Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott keeps up the fight

Malcolm Turnbull is in full international statesman mode, representing Australia’s interests on the world stage. He’s rubbing shoulders with heavy hitters at the G20 in Germany and he is on his way to London to see the Queen. Never has it been truer that when the cat is away the mice will play. One particular mouse, if that is an apt description for a former prime minister such as Tony Abbott, is very hard at work trying to wrest the Liberal Party from the clutches of Turnbull and his allies on the left.

Traditionally the Liberals eschew labels such as left and right – they prefer to leave that to the vulgar Labor Party. But increasingly Abbott and his fellow travellers in sections of the media have taken to describing themselves as conservatives and their factional opponents, the moderates, as lefties. It’s just more evidence of the poison welling up in the Liberal cistern. If Abbott’s campaign to “democratise” the party in his home state of New South Wales is successful, it would be more honest to rename it, although the Liberal renegade Cory Bernardi has already grabbed “Australian Conservatives”.

The tension within the Liberals has never been far from the surface, ever since Turnbull staged his palace coup in September 2015. It again burst into view two weeks ago after a factional enemy infiltrated a moderates’ late-night knees-up and recorded senior minister Christopher Pyne boasting the left were now running the government. This infuriated the conservatives and further emboldened Abbott – not that he needed much encouragement.

In something of a tit-for-tat play, a recorded Abbott speech from Monday night in the Melbourne electorate of Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar was leaked to Fairfax Media. Before the incendiary nature of the Abbott rave was made public, Sukkar was unapologetic for inviting his mate to his electorate and claimed there wasn’t anything that was particularly hard on the government in the speech. Except that a fired-up Abbott bashed the budget as second-best and called on members to rise up against the Liberal Party’s current direction. He even claimed the fiscal prescription was foisted on hapless ministers who did not believe what they were forced to deliver. A clearly unimpressed treasurer, Scott Morrison, dismissed Abbott’s sledge as “background noise”. It would be a lot easier for the government and him if that was all it were.

Sounding every day more like an opposition leader, Abbott told a rapt audience of 200 local Liberals: “Just at this moment, let me tell you we’re at a bit of a low ebb.” He accused the government of trying to hide behind the senate and rejected its compromises as a weak sellout. He said as a result it’s a party that needs some help. Clearly he was unimpressed with the 126 pieces of legislation, many of them significant, Turnbull has been able to steer through the parliament. Doing nothing was apparently better than accepting the parliamentary reality presented by the Australian voters and working with it. An audience member says Abbott was “definitely on the warpath. I have never seen him speaking so well or looking so good.”

Last weekend, another conservative minister, Angus Taylor, convened a similar Abbott performance in Sydney. When images of Turnbull were shown in a video, there was booing. The humble backbench member for Warringah urged conservatives to “take our party back, make it a party of the people again and then we can win the next election”. It’s part of his crusade to reform party preselections in NSW. As is his wont, there is a catchy slogan to stir the passions: “One member, one vote”.

The current college system of local and state delegates has helped the moderates consolidate control of the division. Abbott says it disempowers grassroots members. He told one of his cheerleaders, shock jock Alan Jones, it explains “the simple truth that we are haemorrhaging members”. Somebody helpfully leaked the appallingly low number of 4400 members to bolster Abbott’s claim. The claim was angrily rejected at NSW state HQ, where it was said to be at least 7000 short of the mark.

A reality check may well come in two weeks’ time, when Liberal branch members gather at Randwick Racecourse for what is billed a Party Futures Convention. The gathering is in response to heavy pressure from Abbott for party structural reform. Every paid-up branch member is eligible, provided they register. Already there are motions for versions of plebiscites, tweaking the current collegial system, or even primaries such as those in the United States. But in typical fashion of the party of Sir Robert Menzies, these expressions of democracy can only go so far. The resolutions cannot bind the state council or executive. Still, it would be very hard for overwhelming majority support of a proposition to be ignored.

The Victorian Liberals have successfully adopted a plebiscite system. It certainly excited the members: 700 took part in the preselection of Josh Frydenberg for the blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong. But there is a downside, too: it can encourage branch-stacking and attempted takeovers by dedicated interest groups. There is some evidence of this happening already, with anti- abortion and anti-marriage-equality activists signing up in key marginals. It’s a contemporary version of Bob Santamaria’s Industrial Groupers infiltrating the Labor Party in the 1940s and early ’50s. This could be part of the appeal for former Santamaria acolyte Abbott. Santa’s mischief led, of course, to the great Labor split and consigned the party to the wilderness for 23 years. Some fear the Liberals are heading for a similar bust-up. One senior NSW moderate says the zealots are already organising the numbers for the convention.

What would also appeal to Abbott is that Liberal branch members tend to be much more conservative than mainstream Australia. He is now painting himself as their champion, except his former conservative ally, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, has called him out: “If the proposition is the government now is supposedly more left-wing than he would like, that would have applied equally to his government.”

The Coalition Nationals are worried the Liberal infighting is wrecking the show. Their leader, Barnaby Joyce, another former Abbott ally, says he’s got more to do than be distracted by what he calls “peripheral discussions about basically fluff and mirrors”. Other Nationals, such as Senator John Williams, are warning the junior party would be unwilling to play ball if the Liberals cut down another prime minister.

There is nothing peripheral in Abbott’s other campaign aimed at stopping Turnbull adopting the Finkel report’s clean energy target (CET). The Council of Australian Governments’ energy ministers will meet later next week in Brisbane to discuss implementing the other 49 of Finkel’s 50 recommendations. Federal cabinet discussed the target before Turnbull flew out but didn’t arrive at any conclusion Frydenberg is prepared to reveal. Abbott told The Australian that Finkel’s CET recommendation is a project in green politics, pro-renewables and anti-coal. He wants a rerun of his campaign against the Gillard government’s Clean Energy Act, where he tied any policy to curb harmful emissions to soaring energy prices. Abbott says ignoring climate change and focusing on electricity costs and energy security is the best hope for the government to win the next election. It’s again crass politics ahead of the national interest – fuelled, of course, by his visceral rejection of everything his nemesis Turnbull stands for.

Abbott’s problem is the world has moved on. There is no Gillard broken promise anymore: the electorate is worried by climate change and backs renewable energy. Again we are seeing Abbott the pugilist, rejecting bipartisanship as a false mantra. Labor’s Mark Butler, in a thoughtful book released this week, unsurprisingly called Climate Wars, spells out the enormous price the country is paying for Abbott’s no-holds-barred approach. Foremost is the collapse in power investment thanks to the lack of a political consensus. He spells out in detail Labor’s approach but holds out an olive branch to Turnbull. Labor is prepared to accept a CET but it has to be real and not the empty aspiration Abbott is proposing.

Perhaps out of exasperation at it all, Murdoch’s The Daily Telegraph midweek gave the imbroglio front-page spoof treatment. With a dateline of July 5, 2019, it featured a smiling Shorten and spelled out Labor’s first hundred days in office. The subheading: “Liberals still in chaos after split leads to loss.” The heading: “Now Here’s Your Bill.” “Workers laid off, record tax rates, rents hit new high.” All terrific except the “bill” could exactly apply to what the Liberals have delivered in four years of government. It has apparently missed the Murdoch hacks that Turnbull’s proposed Medicare levy hike is an across-the-board tax rise. One Labor strategist remarked that similar treatment by newspapers in the United States against Donald Trump failed to scare off the voters.

When Turnbull returns from overseas late next week he will have to work out new ways to deliver on his commitment to remain prime minister “for a very long time” and win the next election. Perhaps he could work on encouraging Tony Abbott to adopt another undertaking Turnbull made last week, and that is to leave parliament if he ever loses the top job.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 8, 2017 as "A mouse in the house". Subscribe here.

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