Paul Bongiorno
Pyne and Abbott deliver Turnbull a rough ride

Malcolm Turnbull loves to boast about his love of public transport. The enduring image this week was the prime minister being studiously ignored by fellow travellers on a Melbourne tram. The social media was captivated and many tweets saw it as a metaphor for the plight of his government. No matter what he does or says, people have tuned out. If that’s the case, and the signs are ominous, this particular tram is heading for the terminus.

As Anthony Albanese said in his regular joust with Christopher Pyne on Adelaide radio, he’d seen this movie before and he knows how it ends. The movie was the debilitating internecine war between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. It ended in the loss of 25 seats as fed-up voters swept Labor from office. The angst Christopher Pyne had caused after a private speech to a bar full of merry Liberals wasn’t lost on the very chastened member for Sturt. He was extremely unwilling to pour more fuel on a fire he had unwittingly lit. On the morning of the radio crossfire he was greeted by news stories that Turnbull was under pressure to sack him.

The calls were coming from anonymous conservatives furious at claims the high-spirited and boastful Pyne had made late the previous Friday night. It was at an afterparty of moderates set to attend the Liberal Party’s federal conference in Sydney. Someone among the 200 at The Star’s Cherry Bar recorded the speech and sent it to conservative champion commentator Andrew Bolt. He duly gave it the full beat-up treatment. There were page one splashes in the mass-circulation Murdoch tabloids. The eye-catching headline in The Daily Telegraph: “Left in gay abandon – Minister boasts about moderates ruling the Liberal Party with same-sex marriage reform ‘sooner than everyone thinks’.”

That night Bolt played the recording on his Sky News show. He slammed Pyne for speaking as if the Liberal left’s greatest enemy was not Labor but the Liberal right, including former prime minister Tony Abbott. And it was this that infuriated the conservatives as much as the claim that the moderates’ friends in Canberra were about to deliver marriage equality.

Bolt invited renegade Liberal senator Cory Bernardi on his show to begin what is now a Pyne pile-on. Bernardi, who betrayed the Liberal Party after winning the No. 1 senate spot then quitting to form his own Australian Conservatives, claimed “Christopher Pyne is the most untrustworthy person he has ever met in politics”. He said he was cooking something up to get same-sex marriage off the agenda, “but the price of that will be it will destroy the Liberal Party.” He certainly wishes. And it must be said Bernardi has received the glowing endorsement of the “Little Foxes”, as many of Sky News’s evening line-up are called for their strident hard-right agenda.

There is no doubt the issue of marriage equality is a proxy for the Turnbull–Abbott wars. The dumped prime minister seized on the Bolt-generated outrage to accuse Pyne of treachery and disloyalty to him. In what was a very busy week for Abbott, besides his two regular radio spots on 2GB, one with a pool TV news camera present, he gave two controversial speeches sponsored by the high-profile conservative think tanks, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies. In Sydney he even raised the prospect of nuclear-powered submarines and pointedly suggested Defence Industry Minister Pyne’s preference was second best. Abbott with his characteristic flair for political hyperbole has returned to his most comfortable mode as an attack dog. As one of his despairing colleagues observed, “Tony is determined to be the next leader of the opposition.”

If his IPA speech in Brisbane is any guide, he already is replacing Her Majesty’s official Loyal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten. Abbott unveiled a new slogan: “Let’s make Australia work again.” Because, he says, “our country plainly is not working now as it should”. The target is clearly his own colleagues, who are currently running the show. He spoke of a “pall of despondency” over the nation. He was scathing of Turnbull for taking the government in the wrong direction to the left. “The last thing we need is a clean energy target tacked on to a renewable energy target.” He asserted it would make “a bad situation worse”. Despite the renewable energy target being something he legislated as prime minister, he now says it should be cut by 10 per cent and frozen.

Maybe it is Abbott’s cunning plan, but everything he is now advocating would definitely get the Pauline Hanson seal of approval. He is calling for a cut in immigration – to assist housing affordability. He wants taxpayers to stump up several billion dollars to build a new coal-fired power station. He hasn’t caught up with the reality that this is a recipe for dearer electricity as renewables and battery storage now undercut his preferred environmentally dangerous energy source. He is also out of sync with broader public opinion. Outside of the echo chamber of pay television, Radio 2GB, the Minerals Council and one of his biggest admirers, billionaire coalminer Gina Rinehart, Abbott is hardly pushing policies guaranteed of electoral success.

Abbott is undeterred, saying he is determined to outlast Malcolm Turnbull and pick up the pieces of his leadership. It is bewildering to many in the parliamentary Liberal Party both of the left and the right. The view is that Abbott is behaving like a wrecking ball, hell-bent on the destruction of the man who brought him down. The problem is, it has the whole show careening down a hill without brakes. “No one knows how it will end; it’s unprecedented,” is the view of a veteran MP. Albanese says “watching Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull in this cage fight of a downward spiral that they’re in, they are dragging the whole government with them”.

Turnbull is in quite a bind. He was left sounding silly with his insistence that his party room “is very harmonious. It’s very united, we have dealt with a number of difficult issues. Complex issues: education, energy. We’ve come to very solid landings on that.” Except energy will be the next big showdown. The clean energy target has been put in the too-hard basket for now. It will have to be retrieved and, when it is, it will either leave Turnbull humiliated or vindicated. But to score a credible win he will have to stare down the Nationals and the sceptics, not all of them Abbott fans in the Liberals. It will be a real test of the bad blood within the party that Abbott says exists. Education has been successfully legislated but it is a political time bomb that may well blow up closer to the election.

There are signs that Turnbull is becoming fed up with the white-anting. On the site of his Snowy Hydro 2.0 he rejected Abbott’s freeze on renewables and a moratorium on new wind farms. He said more generation was required and investments were flowing because of the policy certainty. He said what is needed to make renewables reliable is obviously storage. “I am not into political slogans. I am into engineering and economics.” Cop that, Tony.

Christopher Pyne’s withdrawal into his shell is an indication he is not sure if the prime minister will stick by him or throw him under a bus to ensure his own survival. The normally ebullient Pyne called a number of colleagues to apologise for his unguarded boasting. Turnbull has ruled out a free vote in the parliament on marriage equality unless there is a plebiscite first. His “no plans” may be tested because the parliament can suspend standing orders and vote to bring on a bill. It would mean more than one or two Liberals following the recent precedent of the Nationals’ George Christensen on another issue and crossing the floor.

Victorian Liberal Tim Wilson argues that the government has discharged its promise to the electorate by trying to legislate for the plebiscite but failing in the senate. He says the original Abbott framing was then to allow a free vote. It is an interpretation rejected by the opponents of same-sex marriage, but they may be ambushed in the parliament. Threatening to move a leadership spill if anyone dares to even bring it up in the party room could well force people such as Trent Zimmerman, Warren Entsch and Dean Smith not to bother taking that route. If the proponents secretly marshalled the numbers, it could even prompt Turnbull to join the vote on the floor of the house. It could well be his moment to crash through or crash.

Even though he rejects the idea, Bill Shorten is the luckiest man in Australian politics. Sounding somewhat like a statesman, he says he wishes the Liberals would get their act together. “I think it is a turnoff for Australians. Australians think politicians are out of touch when they fight each other.” Warming to the theme, he says, “Can I say to Australians at the end of the day, whether or not Malcolm Turnbull is at war with his own party, I don’t care. I am interested in reversing penalty rate cuts. I am more concerned about rising electricity prices and gas prices, I am more concerned when a young couple can’t buy their first home than I am worried about the internal rubbish in the circus that the Liberal Party is becoming.”

Midweek there were whispers of Liberal conservative MPs who previously switched to Turnbull losing faith in him. That tram may be closer to the terminus than we realise.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2017 as "Riding with a losing ticket".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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