Tony Abbott's decision to stay in politics may not be the best decision for him. Sadly, I predict tears – and not of the before bedtime variety. Those are just the tears of overtired children and soon pass. I think Abbott's decision, if he proceeds with it, will bring him a more lasting, irrevocable grief.
There is a chasm between the pressure of being prime minister and that of being a backbencher. Having wound himself up to that higher pace, Abbott may well find it hard to wind back. If that turns out to be the case, he will be constantly looking for things to do.
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Former PM Tony Abbott says he will stay in politics and will recontest his Sydney seat in the next election. Vision: Today Show, Channel Nine
The international speaking circuit will not prove to be a long-term source of attention for an ex-prime minister deposed in his first term. Sure, there will be political and think-tank opportunities from the more conservative side of Liberal thought, but he just was not in the job long enough to have built a reputation for competence and gravitas akin to John Howard or Bob Hawke.
On losing the prime ministership, Abbott made an honourable and admirable commitment to never be a destabiliser, as Kevin Rudd was for Julia Gillard. Abbott clearly does not want to be seen in that ugly light. He will have to watch every step to live up to that commitment and avoid that tag. Whether the pronouncement was true at the time is irrelevant. Time changes many things and has a way of whittling down good intentions. Good intentions, as we know, often end up as mere detritus on the road to hell.
So Abbott's first risk comes from himself. Namely, that bitterness will creep in and start to whisper bad thoughts. In the odd weak moment or two, they may be acted upon. He will need to be on guard against the down moments we all have.
Even if good intentions were there and remain, there are other risks. Friends, perhaps out of misplaced loyalty, will be whispering unwise counsel in his ear: "You could have won", "You weren't given long enough" and any number of other platitudes born out of ignorance and bathed in fantasy. No one wants to embrace the reality that their demise was all their own work. So-called friends will be feeding their own resentment rather than genuinely putting Abbott's welfare first. So his second risk comes from his own allies.
These risks venture onto a stage already littered with other hazards. The first is that as a former prime minister, the media will be watching every word. It would be easy to kid yourself that they were interested because all your experience has given you insight that others might not have. If one were prone to believing in oneself, as all those who ever aspire to leadership are, you just might see yourself as having a better or more informed experience. One might be blind to the normal media pattern of seeking conflict and controversy. It is a trap into which one might easily fall.
Abbott would be aware of all of these risks. They mean that as soon as he says something that's going to get publicity, the timing of his remarks will be scrutinised for any hint that they were deliberately placed to suck oxygen from a Prime Ministerial moment. At that point the rumours will start that he has gone sour and is behaving like Rudd, claiming loyalty but using the media for mischief. If the remarks he makes are contentious or highlight the understandable differences of opinion that exist in all parties, Abbott will again be accused of saying things in order to cause trouble.
It is reasonable to ask whether such accusations would be fair. I think the answer is "Yes", because we all know the higher profile a former prime minister has and we all know how making remarks that suck oxygen from good-news stories or blow it onto more difficult ones causes difficulty for incumbent prime ministers. So nobody, including Abbott, will be able to claim innocence. As a former PM he carries that extra risk and will not be able to say that he should be allowed to behave like any new backbencher, because he isn't. We all know it and so does he.
His Coalition parliamentary colleagues are entitled to expect that he not rock the boat, just as he expected them not to. There is a long list of "captain's picks" in which Abbott indulged himself. He pulled the rubber band of loyalty – finally to breaking point – on the way he expected everyone to toe the line. Now they will expect him to toe the line.
Then there's the broad membership of the Liberal Party across Australia. Mums and dads who go out and drop pamphlets in letterboxes, raise funds and man polling booths. Put simply, they want their team to win. And there's no victory without them. They are entitled to expect that someone who has especially been a beneficiary of their hard work will not indulge himself and make their task harder next time. They are entitled to think that having got so much opportunity from the party, he now owes a greater loyalty back than members who had no such luck.
So Abbott will face the expectation that he doesn't behave as if it's all about him. The expectation will be that he realises it never was. Winning and maintaining government is very much a team game. Even the best players – and Abbott surely was one of them as opposition leader – have to accept when their day in the sun has gone.
People might say that 'You have had a fair go; now you should be fair and go' sounds harsh. But in this case I think it would be the best and fairest thing for Abbott.
Unless I have been lied to, and that can happen, Abbott has told a number of people that he is young enough to have another crack at the leadership. Even if that is meant in the most pure and innocent form, as in "Well, the Prime Minister might be hit by a proverbial bus", it does not augur well for the future. It shows an incapacity on Abbott's part to see what went wrong and how much of that related to his own behaviour. It also reveals a failure to recognise that there are others who have come up in the ranks and will continue to do so. It is not a static world through which only he progresses.
Sadly, it would also mean every decision Abbott makes will be firstly about positioning himself for that opportunity rather than firstly about securing a team win now.
Political teams are like rose bushes – you have to keep pruning or there are no new blooms. When John Howard gave me the flick in 2007 he offered to say that I had decided I would move on. I declined the offer; the truth is what it is. My press release thanked him and the Liberal Party for the opportunities I had enjoyed and others had missed out on. My spot was filled by Malcolm Turnbull. Pruning delivers results. Bronwyn Bishop, Philip Ruddock and a few others should stop being so selfish, start showing a bit of gratitude for all they have enjoyed, and allow some new blooms to burst forth.
People might say that "You have had a fair go; now you should be fair and go" sounds harsh. But in this case I think it would be the best and fairest thing for Abbott. And for the party that gave him such tremendous opportunities.
Amanda Vanstone is a Fairfax columnist and was a minister in the Howard government.