Paul Bongiorno
Why Tony Abbott can’t be ignored

Australian politics surely could not get more bizarre than the spectacle of the Turnbull government tearing itself apart this week over what it dismisses as a second-order issue. And it all comes down to the dynamics generated by one embittered man. Although many complain that the continued focus on Tony Abbott is nauseating, to ignore him is to be blind to the political reality of where our national government finds itself.

And make no mistake: the dumped prime minister couldn’t be more delighted. On Monday, the fortnightly Newspoll delivered another reality check for Malcolm Turnbull. His government is still trailing Labor by six points and it’s the 17th survey where the Coalition has come second.

Abbott just so happened to be in 2GB shock jock Ray Hadley’s studio, one of his favourite comfort zones, on the day the poll was published. With a TV networks pool camera trained on him, the humble Liberal backbencher could scarcely keep a straight face when Hadley, before the radio interview began, cheekily drew attention to the 17th bad result. “Yep, yep,” was Abbott’s response as he looked towards the camera. “Thirteen to go, old mate,” Hadley continued. “Yeah,” Abbott said, acknowledging the benchmark of 30 bad Newspolls in a row that Turnbull nominated for a leadership change.

The high-rating Macquarie Media radio network, which plays from Sydney into Queensland and the ACT, has given Abbott eight hours’ airtime in just 20 weeks, according to the ABC’s Media Watch. It does it because Abbott is a ratings grabber. And he is because, as another of the network’s presenters, Ben Fordham, puts it, the former prime minister always comes with something to say.

The managing director of JWS Research, John Scales, has no doubt about “what could stop the rot for Turnbull”. His extensive techniques for measuring the public mood confirm what Turnbull’s moderate allies in the party are convinced is the case. Scales says for every vote Turnbull saves by caving to the conservatives – whether they be in the Liberal or the National party – he loses two votes from the centre and the soft left. In other words, Turnbull’s attraction to the broader voting public has been sacrificed. His moderate colleagues believe his lead as preferred prime minister and as Liberal leader compared with the other options means he could retrieve the situation. But, as the Fairfax Ipsos poll found this week, voters think “he has to grow some balls”.

In the run-up to Monday’s cabinet meetings and emergency Liberal party-room gathering, called by Turnbull to address the crisis precipitated by the threat of a Liberal backbench marriage equality revolt, senior moderate ministers urged Turnbull to seize the opportunity to grab back the initiative from Abbott. The argument went that the government had already discharged its obligation to voters by attempting to get the plebiscite through the senate, now he should argue for what everyone knows he believes in and define the debate. Turnbull was told the plan B option – a non-compulsory postal vote – was highly problematic and if successfully challenged in the High Court would make the government look like “it couldn’t run a chook raffle”.

Plan B was the brainchild of leading conservatives Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann. Their counter-argument was on the need to hold the Coalition together, especially in light of threats from Nationals backbencher Andrew Broad that he would quit, rob the government of its majority and go to the crossbench if the free vote was allowed. The moderates argued Turnbull should call Broad’s bluff and stare down anyone threatening to bring down the government.

There were signs the penny had dropped for Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce that if he ended the Coalition government over the free vote it would also be the end for him. His ability to deliver on the various boondoggles he was promising to regional Australia would disappear. Even the perennial Nationals renegade, George Christensen, was telling people that if the Liberals went with the free vote he wouldn’t quit the government, just be more prepared to cross the floor more often in future – depending on the issue, of course.

Besides, the Nationals were saying publicly that everyone should stop talking about gay marriage and start talking about more important things. But their intransigence on the issue has guaranteed that it will continue to fester for months. Just as it did in the past two weeks. It will overshadow whatever else the government is doing, especially when key events flare, such as a High Court challenge to the postal vote or the vote itself, if it survives. Veteran Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent warned the joint party room on Tuesday that the postal vote would turn to political mush for the government.

If there were any doubts the campaign for the $122 million non-compulsory “letter to 16 million voters” will get ugly and intense, they were quickly dispelled midweek. Tony Abbott – see above – came to the doors at Parliament House to run the lines he has already honed: “It is an opportunity for every Australian who cares about this to have his or her say, and again I say to you, if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no; if you are worried about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, vote no; and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no, because this is the best way to stop it in its tracks.”

It was too much for Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster. Forster, a Liberal Sydney City councillor, who makes no secret about wanting to marry her female partner, shot back on social media: “If you value mutual respect: vote yes. If you want all Australians to be equal: vote yes. If you believe in free speech: vote yes.”

The Abbott grab bag of alt-right grievances amply demonstrates his crusade against same-sex marriage is merely a proxy against the sort of modernity he identifies with Turnbull and contemporary Australia. Ironically, he wasn’t too keen on a postal plebiscite on Monday. He urged Turnbull to keep bowling up the compulsory plebiscite, for years if necessary. But now that has been ditched after its second senate defeat, anything will do as long as it keeps the government off balance.

At his Monday news conference, Turnbull bristled when he was asked why he was following and not leading. “Strong leaders carry out their promises,” he shot back. “Weak leaders break them.” With a straight-jawed firmness, he said, “I am a strong leader.” The last time he gave a similar self-assessment it had a greater ring of truth to it. That was in 2009 – the day he lost the leadership by one vote to Abbott over pricing carbon. He said, “I am a strong leader. I don’t take a backward step. I am prepared to stand up for what I believe in.”

Now he is only half-heartedly prepared to stand up for what he believes in. He says he will not be campaigning for a yes vote, although he and his wife, Lucy, will vote in the affirmative. He has, he says, “many other calls on his time”.

Turnbull’s weakness of leadership came with a disappointing thud in question time. Labor’s Bill Shorten drew attention to a pamphlet authorised by a former Howard government minister, Chris Miles. He said it “falsely claims children of gay couples are more likely to abuse drugs, have sexually transmitted diseases and be unemployed”. Shorten wondered how this fits with the prime minister’s guarantee of a respectful discussion. He asked why the prime minister was making Australians pay $122 million to give licence to this vile rubbish.

Inexplicably, Turnbull did not condemn the sentiments as a failure of the good sense he believes a majority have. Instead, he gave a green light to the gross prejudice of the pamphlet. Unlike Labor, he said, his side of politics, “is not going to shut down democracy”. Is it any wonder that LGBTI people in Turnbull’s Sydney electorate of Wentworth are dreading the lead-up to the postal vote should it happen? Already, counselling services are reporting increasing traffic from distressed, vulnerable people.

John Scales says there are real doubts the Australian Bureau of Statistics will be able to deliver a result in the time set down. He says a simpler and more accurate way to gauge public opinion would be to robo-call a weighted sample of 150,000 with a simple yes or no choice. It would cost just $1 million. It would also deny the bigots and zealots a platform to play on voters’ prejudices and fears.

Dean Smith, the Liberal senator who precipitated the amazing scenes of the past week, is holding his fire with his private member’s bill. He is prepared to give Turnbull’s November deadline for a vote a chance. He now knows he has the numbers in the house to suspend standing orders if Turnbull’s plan B fails to deliver. Nothing will stop him if it does.

In the same 2GB interview, Abbott did not consistently apply his new-found pious regard for not breaking promises. He urged Turnbull to ditch the promised clean energy target because it was Labor–Green theology pushing up prices. The chutzpah of it is just astounding.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2017 as "Same-sex carriage service".

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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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