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.
“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.