Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
What’s behind Tony Abbott’s return to the spotlight?

No one did more to shape the direction of Australian politics in the past decade than Tony Abbott. His ruthless and determined resistance to effective action on climate change was reprehensibly short-sighted but was the template for four election campaigns. Like his dismantling of Labor’s original design of the national broadband network, it pitted narrow partisan interest against the country’s interests and made divisive, cynical conflict the key ingredient to winning and holding power.

Those remaining in the parliamentary Liberal Party after May’s election loss are grappling with this as a way to regain their former glory. The underlying assumption is: anything a Labor government does will end in disaster. The current Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, has said as much and is evidently counting on the Albanese government to fall into ideological disarray that will hobble its ability to govern effectively and win a second term.

The first seven weeks of the Labor incumbency have gone a long way toward shattering that wishful thinking. Not that senior members of the opposition have noticed. The most telling examples came from deputy leader Sussan Ley and Nationals leader David Littleproud, who criticised Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for being incommunicado in the Ukrainian war zone during the worst days of the New South Wales floods. Never mind that for security reasons Albanese and his party were without mobile phones, which could have enabled their whereabouts to be pinpointed by an enemy.

It came as a surprise earlier in the week when Abbott turned up on Radio National, full of praise for the Albanese government’s diplomatic fence-mending and its national security stance. He said he was “encouraged” because Labor was very much “continuing the line of the former government when it came to defence and strategic policy”.

Abbott even conceded that the new Labor government was doing a better job of implementing this policy. He praised Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong for going to the Solomon Islands “almost immediately” after the election. He described her Liberal predecessor’s failure to do so as soon as it became known the island nation was entering into a security arrangement with China as “dirty water under the bridge”.

One Labor MP wondered what had happened to make Abbott act like a responsible former prime minister and not adopt his more customary attack-dog stance. NSW Liberals have a few theories of their own. A popular one is Abbott has an eye to contesting the state Liberal Party presidency and is lifting his profile ahead of nominations, which close at the end of the month.

According to reports, Abbott has been sounding out supporters. His conservative factional allies are smarting over the way their hard-won democratic reforms of party preselection were ridden roughshod over by former prime minister Scott Morrison and his consigliere, Alex Hawke. If he is to take on the moderate faction’s Philip Ruddock, who is the incumbent, Abbott will need to work very hard. One well-placed party source says his chances would be “zero”. Nevertheless, an old warhorse like Abbott has never resiled from a battle. What is against him, though, is the proximity of the NSW election. The last thing the Perrottet Coalition government needs is to be identified with a climate wrecker like Abbott while they face off against teal independents threatening to run in hitherto safe seats.

The pretext for Abbott’s string of television and radio appearances this week was to pay tribute to the slain former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. His comments about this were obviously genuinely heartfelt. The two worked together in establishing the Quad, the arrangement between the United States, Japan, India and Australia. He describes it as a “democratic partnership” dedicated to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. He prefers this styling to any talk that it is about balancing the region against China.

Of course, the claim doesn’t stand much scrutiny. Especially as Abbott says that without Abe the Quad could not have happened. The Japanese prime minister was ahead of Canberra and Washington in recognising the menace of a much more assertive and aggressive China. Abe’s initiative, which is not a military alliance, would still have been much harder to put together if the US president was pushing it. Abbott says that’s because of India’s history of “detachment and self-sufficiency”.

The former prime minister parts company with Albanese’s strident critics on Sky News after dark, who have lampooned him as “Airbus Albo” for his recent overseas travel. Abbott “absolutely” applauded his successor’s activism in the Pacific and attendance midweek at yet another overseas summit, this time in Fiji.

Albanese says the Pacific Islands Forum was a “very important meeting at a critical time”. Making it so critical was what he called “the strategic competition” in the region – a phrase careful to avoid mentioning China by name. The Asian giant was the elephant in the room. No one, Australia included, wanted to antagonise Beijing any more than necessary after it was excluded from attending, while the US vice president, Kamala Harris, got to address the meeting virtually.

Harris came bearing gifts: almost a billion dollars in aid, two new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati and the first US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum. The American step-up is a strong indication of the Biden administration’s frustration over Australia’s failure to counter the inroads made by China in the region.

During the election campaign, Albanese criticised the Morrison government for “not so much having a step-up in the Pacific as a stuff-up”. He now says the Biden administration thought that as well. Canberra mounted a full-court press in Suva, with Penny Wong and the minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, all holding one-on-one meetings with their counterparts, as did the prime minister when he arrived.

Albanese said his new government’s greater commitment to climate change action was “an entree to get through the door of credibility with our Pacific neighbours”. While Pacific leaders have called for more ambitious targets, as have the Greens in Australia, in their conversations Albanese and Wong have drawn particular attention to Australia’s 82 per cent renewable energy target by 2030.

But the overriding message was that security for forum countries “has to come from within the Pacific first before engaging outside”. That translates as Australia actually being willing to step up in a way to convince the Solomons and Kiribati – two countries more open to China – that Canberra can meet all their strategic needs. The problem is island leaders aren’t seeing issues in strategic terms but rather in terms of their development and prosperity. They, unlike Australia, don’t believe they have to choose between China and America – they can wait and pick the best deal. That’s a problem for Albanese, which he is meeting with an extra half-a-billion dollars in aid.

On Thursday, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare again ruled out a Chinese security base, and said Australia remained the nation’s “security partner of choice”.

There is no doubt Albanese is acutely aware of the dangers of being seen as an absent prime minister who has taken his eye off problems at home. Criticism from the opposition and headlines in the Murdoch papers are easily dismissed in the short term, as Tony Abbott’s reaction proves, but the Guardian Essential poll this week has found evidence the honeymoon with voters is almost over. It could be that the sheer relief at the departure of Scott Morrison is now taken for granted, especially as the former prime minister has been out of sight and earshot since the election.

Albanese remains very popular, with a net positive approval of 32 per cent. The three-point drop in approval and six-point rise in disapproval can be explained by the Reserve Bank dramatically ratcheting up interest rates this month, with the prospect of more rises to come. In a highly leveraged electorate, it’s not surprising that cost-of-living pressures knock the shine off an incumbent government, even a new one. This is reflected in the latest Westpac measure of consumer confidence, which has plunged this year as quickly as it did in the depths of the pandemic and at the beginning of the global financial crisis.

The prime minister spent the two days before he flew out midweek making major domestic announcements: more disaster relief for flood victims, with the reminder that half-a-billion dollars of federal money has already gone to 621,000 Australians.

On Monday he revealed the Jobs and Skills Summit would be held at the beginning of September. Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor is asking if he can attend, while the acting opposition leader, Sussan Ley, says she wants the summit cancelled. On ABC Radio, Treasurer Jim Chalmers could hardly contain his mirth: “They want a seat at the table of a conference that’s been cancelled.” He won’t be cancelling it and says the invitation list is still to be finalised.

Government backbenchers are relieved that the next three months will be heavily domestically focused with the return of parliament, the summit and the budget. There is also increasing concern over the resurgence of Covid-19 cases and a growing death toll. The big test is for the government, but the opposition will also need to get its act together. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Dutt’s season, Abbott season".

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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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