Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Abbott’s prospects flat as a board

The cartoonists had a field day when Tony Abbott turned up for his first appearance as a backbencher in parliament. He hadn’t been there for 17 years. One depicted him as the Phantom of the Opera. But before he gets a real chance to cause phantom-like mayhem, the search is on to find a job for him – away from the building.

The problem, though, is that business doesn’t want him. One highly connected Liberal businessman says it isn’t proving easy to find board appointments for the dumped prime minister. And Abbott has already said he’s not interested in being an ambassador. “Diplomacy wasn’t his greatest skill,” the businessman says, “so it’s just as well.” Abbott isn’t the first senior former politician to find it hard to get new employment, of course. It was widely reported former treasurer Peter Costello wasn’t exactly knocked down in the rush with job offers.

Abbott has given himself a Christmas deadline to decide on his future. It would certainly make life easier for the man who replaced him if he did move on. Abbott is still hurting badly and bitterness can prompt revenge, especially if it is fed by a sense of being robbed. The Australian Financial Review reported soon after the coup there was a tense lunch between Abbott and his mentor John Howard. The paper said the dumped leader gave Howard “both barrels” for the 38-minute news conference he held the day after the party room ballot.

In that news conference, Howard said he was ready to help the new prime minister. He blamed poor polling rather than a “febrile media culture” for Abbott’s demise and said the Australian people will decide if the Liberals had made the right decision. None of it was comforting for Abbott. Seven months earlier he ignored Howard’s advice to fix up the problems his chief of staff Peta Credlin was causing in the ministry and parliamentary party.

Reuniting the Liberal party after the putsch is proving almost as hard as finding Abbott a job. Last weekend the “father of the house”, long-serving New South Wales MP Philip Ruddock, was wheeled out to introduce Turnbull to the state council. Ruddock relied on the standing of Howard to urge delegates to get behind the new prime minister. The theme was “keeping Labor out of office” and winning elections for the good of the party and the nation. But it didn’t stop Abbott’s allies on the conservative right loudly guffawing when Turnbull told them that the party is not run by factions. At the conference the moderates, Turnbull’s mates, had rolled the right on preselection changes. The contempt turned to ridicule when he went on to claim the party was not run by backroom deals. Labor’s Anthony Albanese didn’t miss the opportunity to capitalise. He said he’s seen a prime minister cheered and even booed by his own party. “I haven’t seen them laughed at,” he said. “That’s what happened with Malcolm Turnbull on Saturday.”

Turnbull’s effusive praise of Abbott’s achievements at the council meeting was the opposition leader’s first question when parliament resumed. If Abbott had done “great things, great reforms, great commitments”, Bill Shorten asked, “why did the prime minister overthrow the member for Warringah?” Abbott couldn’t have put it better.

Turnbull feigned delight at being given the opportunity to praise his predecessor. With more chutzpah than a fairground spruiker, he said Abbott “brought to an end the six worst years of government in living history in this country, brought to an end the most dysfunctional government in Australia’s history”. There is a strong argument Turnbull had performed a similar service for the nation, ending a government that had fallen apart in just two years.

He is determined to do much better than either Abbott or Kevin Rudd in maintaining the respect and co-operation of his cabinet and ministry. He told his party room, in a scarcely veiled reference to the command and control exercised by Credlin, “My chief advisers will be my ministers.” He said his office’s role would be to “support and liaise” with ministers and ensure that the government gets the best out of the public service. He warned his colleagues that “while the government is off to a good start, the expectations on us are massive”.

They certainly are for him. Newspoll has Turnbull preferred prime minister 38 percentage points ahead of Bill Shorten; the Labor leader languishing on 19 per cent. The approval of his performance is 50 points ahead of Shorten. But it appears the jury is out on the government. Newspoll had a 50–50 tie, while Essential had it 51–49 the Coalition’s way. A statistical dead heat. It would appear most voters are waiting to see if Turnbull can drag his party and the Nationals to the sensible, contemporary, centre where they perceive him to be.

One of Turnbull’s biggest challenges in that regard is coming not from his own party or the Labor opposition but from a shift in public sentiment on the detention of asylum-seeker children. The Greens MP Adam Bandt drew the prime minister’s attention to the protest by doctors and health workers at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. They staged a walkout for the cameras to dramatise their refusal to discharge refugee children from their care to prevent them from being locked up again. Bandt said it is in these detention centres where children are self-harming and becoming suicidal. “No one wants to see people drown at sea,” he said, “but do you really believe that we cannot find a solution that does not involve locking up babies and children in mental illness factories?”

At a Canberra refugee rally, Save the Children whistleblower Tobias Gunn gave a chilling firsthand account of abuse and neglect on Nauru. His testimony coincided with reports of a Somali refugee suffering deep depression on the island and requesting a pregnancy termination after an alleged rape. Some Liberal MPs believe the Melbourne hospital protest marks a sea change in public sentiment. It was on the front page of the Sunday Herald Sun, and the paper editorialised in its favour.

Turnbull’s answer in parliament suggested he hasn’t sniffed that particular wind. He said the “melancholy truth” is that the policies of the Greens and of the former Labor government did not stop people drowning at sea. He said he, as opposition leader in 2009, had urged the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, not to change John Howard’s Pacific Solution policy. A boast that won’t impress those looking for more compassion and enlightenment.

At the time the boats had stopped and Turnbull faced tough questioning in his party room. He was asked why he didn’t grab the opportunity to return refugee policy back to pre-2001, when neither side sought to make political capital out of it. With Rudd then riding high, Turnbull’s answer was another kind of melancholy truth: “It’s the only thing we’ve got going for us.”

When Rudd returned to the prime ministership he went to the extreme. He not only reinstated Howard’s Pacific Solution, he made it crueller: his key plank said even genuine refugees would never ever come to Australia. This has led to indefinite detention on a remote guano heap, detention that makes a mockery of any claim this nation has to compassion. To stop someone drowning we treat others inhumanely as a deterrent.

Turnbull brings to this policy a realpolitik: “Our border protection policy is tough; we recognise that many would see it as harsh. But it has proven to be the only way to stop those deaths at sea and ensure that our sovereignty and borders are safe.” No agility of thought there.

Instead of dealing with the messy facts of this impasse, the opposition is looking for safer ways to bring Turnbull down a peg or two. Making its job harder is the poor opinion voters have of Shorten as measured in the polls. The danger is people won’t be well disposed to believe him or listen to him: a problem he didn’t have when people had an even lower regard for Abbott.

Shorten left it to his colleagues to draw attention to Turnbull’s offshore financial arrangements. The politics of envy was the prime minister’s immediate reaction. That didn’t deter the outgoing chairman of the senate economics committee, Sam Dastyari. He picked up on a disclosure in the Register of Members’ Interests to announce the multimillionaire businessman turned politician had investments in the Cayman Islands. Two hedge funds that Turnbull has invested in list as their headquarters Ugland House, a Cayman address shared by 19,000 other corporations.

Dastyari had great pleasure in quoting United States President Barack Obama’s view of this establishment: “Either this is the largest building in the world, or the largest tax scam in the world.” And to add a little spice, his colleague Chris Bowen quoted Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan describing the Cayman Islands as a tax haven. No mention of the fact Shorten, Bowen and Dastyari all have super in funds managed by extension in the same jurisdiction.

Turnbull took the high moral ground. He had invested in the Caymans to avoid a conflict of interest in Australia. He said that income from the investments is taxed in the hands of investors’ home jurisdiction. When he repatriates those earnings, he will pay Australian income tax. Of course, along the way his fund can take full advantage of the Caymans’ more “tax-friendly” arrangements and presumably earn more money.

No illegality is being alleged. Maybe just a dashing of expectations.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Abbott’s prospects flat as a board". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.