Plotting Tony Abbott’s Year of the White-ant
Cut flowers live longer than some political promises. Even so, Tony Abbott’s commitment, made just after 12.30pm on September 15, 2015, was particularly ephemeral.
It lasted less than five minutes.
Abbott’s party had dumped him as leader the previous evening, but Malcolm Turnbull was yet to be sworn in and so Abbott used the prime minister’s courtyard for one last time to address the media.
It was 12.39pm that day, give or take a few seconds, that he promised he would engage in “no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping” at the new leadership.
“I have never leaked or backgrounded against anyone and I certainly won’t start now. Our country deserves better than that,” he said.
Then he went on to briefly enumerate what he saw as the big achievements of his government, before moving on to the subject of “leadership instability”.
“We stayed focused despite the white-anting,” he said.
“Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving-door prime ministership which can’t be good for our country, and a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.
“And if there’s one piece of advice I can give to the media, it’s this: refuse to print self-serving claims that the person making them won’t put his or her name to; refuse to connive at dishonour by acting as the assassin’s knife.”
Just four minutes after Abbott promised to be a good loser, the bitterness began to show. And it has been on display ever since. The undermining and sniping, by Abbott himself and by his political and media surrogates, has never stopped.
Consider this piece a diary, marked with Abbott’s crude appointments and naked plans. Consider this a list of interventions in his Year of the White-ant.
Abbott mentioned no names at the presser. His right-wing acolytes did, however. Unconstrained by his admonition against leaking and backgrounding, they provided The Australian with their list of who voted for whom in the party room that very day, and alleged they had been double crossed. They claimed social services minister Scott Morrison had “encouraged” a bloc of his right-aligned supporters to vote for Turnbull, even as he made a show of supporting Abbott.
“Counters for Mr Abbott claim this resulted in the defection of many of Mr Morrison’s backers to Mr Turnbull, including Alex Hawke, Lucy Wicks, Bert van Mannen, Luke Howarth and Steve Irons along with Ms [Bronwyn] Bishop,” the paper wrote. “Some had directly given Mr Abbott their assurance he had their support.”
“Abbott slams Morrison”
Only the far-right senator Cory Bernardi was on the record, calling what happened “treachery of the highest order”.
Abbott loyalists among the Murdoch media and radio shock jocks were sniping on his behalf, too, accusing Morrison of having been complicit in the coup, in exchange for elevation to the treasury portfolio.
In a bizarre and very hostile interview three days after the Turnbull ascendency, 2GB shock jock Ray Hadley demanded Morrison swear on a Bible that he had not betrayed Abbott. Morrison angrily refused – Hadley’s underlings had, in any case, apparently forgotten to provide the Bible – and said he had voted for Abbott to remain leader. He also said he had tried to warn Abbott’s office of the planned coup days before it happened, and counterclaimed that Abbott had offered him the treasurer’s job.
A few days after that, Abbott himself got involved via a favoured print outlet, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. “Not true, not true. Scott never warned anyone,” he said. “So I’m afraid Scott badly misled people.”
Fourteen days after his minions began sniping at Morrison on his behalf, and a week after he made his comments to the Telegraph, Abbott returned to the Hadley show in the guise of peacemaker. He conceded Morrison had spoken to Peta Credlin in the days before the coup, but Credlin had not interpreted his words as a warning.
Further argument about it would be “counterproductive”, Abbott said.
“The last thing I want, Ray, to come out of this interview is a headline ‘Abbott slams Morrison’.”
By then, of course, the headlines had been written and the media were moving on. And so was Abbott, who was concentrating on running another, even more damaging line.
On the day he challenged for the leadership Turnbull noted that under Abbott, the Coalition government had lost 30 consecutive Newspolls. This showed the Australian people wanted a different style of leadership, that was capable of “translating those [Liberal] values into the policies and the ideas that will excite the Australian people and encourage them to believe and understand that we have a vision for their future,” Turnbull said.
But what did change under Turnbull?
Abbott began posing the question at every opportunity, and answering it. Nothing.
“Nothing has changed on economic policy in the last fortnight. Nothing’s changed on climate change policy in the last fortnight. Nothing’s changed in respect of same-sex marriage in the last fortnight. And nothing’s changed in respect of border protection in the last fortnight,” he noted in one early interview. “And I don’t imagine anything will change in national security policy more broadly.”
The opposition and media began echoing the criticism. Less than three weeks after the leadership change, on October 1, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell helpfully put it to Abbott that Turnbull was really just like him, but “with a new suit on”.
Abbott laughed. “Oh, probably a much better cut one.”
Over time, Abbott’s critique gained resonance. Tax reform was put on the table by Morrison and Turnbull and taken off again; Turnbull affirmed Abbott’s position on the same-sex marriage plebiscite; the government continued to seek more punitive “reforms” against asylum seekers. At every turn Abbott and his loyalists resisted policy change, while also continuing to point out that little was changing.
Abbott’s world tour
And while Turnbull was stuck in policy stasis, Abbott headed off around the world, glad-handing dignitaries and heads of state. The right-wing tabloids loyally treated him as a leader in exile, still exercising influence with his many “friends in high places”.
“Tony Abbott has met US President Barack Obama privately in Washington in a move that is bound to further frustrate Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull,” began one particularly ingratiating piece in the Telegraph on January 31 this year.
It reported Abbott’s meetings with Henry Kissinger and John McCain, publicised “secret” talks with the United States director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, and talks with former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, and the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Hass, among others.
Other media quickly reported the Obama meeting was not quite the “exclusive banquet” the Telegraph suggested, but had actually been a rather large function.
As for the unnamed sources quoted saying Abbott and Obama enjoyed a “very warm and intimate discussion” and “it was obvious Obama was pleased to see him” – the ABC’s Media Watch suggested the source was Abbott himself.
Over succeeding weeks the Tele’s political correspondent Simon Benson doubled as Abbott’s social diarist, producing a series of breathless “exclusive” reports detailing discussions between the leader-in-exile and various figures of international significance, such as Japan’s prime minister Shinzō Abe (February 28) and then British prime minister David Cameron (March 25). All burnished Abbott’s credentials as an international statesman and diminished his successor.
A sample lead paragraph from Benson’s February 29 paean:
“While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull presided over a cricket coin toss in Canberra and batted away awkward questions on tax, Tony Abbott was strutting the world stage, posing for photographs with Japanese PM Shinzō Abe in Tokyo.”
But it wasn’t just photo ops and name-dropping. Abbott was also reinforcing his credentials as vigorous defender of conservative policy prescriptions.
At the Tories’ annual Margaret Thatcher memorial gala dinner and banquet on October 27, 2015, in London, he advocated that Britain adopt Australian methods for dealing with people smugglers and asylum seekers.
In a speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom on January 30, in New York, he defended marriage as a heterosexual institution. In Japan he advocated on behalf of that country’s bid to build Australia’s next submarine fleet and talked tough about Chinese activity in the South China Sea. On March 23, he was in Ukraine, offering support to President Petro Poroshenko.
Submarines and “boots on the ground”
Between foreign trips, Abbott offered running commentary in interviews and through various comment pieces for the Murdoch press and Quadrant magazine. He portrayed most of it as a defence of his legacy, but also told broadcaster Alan Jones last December: “One of the responsibilities of being an ex-prime minister is, from time to time, to speak out sensibly on important subjects.”
And speak out he did. Abbott defied Turnbull’s more moderate tone on religiously sensitive matters by continuing to suggest that Islamic extremism was related to the fact that “Islam has never had a reformation, an enlightenment, a well-developed concept of the separation of church and state… All cultures are not equal.”
He called for less restrictive rules of engagement and more “boots on the ground” in the war on Daesh. When the US subsequently sought an increased troop commitment from Australia to the Middle East and was denied, Abbott made his dissatisfaction clear through the Murdoch press.
And when in March a classified defence white paper was leaked to his close personal friend, Greg Sheridan, foreign editor at The Australian, it was widely seen as the work of the Abbott camp. Whoever was responsible, it provided a fortuitous chance for him to claim the government was backsliding in defence.
He pronounced himself “not just disappointed … flabbergasted” to learn from Sheridan’s article that the timetable for building Australia’s new submarine fleet had been put back nearly a decade.
In reality, defence officials attested, the timing had not changed since Abbott was prime minister and his conservative acolyte Kevin Andrews was defence minister.
The issue did not impact significantly on the broader public consciousness, but among senior bureaucrats and politicians it was hugely significant that Abbott and his supporters were prepared to go so far as to use secret defence documents to undermine Turnbull. Michelle Grattan, usually the most restrained of commentators, called it “the political equivalent of nuclear war”.
Abbott was unfussed. On March 21 he told Sky News:
“It’s very easy for me to campaign for the Turnbull government because the Turnbull government is running on the record of the Abbott government… stopping the boats, finalising the free trade agreements, our strong national security policy.”
But that was not entirely true. With an election in prospect, he was very willing to campaign for some, such as Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen and Victorian ally Kevin Andrews, but not others. His troops refused to help marginal candidates in Sydney seats – notably Fiona Scott – who had not supported him in the leadership ballot.
He avoided controversy for the duration of the long election campaign, but even as the polls were closing on voting day, he offered analysis of where Turnbull had gone wrong. “It would’ve been a different campaign if I’d been at the helm,” he told Alan Jones.
It was a theme he developed over several months, saying Turnbull’s rhetoric about innovation and agility deterred voters who felt threatened by the pace of economic change. In fairness, it must be said that many others expressed similar views.
He was, of course, only trying to help. Just as he was when he championed reform of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party, where he claimed the influence of professional lobbyists allowed “a potential for corruption”.
It just happened that the reforms he proposed would have weakened Turnbull’s power base among party moderates and increased the power of the right, who supported him. Turnbull and Premier Mike Baird lobbied furiously to head off the proposal.
Abbott’s policy interventions continued. On September 9 he advocated a ban on political donations from unions, companies and foreign entities. On September 30, in New York on another of his overseas speaking tours, he warned of the prospect of war between America and China. In October he took up the cause of reforming section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
And sometimes there was not even a pretence of helpfulness, as on September 9, when Abbott attacked Turnbull’s decision to call a snap royal commission into the Northern Territory youth justice system. Abbott accused Turnbull of acting “in panic”, and likened his reaction to the Gillard government’s decision to suspend the live cattle trade with Indonesia.
Then there was the big one – Abbott’s claim that the Turnbull government was preparing to weaken John Howard’s gun laws, by allowing the import of eight-shot Adler shotguns.
On October 18 Abbott was quoted saying there was “no way on God’s earth” he would have allowed Adler guns to “flood into the country” while he was prime minister.
Yet both Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Justice Minister Michael Keenan confirmed that in 2015 while Abbott was prime minister their offices had discussed with gun enthusiast Senator David Leyonhjelm a deal that would have allowed the ban on the Adler to lapse.
Two days after Abbott was quoted, Turnbull smacked him down, in parliamentary question time, effectively calling him a liar.
“I’m satisfied that the minister for justice acted in the full knowledge of the Prime Minister’s Office at that time,” he said.
In turn, Abbott told the parliament he had been “most grievously misrepresented” by that claim. Any suggestion that he had “connived” to weaken gun laws was “absolutely and utterly false”.
This was an unprecedented public display of the deep animosity between the two men. Even Gillard and Rudd never played out their hostilities so starkly.
We could go on with more examples of Abbott’s sniping, undermining and wrecking: his hostile response to the abolition of his pet project, the Green Army; his party room interventions to oppose tax reform and changes to superannuation; his confirmation that he is writing a sequel to his conservative manifesto Battlelines; the various Abbott surrogates who have threatened that he will not stop unless and until he is given a ministerial position. And we have not even touched on the sniping done by his supporters such as Kevin Andrews, Senator Eric Abetz, Peta Credlin, George Christensen, Cory Bernardi and others.
Malcolm Turnbull limps into 2017, now as unpopular as the man he replaced, while Abbott festers on the backbench, presumably imagining a return to power.
It can’t go on like this, yet there seems no way of stopping it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "Plotting the Year of the White-ant". Subscribe here.