It was only three years ago on Friday that Tony Abbott was knifed by Malcolm Turnbull. Straight afterwards, Abbott promised “no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping”.
After a brief silence, that was pretty much all he did for the next three years in his quest to get back at Turnbull. Abbott is not so much a back stabber. He stabs his foes in the front.
He never saw his open dissent and insubordination as undermining, just a backbencher expressing his opinion as a backbencher was entitled to do. Semantics aside, the end result was the same. Destruction.
When Turnbull fell on August 24, he similarly promised to ride off into the sunset and, for the sake of the party, suggested Abbott do the same.
“I made it very clear that I believe former prime ministers are best out of the Parliament and I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest that that conclusion is incorrect,” he said.
The uneasy truce lasted just short of three weeks before the former prime minister broke his silence to confirm he had been lobbying colleagues from New York to refer Peter Dutton to the High Court.
Turnbull is very angry at what happened to him but, like Abbott before him, rejects suggestions he is doing anything underhand.
He believes there is a prima facie case against Dutton under section 44(v) of the Constitution that needs to be cleared up by a referral, just as other MPs and senators were referred to clear the air.
Turnbull is telling former colleagues that he is out of politics, entitled to an opinion and therefore entitled to offer his advice to the Prime Minister and others. (And, by the way, he doesn’t intend to help campaign in Wentworth ahead of the October 20 byelection he caused by resigning. Nor does he buy the theory the Liberals could lose a seat he held with a 62 per cent primary vote.)
A burning branch through dry bush
Julie Bishop rode shotgun to Turnbull on Thursday. In what was the equivalent of dragging a burning branch through dry bush, Bishop walked through the press gallery to suggest ever so subtly that Dutton should refer himself to the High Court, to leave open the option of voting for such a referral motion herself and, just for good measure, suggest some of the alleged bullying that went on the week of the leadership spill may have been “illegal”. Just a humble backbencher Your Honour.
Then, just to really calm things down, Barnaby Joyce, armed with a jerrycan of petrol, ambled into the press gallery an hour or so after Bishop to declare Turnbull was trying to bring down the government. Another day shot to pieces. Not that there was any policy to distract from.
Both Houses have barely enough work to do and the government, which has been reduced to trying to find staff and put together a new prime ministerial office, is not brimming with any new fresh ideas.
Still struggling to explain to voters why Turnbull was necked, the Coalition, if it does give a reason, risks ruling a line through all its achievements thus far, as Julia Gillard did when she justified necking Kevin Rudd because the government “had lost its way”. All that work saving Australia from recession during the global financial crisis went out the window.
Just three weeks ago, the government was statistically level with Labor in the polls, led by a popular leader and with wind in its sails courtesy of a rapidly growing economy and recovering budget.
And now? “We’ve got them right where we want them,” one Liberal MP mused sardonically of Labor as he surveyed the wreckage around him.
Architects of the bungled coup console themselves that they have done the party a favour by getting rid of Turnbull, even as they talk of being headed towards “an honourable defeat”.
The voters are disgusted and most have stopped listening. “Joke”, “backstabber”, “muppets”, “why?”, “embarrassing”, “shambles”, “don’t know” and “coup” were among the key words to emerge from recent focus group polling conducted by Labor.
Morrison’s daggy ordinariness is working
Scott Morrison is battling away, doing quite a good job in isolation of the chaos all around. Morrison’s daggy ordinariness and use of straight language is reminiscent of the simple and disarming appeal that worked so well for John Howard.
It is an insight into how effective Morrison could be if he took the job under normal circumstances with a unified team. Certainly, Labor is not taking him for granted and it is still trying to find its line and length with him.
Labor felt it had Turnbull’s measure, and it relished the prospect of Dutton becoming leader. Morrison will be more problematic, but only if the chaos abates, and there is no sign of that.
With the Liberals, it’s not only the personal hatreds playing out, its the ideological differences which are still unresolved.
Morrison, as Turnbull tried to do, is dipping his lid towards the conservatives, promising action to protect religious freedoms and so forth. But just as Turnbull found out, they still want more.
Alan Jones and his fellow travellers in the party are still demanding Morrison abandon the Paris climate change targets, even though the government is committed to them in name only. And Abbott is still clamouring to abolish the Renewable Energy Target which is due to wind up in 2020.
One concerned Liberal said it was okay to keep lurching towards the base so long as the party was happy with a 28 per cent primary vote. He and others, who used to think they belonged in the right wing of the party, no longer know where they stand.
Moreover as conservatives increasingly embrace or advocate interventionist economics such as trying to regulate power prices, threaten to forcibly divest publicly listed companies, use the army to seize a power station, or stand on the back of a ute and address an Australian Workers’ Union rally.
“I used to define as being on the right as being economically dry,” the concerned MP said.
Now it’s economic socialism and social conservatism.
And that sort of schism runs deeper than any personal hatred. More than a few are genuinely concerned the Liberal Party is headed towards an irrevocable split.