Notes from the Abbott insurgency
Reminiscing about his brief time boxing for Oxford University, Tony Abbott once conceded a certain lack of technique. He had no “best punch”, he said, but relied instead on what he called the “whirling dervisher” approach.
There was no science or subtlety to it, his interviewer, Martin Flanagan, summarised: he simply sought to overwhelm his opponents “with the sheer volume and velocity of his assault”.
But it worked. Abbott won all four of his fights for the university: three of them in the first round, one by a knockout after just 45 seconds. The fourth was a TKO in the second. He retired undefeated. He never learnt to box clever; he never had to.
The analogy with Abbott’s approach to politics is obvious. In opposition he employed the “whirling dervisher” approach and again it worked.
But as prime minister you have to box clever, and he couldn’t do it. He lost his title on points. Opinion poll points.
Still, after nearly two years on the sidelines, Abbott hasn’t changed his approach: any time a bell rings, he starts punching wildly. This past week has been particularly “dervisher”.
The latest round began last Friday night, with injudicious comments made by Christopher Pyne, the government’s leader of the house and minister for defence industry, to a gathering consisting mostly of Liberal moderates ahead of the party’s federal council meeting in Sydney.
Pyne, who is not noted for his discretion, said several things he should not have. For one, he boasted that his faction now was ascendant in the government.
“Two years ago … Malcolm Turnbull was the communications minister and now he’s the prime minister,” he said. “I would say that our fortunes are pretty good at the moment. And most of your senior cabinet ministers – George Brandis, Marise Payne, yours truly – quite a few of us are very senior ministers in a Turnbull government.”
Pyne’s next comments were more injudicious still. He revealed that he and other moderates had never supported Abbott’s leadership, saying he and Brandis “kept the faith”. They voted for Turnbull “in every ballot he’s ever been in”.
Third, and most substantively, Pyne talked policy.
“Friends, we are in the winner’s circle but we have to deliver a couple of things and one of those we’ve got to deliver before too long is marriage equality in this country,” he said.
“We’re going to get it. I think it might even be sooner than everyone thinks. And your friends in Canberra are working on that outcome.”
Members of his reportedly well-lubricated audience were loud in their appreciation of his words. But somewhere among them was an agent of the party’s right wing, who recorded them and passed the recording to one of the faction’s favourite media urgers, Andrew Bolt.
In making it public, Bolt opined: “This is likely to start a civil war in the Turnbull government and the beginning of the end for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.”
His statement was half inaccurate – the civil war has been ongoing for years – and half wishful – Bolt is among a cohort of right-wing populist commentators who have always opposed Turnbull.
The Pyne comments did, however, greatly escalate the conflict. He has since apologised publicly and privately for his “ill chosen and unwise ... unhelpful and damaging” words.
Nonetheless, all the usual right-wing suspects piled on, blaming the party’s moderate wing for the factional turf war, even as they took every available media opportunity to escalate it.
On Sky News, Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, described Pyne and his fellow moderates as having “really small minds”. She called them “little men with soft, soft backbones, no ticker, no heart and no soul”.
Members of the parliamentary right gave journalists background on their desire for vengeance. Variously they wanted Pyne stripped of his role as house leader, to be replaced by Peter Dutton, and to see Brandis and Marise Payne shuffled out of the ministry. Turnbull ruled out any such moves and pretended the outbreak was nothing serious.
Abbott himself went on radio on Monday with another of the anti-Turnbull media claque, 2GB’s Ray Hadley. He affected surprise and disappointment at the news Pyne was a Turnbull supporter and would support marriage equality in a parliamentary vote.
One of the reasons people were turning off politicians, Abbott said, was because they didn’t tell people what they really believed. “You’ve got to be fair dinkum with the Australian people,” he said, “and it looks like that’s not been true of Christopher.”
There’s a question here for Abbott: Does anyone who takes even the slightest interest in federal politics, much less any member of the Liberal Party, not know Pyne is a supporter of both Turnbull and same-sex marriage?
As for the substantive issue of marriage equality, it appears a small group of Liberal backbenchers – notably Senator Dean Smith and MP Trent Zimmerman, who are openly gay – have been trying to formulate a way of getting it through the parliament, possibly as early as August.
Not before time, says Alex Greenwich, co-chair of Australian Marriage Equality.
“I’ve been involved in the long march down the aisle for about 10 years now, and in that time there have been 24 bills for marriage equality put forward.”
This time around, though, he had hoped the outcome might be different, given the report of a multi-party senate committee deliberation on the subject earlier this year.
“The wonderful thing was a consensus emerged among the representatives of all parties, Liberal, Greens, Labor and Xenophon,” Greenwich says.
The committee recommended the creation of a new category of religious celebrants who would be allowed to refuse to marry couples. Other celebrants would be required to marry couples otherwise legally allowed, while ministers of religion could still refuse.
There were other subsidiary recommendations, too, but the main point, Greenwich says, was that a way forward had seemingly been mapped whereby those with religious objections could be accommodated, “while still allowing same-sex couples access to civil marriage”.
The only remaining hurdle – and it was a big one – was that the government had promised a plebiscite on the issue.
This was never anything other than a delaying tactic, insisted on by the right as a condition of their support for Turnbull. The plebiscite would not be binding on parliamentarians and would cost an estimated $170 million, at the end of which there still would have to be a parliamentary vote.
So far this tactic has worked a treat in stalling marriage equality. Many in the gay and lesbian community oppose a plebiscite, fearing the debate would unleash ugly homophobia. The non-government majority in the senate also oppose a plebiscite. But the Coalition’s right wing continues to insist on one.
Abbott told Hadley the party had taken it to the last election, and therefore “to dump the plebiscite, to do anything without a plebiscite, would be a breach of faith with the people”.
Yet as opinion poll after opinion poll tells us, marriage equality is something the people want. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate have no problems with same-sex unions. Even a majority of conservative voters support the change.
By Greenwich’s count, though, only 18 or 19 of 76 Liberal and National Party members in the house of representatives and eight or nine of 30 in the senate support marriage equality. That’s about 25 per cent, a stark statistical indicator of the disconnect between the government and community values on the subject.
There would still be enough numbers, though, to see a marriage equality bill pass if some way could be engineered to bring it to a vote in the parliament. Greenwich reckons it would need just five Coalition senators and seven members of the house to see it through.
Thanks to Pyne’s loose lips, though, the chances have receded. In the face of the right-wing backlash, Turnbull recommitted to having a plebiscite, meaning we will likely go to the next election with the issue unresolved. Woe betide those Liberal MPs in marginal electorates: the polls also suggest marriage equality is a significant vote changer.
Now, to other things, for Abbott’s implacable oppositionism is not limited to same-sex unions. At the end of last year in these pages, we enumerated many of his transgressions against good order in the government, ranging from his attacks on those who voted against him in the leadership ballot, to contrary positions on things such as the approach to Islam (he called for a “reformation” of the religion), Australia’s military engagement in the Middle East (he wanted boots on the ground), his refusal to campaign for certain candidates during the election, his criticism of Turnbull’s decision to hold a royal commission into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory, his contradiction of the prime minister on gun laws, his gainsaying of government plans to make the superannuation system a little less skewed towards the wealthy (he preferred to hit the poor), and his leading of the right-wing assault on a mooted emissions intensity scheme to lower greenhouse gas emissions (Turnbull dumped the idea within 48 hours).
Since then, things have escalated. Let’s take just a couple of recent examples.
Two months ago Abbott went looking for a fight on the government’s planned school funding reforms, dubbed Gonski 2.0. He publicly predicted a torrid party room meeting. As it turned out, there was little internal resistance, and when the funding measure passed the senate, after a degree of amendment and horsetrading with the minor parties and the crossbench, Abbott found himself on the losing side, with the Labor opposition, elements of the teachers’ union and a small subset of Catholic schools.
Then there was the stoush over the Finkel review of climate and energy policy. One of the key recommendations in the chief scientist’s report was that a clean energy target should be set after 2020. As far as Abbott was concerned, this equated to “tax on coal”. It was round three of his fight to protect the industry from renewable energy.
He approached a party room discussion of the Finkel plan two weeks ago in pugnacious form, squaring up against Assistant Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Craig Laundy. As reported by The Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle:
“In front of appalled colleagues, including a number of cabinet ministers, Abbott persisted with a stream of unpleasant abuse directed at Laundy.”
When Laundy asked Abbott to reciprocate his courtesy by listening without interjection, multiple sources told Tingle that Abbott encouraged Laundy to “go fuck yourself”.
But this week’s action ratcheted up things again. Apart from the exaggerated outrage over Pyne’s comments, Abbott made a major speech to the Institute of Public Affairs in which he set out an alternative set of policy priorities.
He called for the winding back of greenhouse reduction targets, for a moratorium on new wind farms, and for the government to encourage new coal generation, if necessary by directly funding new power stations.
Whether this reduced power prices or not, it would cause “a fight in the senate”, in which the government had to show itself as being on the side of cheaper electricity.
Abbott called for the government to “avoid all new spending” other than on defence and infrastructure.
He called for it to “complement” its recent moves on making citizenship harder to achieve by sharply cutting migrant numbers. The current high rate made the task of assimilating migrants harder, he argued. A big cut in numbers would “reassure Australians that our country is in our own hands and is being run in our best interests”.
Politics was right on the surface of the issue: “Of course, it would provoke a fierce fight with Labor – that, again, would just emphasise who’s on Australians’ side and who’s not.”
There were other proposals, too, including senate reform and lower taxes on the wealthy. Many we had heard from him before.
Taken together, they amounted to a rogue manifesto and a major attack on the Turnbull government. Abbott lamented that Australia’s “whole political spectrum seems to have moved to the left”.
His Trump-like policy prescriptions came with a Trump-like slogan: “Make Australia work again.”
The most ominous bit, for those within the government who yearn for an end to the debilitating factional warfare, came at the end.
“I can assure you,” he said, “I’m in no hurry to leave public life, because we need strong liberal conservative voices now, more than ever.”
So he fights on, oblivious that “liberal conservative” is an oxymoron, that public opinion is not with him on key issues such as marriage equality, coal and climate change, and that polls show fewer than one in 10 voters would have him back as leader. There seems to be no way he can win, but he can certainly help Malcolm Turnbull lose.
Peta Credlin, who was so key to Abbott’s office when he was leader, told an interviewer on Wednesday night that she doesn’t think he could ever be prime minister again. She said she didn’t think he did, either.
If even Abbott no longer holds the Rocky Balboa comeback dream, we need another former boxer to whom we can compare him.
Maybe Jake LaMotta, the subject of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the washed-up middleweight whose obsessive rage and jealousy ultimately hurt only those who were on his side.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 1, 2017 as "Notes from the Abbott insurgency". Subscribe here.