The lizard-faced emperor

The enduring image of Tony Abbott’s time in office was taken the day after he lost his seat. He is lizard-faced and weary, desolately sorting Peroni bottles into a recycling bin. He has a sock tan above boat shoes and is wearing floral board shorts. The sense of failure is absolute.

Nothing came after that photograph, which is why it says so much about what came before it. There were no jobs waiting for him. The business world did not seek out his talents. There was no meaningful contribution to social causes. Once the shot was taken, he drove down to the bottle shop and bought another slab.

There is talk now that Abbott may take the senate vacancy created by Jim Molan’s death. Michael Kroger, the Victorian Liberal powerbroker, is pushing for it. He says there is no better candidate. “Tony Abbott is arguably the most successful opposition leader during my lifetime and his depth of experience would be a major benefit for the new opposition.”

Peter Dutton is encouraging. “There’s no question Tony Abbott would be an asset,” he says. “I mean, it’s the reason that Kevin Rudd’s been appointed to be our ambassador in Washington. It’s why Julia Gillard does work for this government. And Tony has an incredible skill set.”

The truth is there is nothing else for him. The world has moved on. He is unelectable in his own seat and the only way back into politics is to be dropped into the upper house. It is a near perfect metaphor for the Liberal Party’s inability to understand that the country does not want the politics it is pushing, does not want the division and the climate scepticism and the appeals to basest fears.

Abbott did more than anyone to create the contemporary Liberal Party. He took John Howard’s sly opportunism and rid it of its subtlety. He made a virtue of ignorance. He operated with an arbitrary contempt for public institutions. He was, until Scott Morrison, the country’s most destructive leader.

Abbott’s column in The Australian this week is virtually an application to Liberal Party preselectors. He says the best way to honour the dead is to act on the causes dear to them. He urges greater military spending and promises to live up to Molan’s hawkishness on China.

Fear defines Tony Abbott’s politics: fear of migrants, fear of sex, fear of gay men. He is most comfortable imagining an Australia that does not exist, one untouched by gender equality or the complexities of globalisation. If he were to come back to politics, this is the Australia he would again try to build.

Mungo MacCallum once described John Howard as an unflushable turd. His re-election in 2004 was a final victory lap of the bowl. Abbott is similar but different. He’s been in the S-bend and bobbed back up. No former prime minister has ever left parliament and returned. If Abbott does, it will simply confirm what has long been obvious: there is no place in life for a man of such mendacity and brute selfishness, except in the Liberal Party of Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "The lizard-faced emperor".

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