A warning to Abbott supporters: if Turnbull falls, so might you


With each passing day, it becomes clearer that Tony Abbott and his supporters are flirting with the idea that the former prime minister can “do a Rudd” and return to the top job. Like Rudd, they might not even care if they destroy their party’s government in the process.

The Abbott camp might demur, and perhaps even claim the former PM is styling himself more on the second coming of John Howard than Rudd, but the similarities between Abbott and the vengeful Kevin07 are becoming hard to ignore.

Abbott claimed, like Rudd, not to have seen the leadership coup coming, even though Abbott was given six months by the Liberal party room to prove himself.

In both cases, the brutal public side-lining engendered an anger in both men, which at least for Rudd seemingly could only be extinguished by the destruction of his usurper, Julia Gillard.

In addition to courting politically engaged voters on social media, Rudd used public appearances and utterances carefully timed to coincide with opinion poll researchers being in the field to remind the broader community of voters about his absence and thereby depress the Gillard Government’s approval ratings.

Abbott too is determined to stay in the public eye. He’s wasted no time defending his leadership by granting interviews and writing columns for News Corp, joining the international public speaking circuit, and demonstrating his ongoing access to the world’s leaders.

In less than six months there have been speeches on asylum seekers, the sanctity of marriage, and territorial relations with China, as well as articles on budget repair, industrial relations reform, election timing and the need for a religious revolution inside Islam.

Although not a keen user of social media, the former PM has also managed to post photos on Twitter of his meetings with international luminaries such as Henry Kissinger and John McCain to prove he still has cachet on the world stage. In the same vein, a leak to the media claimed Abbott had privately met Barack Obama not long after PM Turnbull had met with the US president.

And then there are the other leaks, such as the cabinet document that purportedly showed Turnbull was only talk when it came to appointing women, and the seemingly daily leak to the media of the Coalition’s talking points, which appears to be a tit-for-tat against those who leaked the hymn sheet during Abbott’s time.

Perhaps the most damaging leak so far has been the damning information and photos that led to Stuart Robert’s resignation, which were anonymously drip-fed to the media over a succession of days, thereby creating the momentum that led to Roberts’ decision not to seek a role in the refurbished Turnbull ministry.

It could be argued that much of this destabilisation is being caused by Abbott supporters rather than the man himself. It is undeniable that the Liberal MPs speaking out and pushing back against Turnbull on issues such as national security, gay marriage and even tax reform are declared Abbott supporters.

But it would be misguided to absolve Abbott of any responsibility for the instability that threatens to be an enduring – and potentially electorally fatal – characteristic of the Turnbull Government.

The former PM’s most trusted adviser and current Canberra landlord, Peta Credlin, remains on the scene and is reportedly pressing Abbott to re-take the prime ministership.

If so, Abbott continues to show the lack of judgement and fortitude that led him to unquestioningly follow Credlin’s flawed advice in the past.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by his 4,000-word defence of his time in government, which, based on based on an excerpt published by The Australian, could be summed up as arguing “I was too brave” and “the times did not suit me”.

Given different circumstances, the destabilisation being wrought would be little more than an inconvenience to Turnbull, and a minor irritation to voters.

If Abbott truly does stand by all the 2014 budget measures, claiming they were simply too ambitious, he clearly cannot see the thread of inequity that runs through the document.

This blindness to economic and social injustice renders Abbott unfit to responsibly lead the nation – even if, as he claims, he could have won the next election.

Given different circumstances, the destabilisation being wrought by the Abbott camp would be little more than an inconvenience to Turnbull, and a minor irritation to voters.

Voters will forgive a few stumbles and rumbles in the governing party as long as the fundamentals are strong.

If the PM had swiftly established a new economic narrative, more deftly managed voters’ expectations, and avoided some of the more obvious obstacles, voters would more likely have dismissed the antics of Abbott & Co as the freelancing of backbenchers that should occur in a healthy democracy.

The same observation applies to the Gillard government and the Rudd camp.

A series of poor political decisions and an inability to manage the economic narrative exposed Julia Gillard to Rudd’s white-anting, which it must be said was considerably subtler than the efforts of the Abbott camp.

While Turnbull is clearly a different leader to Gillard, the same caution applies.

If the PM increasingly presents as a waffler and a ditherer, who too easily bows to minority views within government ranks while being undermined by the same dissenting forces, voters will see only inaction and chaos.

And they are likely to penalise any government that is wracked by chaos.

Abbott & Co should also take heed of the lesson from the Gillard and Rudd years. Even a comparably popular guerrilla like Rudd had to bring the Gillard Government to its knees before his peers would capitulate and return him to the leadership.

The prodigal prime minister was not embraced by the voters subsequently as hoped, and his party was swept from office in a landslide by an unpopular opposition leader.

With Labor’s primary vote still lingering in the doldrums, Abbott’s supporters may think they have the electoral latitude to leisurely play with their Turnbull voodoo doll without risking government and its cushy accompaniments.

That may be so. But if they are determined to destroy Turnbull to reinstall their own man, the Abbott forces risk bringing the whole government tumbling down.