essentially call the election months before polling day.

We can now expect the festival of finger pointing that was a feature of last week’s Senate debate to become even more shrill and hyperbolic as the laying of blame and attendant calls for electoral punishment become an unavoidable feature of the 2016 election campaign.

Last week’s marathon debate in the Senate was ostensibly about changes to the process for electing senators that would prevent the system being further exploited by the micro parties. However, Labor’s belated change of heart over the reforms, from support when Parliament looked at the issue in 2014 to opposition now, belied the true purpose of the theatrics.

Labor increasingly has to defend its left flank against the Greens and therefore find ways to pull its opponent down from the progressives’ pedestal.

By creating a fuss with overnight antics in the Senate, Labor now has documentary evidence – in the form of media coverage – to use during the election campaign to “prove” the minor party abandoned its progressive principles by siding with the party of Bernardi and Christensen to pass the Senate reforms.

Labor’s previous support for the reforms (and the fact it is now going against the advice of an internal party review and that of its own spokesman on the issue, Gary Gray), or the Greens’ longstanding policyon the matter, will be ignored so as not to confuse the voters with such minor contextual details.

Similarly, stunts pulled during the Senate debate, such as forcing the Greens to withstand calls to bring on lengthy digressions on gay marriage and political donations, will be cited by Labor as further proof of the Greens’ despoilment.

There will be no concession from Labor however that the rifts within its ranks would have been exposed if the Greens had called its bluff on gay marriage and actually brought on the vote.

In many respects, the Greens will have an easier run during the election campaign when it comes to laying blame against their opponents.

The progressive party alone can claim the high moral ground on two totemic issues – asylum seekers and gay marriage – which provides them with a strong foundation upon which to claim Labor’s unwillingness to act on either issue makes the party culpable for the associated injustices being perpetrated.

Of course, finger-pointing during the election won’t be confined to the civil war simmering between the two left-of-centre parties.

If voters are sent to a double dissolution election in July, Labor and the Greens will go into battle to protect their union constituencies. Both parties will attempt to pre-emptively blame the Turnbull Government for apocalyptic workplaces and ruined livelihoods created by the twice-spurned industrial relations reforms that triggered the double dissolution, and would likely be passed by a joint sitting of the Parliament if the Coalition is re-elected.

For its part, the Government will try to turn Labor’s connections with the union movement from a strength into a weakness. This was the original intent of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, which found some incidences of bad behaviour by union officials, but inconveniently (for the Coalition) not enough to condemn the whole movement.

Nevertheless, the Government will blame Labor and its leader Bill Shorten for being beholden to the unions, pointing to the Opposition’s refusal to pass the industrial relations reform bills as “proof” the ALP would rather stick by dodgy unions than make workplace laws more flexible to help the economy become more productive.

It will be interesting to see how the Government deals with its new-found friends in the Greens when it comes to IR reform, given the minor party is also very supportive of the labour movement. One of the unions that fared less well under the spotlight of the Royal Commission, the CFMEU, is also one of the Greens’ major financial donors.

Given the minor party is also likely to hold the balance of power in the Senate after a double dissolution election, it may not be that surprising if PM Turnbull – keeping an eye to post-election Senate negotiations – treats the newly-pragmatic Greens with kid gloves during the election.

However, any decision by Turnbull to strategically pull his punches with the Greens could expose the PM to more accusations by the conservatives within his own party that he is a barely-disguised socialist.

The pushback from the hard right forces within the Coalition Government has continued almost unabated in recent weeks, sometimes emboldened by tactical interventions from former PM Tony Abbott. And the conservatives’ victory late last week in reining in the Safe Schools program has laid bare the extent to which Turnbull is apparently prepared to make material concessions to placate the right.

But as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten pointed out in the Parliament on this topic, giving in to bullies tends only to encourage them. There is no evidence to suggest the Turnbull critics within his administration will rest until the Government is torn apart by internal dissent, voters throw the Coalition onto the electoral scrapheap, and the Abbott forces claim their Pyrrhic vindication.

More than Labor and the Greens, these Coalition MPs may welcome today’s Newspoll suggesting a further diminution in the PM’s approval ratings, even if the survey also claims the Government’s primary vote remains healthy and the Coalition is still well-positioned to win the federal election.

It’s no secret the parties have been gearing up for some time to run a blame campaign this election – they’ve clearly been testing and rehearsing their lines since the beginning of the year.

What is less clear is how voters will respond to the strategy. They would be wise to not only look at who’s being blamed and why, but also the credibility and motives of those who are doing the pointing.

Turnbull looks more dodgy than decisive these days

Another day, another opinion poll; this time it’s Fairfax’s Ipsos poll confirming the slide in the Prime Minister’s public approval ratings to a level described by one commentator as the “land of political mortals“.

Today’s Ipsos poll disagrees with findings from other recent polls that the Opposition has drawn level with the Government on a two-party preferred basis, claiming instead the Coalition is comfortably ahead at 53 to 47 per cent.

However, there is no dissent when it comes to Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity having come off the boil, with Ipsos charting a 14 percentage point drop in the PM’s approval rating to 55 per cent from a high of 69 per cent in November last year.

Another columnist ascribes half the plunge to disappointed progressives abandoning the PM for failure to deliver on totemic left-of-centre issues like same-sex marriage. The other half is apparently due to right-wingers having lost hope that Turnbull has the fortitude to deliver the tough measures needed for adequate economic reform.

However, Turnbull has more to worry about than being seen as heartless or without a spine; the PM’s seeming prevarication over the timing of this year’s federal election is also starting to make him look dodgy.

No one explains why better than the man himself, who as opposition leader in 2009 said of the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd:

His threat of a double dissolution and an early election proves to all of us what this budget is really about. It isn’t about protecting the jobs of Australians … It is about the job security of one man and one man only, a PM frightened of the consequences of his mismanagement, [who] now wants to cut and run before he is found out.

It wouldn’t take much of a stretch for the current Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, to level the same accusation at Turnbull.

In recent days the PM has been huffing about the need to clean up union corruption, claiming a double dissolution election is the regrettable consequence of the Senate crossbench’s continued rejection of legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

But Turnbull is not kidding anyone with this ruse, perhaps other than himself if he actually believes voters will swallow the line.

Ever since it became clear the Greens were prepared to support electoral reform including changes to Senate voting to stop preference harvesting, a DD election has offered an irresistible opportunity to the Government to throw open all Senate positions and clean out the crossbench from that chamber.

The rationale for doing so is that a Senate made up of only the major parties, the Nationals and the Greens would likely be more workable than one with a motley crew of crossbenchers extorting the Government with disparate niche demands.

Putting the lie to Turnbull’s exhortations, the Government’s agreement with the Greens to ram through the Senate reforms this week – but not consider the ABCC legislation – appears to confirm that wiping out the crossbench is a higher priority than securing a second double dissolution trigger.

Unlikely senatorial hero, Ricky Muir, is on to Turnbull’s game, and has announced plans to bring forward the Senate vote on the ABCC legislation. If the Government is to honour its deal with the Greens not to debate the bill this week, it will have no choice other than to block Muir’s motion.

That will be awkward considering how important Turnbull claims the ABCC to be. Additionally, Muir’s stunt may feed into voter concern that the PM is developing a habit of not being completely frank with us.

The same applies with the timing of this year’s budget. Turnbull may believe he is being nimble by subtly changing his language to accommodate the possibility of the annual economic statement being brought forward by a week.

An early budget is the best option to overcome challenges associated with calling a double dissolution election, such as the need to pass supply bills to ensure there’s enough money to run the public service until a new government is commissioned.

Yet by playing semantics with the media, saying only the Government is “working towards” a budget on May 10 or that the budget will be delivered “in May” rather than giving a specific date, the PM risks looking more deceptive than nimble. What Turnbull might see as keeping his options open looks more like evasiveness to the rest of us.

What’s more, the time for options may well have passed. With his own damning words from 2009 being brought back to haunt him, Turnbull is faced with the prospect of being seen as someone who “cuts and runs” if he calls a DD election.

And yet given his earlier backdown on increasing the GST, and ongoing dithering over a broader tax reform package, the PM may risk even more harmful criticism if he goes to water and calls off the “early” poll.

This is a problem completely of Turnbull’s own making. Only through decisive action can the PM extricate himself from the corner into which he has painted himself.

Abbott, Credlin and the book that could hurt the Coalition

As is almost always the case after a tumultuous political event, there has been a scramble to frame the motivations of key players in the downfall of former prime minister Tony Abbott and his short-lived Coalition government.

According to one camp, Abbott was undermined by Malcolm Turnbull and betrayed by both his deputy Julie Bishop and social services minister Scott Morrison. The contrary view is that Turnbull stepped forward to fix what he saw as a deficiency in the prime minister’s economic leadership.

Until late last week, neither explanation canvassed the dysfunction that reportedly was endemic within Abbott’s prime ministerial office at the time.

However, the publication late last week of excerpts from columnist Niki Savva’s book on that dysfunction has changed the tenor of the claims and counter-claims, but not necessarily for the better. The full version of Savva’s book is published today.

Since being deposed as Liberal leader, Abbott’s public interventions have been justified as a legitimate defence of his legacy.

That argument began to show cracks last week, however, when the former PM openly criticised the Turnbull Government in response to a leaked draft of the defence white paper. Abbott claimed the draft indicated the building of Australia’s new submarine fleet had been delayed by a decade.

This claim was refuted by the Department of Defence, which stated the earlier start date was never a real option.

Aside from showing Abbott’s willingness to step beyond the defence of his legacy to actually criticise the Turnbull administration, this incident was also notable for the Prime Minister’s pushback. Abbott made it plain he would speak out to protect the historical record of his time in office, but Turnbull made it equally clear he would step in to correct that record if it was in danger of being retrospectively revised.

“I respect Tony’s right to speak his mind and he should continue to do so,” Turnbull noted last week, “but it’s very important that as Prime Minister, I set the record straight.”

We’ll never know if that standoff would have been enough to restore a semblance of order to the Government.

The release of Savva’s book is guaranteed to produce even more upheaval within the Coalition’s ranks, with Abbott and his former senior staffer, Peta Credlin, confronted with the book’s contention – often based on first-hand accounts – that he was unhealthily dependent on her, while she ran a dysfunctional office, and both factors contributed to their downfall.

Savva claims her book is also about setting the record straight. The columnist and author chose to give voice to the parliamentarians and staffers who endured the dysfunction, and therefore decided not to offer Abbott or Credlin the right of reply.

Savva told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday that she had concluded:

Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin, any day, any night can get out there and give their version of events. And their version of events often differs very wildly from everybody else’s and there are people who had been abused for years during that administration who suffered in silence. And I thought they should be given the chance to tell their story.

A deliberate omission of this sort does expose Savva to accusations of ethical deficiency, as noted by Credlin in response to an early excerpt of the book airing gossip about the nature of her relationship with Abbott.

But given Savva has been a long-time critic of Abbott and Credlin, her expose of the pair’s time in office was never going to be a hagiography. She likely would have had little inclination to seek or publish denials from the pair, particularly those she believed to be unfounded.

As much as some Liberals may be relieved that the worst elements of the Abbott era are now in the open, strengthening the Turnbull camp’s justification for cleaning it out, it’s possible the Savva book will incite retaliatory action from the Abbott camp and create even more instability within the Government.

It is already commonplace for the Government’s daily talking points to be leaked to the media, and there has been a succession of targeted leaks such as the draft defence paper last week.

There is of course no proof the leaks came from the Abbott camp, even though its members have the most obvious motive for doing so.

So we should be alert for more leaks in the weeks to come, perhaps focused on the people who were prepared to go on the record to criticise Abbott or Credlin for the Savva book.

One such person is the former minister Stuart Robert, who recounts in the book his run-in with Credlin over a request to take a photo of Abbott wearing a non-regulation tie. It is difficult to avoid seeing a connection between Robert’s cooperation with Savva, and the series of anonymous leaks last month that exposed his dodgy ministerial dealings in China and led to his resignation.

While Coalition MPs might be hoping the Savva book will shame Abbott into becoming a team player again, it’s more likely to have the opposite effect by further inflaming the former PM’s thirst for retribution.

Even though Savva recounts many examples of prime minister Abbott ignoring the advice of his colleagues, peer pressure may well be the best way to cajole backbencher Abbott.

Accordingly, the comments made by Abbott supporter Mathias Cormann late last week are both illuminating and instructive.

Cormann warned that Abbott was not Kevin Rudd, and had not “at this stage” destabilised the Government to the extent that Rudd did. He went on to note that “whoever did leak that [defence] document was incredibly reckless with our national security” and that he “would have preferred if Tony had chosen not to comment publicly.”

More pointedly, Turnbull supporter Mitch Fifield told Insiders on Sunday that former leaders had earned a right to speak on a range of issues but they also had a duty of care not to do or say anything that would affect the Government’s electoral prospects.

Noting Abbott’s claim that “we’ve got to focus on the election of the Turnbull Government”, Fifield said he expected Abbott to follow through on that.