Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Rudd and Abbott return to spite Turnbull

Like an intercontinental ballistic missile Kevin Rudd took aim at Malcolm Turnbull this week and hit his target. His warhead, launched from the relative safety of his New York apartment, was guided by the heat of the prime minister’s own rocket fired last weekend at Labor’s record on border protection. “The mess,” Turnbull called it. “The failure that Kevin Rudd acknowledged.”

Rudd’s opinion piece, published in the Fairfax papers, was bristling with indignation, almost certainly fuelled by seething anger over his rebuffed United Nations ambitions. Ambitions that he maintains Turnbull, as his guest in the same New York apartment, assured him he would support. Revenge can’t be ruled out.

The context for Rudd’s attack was his claim that after 12 months in office Turnbull had repudiated everything for which he once stood. This is squarely in line with a recurrent theme from the Shorten opposition. Only more shrill.

“[Appeasing] the mad right,” Rudd wrote, is both bad policy and bad politics: “The far right in Australia represent the worst of the xenophobic, nationalist and protectionist wave that we now see raging across Europe and America; while on politics, appeasement of political thugs like Abbott, Dutton, Abetz, Andrews and, depending on which way the wind is blowing, Morrison, only embolden the far right to demand more, not less.”

The immediate issue was the government proposal to impose a lifetime visa ban on anyone who had attempted to come to Australia by boat. Rudd rejects Turnbull’s claim that this was his intention when, as prime minister, he announced June 19, 2013, as the cutoff. The ban was about permanent settlement, not about anything else.

Rudd dubbed the Turnbull plan the “politics of symbols”. The measure is designed, he said, “to throw red meat at the right, including the Hansonite insurgency, and to grovel to the broad politics of xenophobia. Turnbull, once an intelligent, global citizen, knows better.” Giving weight to Rudd’s attack was the instant support Pauline Hanson gave to the visa ban. She went further by claiming that “Australians are fed up”. On Channel Seven’s Sunrise, the message was simple: “Refugees are not welcome here.”

Rudd claimed it was never the policy to leave 2000 men, women and children languishing on Manus and Nauru. He said there was a 12-month limit to the arrangements. By then third countries for resettlement would be found. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton dismissed that as “unbelievable” and “rewriting history”. He would, given that so far this government has failed to deliver a humanely acceptable outcome. Dutton says negotiations with several countries are advanced.

The conventional wisdom is that the more the media and the nation talks about border protection, the better it is for the Liberals. Diving in the polls and with his government trailing Labor, Turnbull has grabbed the issue like a life buoy. It worked a treat for John Howard back in 2001. When Rudd returned to “save the furniture” as prime minister in 2013, it was the biggest issue he had to confront. The Abbott opposition had ruthlessly exploited it. Turnbull regurgitated the lines: “Labor had blown out the immigration and border protection budget by $11 billion; 50,000 unauthorised arrivals; 1200 deaths at sea.”

But the indications are Labor will not buckle to a measure that Bill Shorten immediately condemned as “ludicrous”, before adding the weasel words “on face value”. Bolstering Shorten’s defiance would be the Essential poll’s finding that the issue isn’t resonating in the old potent way. Back in 2013 the Coalition was preferred by 39 per cent of voters to handle border security. Labor polled 17 per cent on the issue. Three years later, in June, the lead had slumped to four points. As support for the Coalition and Turnbull plummeted, so did the electorate’s trust on this issue. And that despite the fact “the boats had stopped”.

Unmasking the naked politics behind the lifetime all-visa ban was the repeated insistence, especially from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, that “Bill Shorten had to step up”. He accused the Labor leader of being beholden to the CFMEU and the left of the Labor Party. “All Australians are looking to Bill Shorten for leadership,” he said. “And they’re not finding it.” The government may be in for a shock when Labor tries to amend the legislation in the senate, rejecting the permanent visa ban but legislating that those adults who came by boat after June 2013 will never be allowed to settle here.

And just as Turnbull revives his dumped predecessor’s mantra of “stopping the boats”, or the more updated version of “keeping them stopped”, Tony Abbott himself is intent on reviving his career. No one doubts that he would dearly love to reclaim the leadership, but apparently even he thinks that is a longer-term project. In a ploy that has impressed almost no one in the parliamentary Liberal Party, he had his good friend Catherine McGregor plead his cause for a return to the cabinet. In The Daily Telegraph she warned that unless the impasse between Turnbull and Abbott is resolved the government is doomed. It may not even last a full term.

McGregor emphasised that Abbott sees parliamentary politics as a lifetime vocation. He has a mind to stay “indefinitely”, and the odds are he will leave parliament after Turnbull. But while he is dedicated to the return of the Turnbull government, she writes, “only the discipline of the cabinet can completely align Abbott with his own avowed mission”. In other words: promote him or see him continue to speak out on issues that the “media likes to portray as destabilisation”.

Turnbull is resisting the blackmail. Even in the Howard government Abbott was a loose cannon. As McGregor concedes, “often Abbott has fallen short of his own aspirations and standards”. If, as is certain, he failed those standards as a cabinet minister, it would take on even more damaging import. The example of the Gillard–Rudd years is more than enough for one Liberal who actually voted for Abbott in the leadership showdown. He says when Rudd quit as foreign minister, at a dramatic press conference in Washington, it was to blow up the government. Why would Turnbull risk it?

But that leaves the distinct possibility that the government will see more weeks of the two men clashing publicly. It guarantees that almost everything the government does will be seen in the prism of divisive leadership tension. Turnbull could scarcely contain his anger in the last sitting week when Abbott, against all the available evidence, insisted his government had never traded “guns for votes”. Abbott is an instinctive political bovver boy. He sees politics in combative terms. He’s a fighter. It’s what he knows and does best, or worst depending on your druthers.

The whiff of political chaos never seems to go away. As the parliament is set to return for its final three weeks of the year, the senate has become even more problematic for the government. Turnbull was planning to end the year with more big legislative wins. The biggest would be the passage of the Australian Building and Construction Commission bills. But he has lost two certain votes from the crossbench. Family First’s Bob Day has quit as the collapse of his building empire caught up with him. But complicating his replacement is doubts over the validity of his election in July. The other lost vote could be One Nation’s West Australian senator Rod Culleton. The validity of his election is also in doubt. The High Court will be asked to adjudicate on both situations.

The government’s handling of the Day case has given Labor ammunition for an attack on a “dodgy cover-up”. The Liberals are charged with not pursuing the issue of eligibility because of Day’s record of voting nine times out of 10 with the Coalition. Day’s problems arose soon after he took his place in the senate in July 2014. He wanted his Adelaide office to be in a building he owned. The Finance Department told him he would be in breach of section 44 of the Constitution where a candidate is disqualified if he “has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth”.

Then special minister of state Michael Ronaldson bent over backwards to allow Day to use the office provided he didn’t charge the Commonwealth rent. This year, he asked that rent be paid after he organised for a mate to buy the property with a loan from him. The court will sort it out. If it finds Day was ineligible, there will be a recount. Family First may miss out, Labor may get up. Meantime, the government has one less vote on which to depend.

Culleton is taking advice but the clerk of the senate says there’s no impediment to him voting in the senate pending the court outcome. Again, Labor is asking why this referral wasn’t made two months ago when the solicitor-general advised there was a problem. The attorney-general, George Brandis, says he didn’t get that advice formally until the beginning of this week.

Whatever happens, the three Xenophon votes and David Leyonhjelm are critical. Leyonhjelm says he doesn’t expect there will be a vote this year. He is still sounding negative about his support. Xenophon has a series of amendments, which if the government accepts could leave the ABCC a mere shadow of its former self.

In the present circumstances, though, Turnbull will bank any win.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 5, 2016 as "The spite that came in from the cold". Subscribe here.

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