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COMMENT

No happy ending as avenging Abbott unleashes

The advent of Malcolm Turnbull seemed to offer Australia an opportunity to break from the manic phase of the last half-decade.

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari 

Mutinous political parties unleashed bloodlust on the jugulars of their leaders with such ready ferocity that Canberra was named "coup capital of the Western world" by the BBC's former correspondent here, Nick Bryant.

Fearful leaders, constantly appeasing their own backbenchers, sought to hold their parties together with faux-angry hyper-partisanship. The national interest was a lower order issue.   

The voters, increasingly unimpressed, staged a covert walkout. If you take into account the rising proportion of the electorate that declines to enrol, and the rising share of informal ballot papers cast, a total of 4.1 million Australian adults cast no valid vote in the 2013 federal election. 

It was Labor that came up with the phrase "chaos and dysfunction" to describe itself. And Tony Abbott's promise of "good government" was so implausible that it became a celebrated piece of satire.

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Australia had five prime ministerships in five years, although, because Kevin Rudd served twice, there were four prime ministers. Even Italy didn't spin the revolving door of the prime minister's suite as fast as Australia's.

Malcolm Turnbull's "new politics" marked a moment of hope for change.

Would Australia continue to spin its "revolving door" of probationary prime ministers and political parlour games or might it stop, settle and begin a national renewal?

Could Australia return to an era of stable government and purposeful reform? It's partly up to Turnbull, of course. But, alone, he can't break the cycle of vengeance. The man he tore down, Tony Abbott, has to agree to put aside the natural human desire for revenge.

This week Abbott mounted a three-part campaign to show that he does not agree. On the contrary, he is burning with deep anger and this week he allowed it to emerge forcefully.

First, he talked up an essay he has written for the conservative journal Quadrant titled "The Economic Case for the Abbott Government." The essay, as the title implies, was designed to salvage his government's record. But Abbott also challenged Turnbull.

Even some hard-case conservatives were angry at Abbott. "I think he's in a dark space and wants us to lose," said one. "There's now a chance we could lose, unthinkable six months ago" when Turnbull first took the leadership.

The former prime minister described his highly ideological 2014 budget as "a badge of honour". 

Yet, while he was still prime minister, he told colleagues that it had brought his government "to the brink of destruction", a risk he didn't take with the 2015 "play it safe" budget. 

The truth is that the 2014 budget was a serious misjudgment and a disastrous overreach. 

With that budget, he broke election promises and proposed radical measures for which he had no mandate. 

These included a GP co-payment for visits to the doctor, the deregulation of university fees and a six-month wait for the dole for unemployed people under 30. 

These proposals simply died in the Senate. And the Abbott government's standing in the polls never recovered from that budget. The biggest winner from that budget was Bill Shorten.   

Yet, in talking up his essay, Abbott told The Australian newspaper last weekend: "The challenge for Prime Minister Turnbull will be to retain his popularity once he has a credible narrative of his own. Nearly two years on from the 2014 budget, getting spending down remains the critical issue." 

He's right that it's a critical issue, but it's one on which he made no progress. Indeed, he only managed to make the problem bigger.

The Abbott government took power with net government debt equal to 12.8 per cent of GDP, according to the budget papers. Two years later he bequeathed Turnbull net debt of 16.9 per cent of GDP, according to the government's December mid-year budget update. 

Abbott went on to make the audacious claim to The Australian that: "I'm confident that we could have won the 2016 election with a program of budget savings and lower tax."

Part two of Abbott's campaign, building on the fictitious economic credibility asserted in the first, was to give unsolicited advice to the government this week during the regular meeting of the Coalition's MPs and senators.

It was "time for the leadership to take on the savings challenge again", he reportedly told the party room. His comments, the first he's made since losing the leadership, were designed to position himself as a conservative spokesman within the government.

Any tax cuts the government might hand out in the May budget, said Abbott, had to be funded by cutting government spending, not by raising taxes. And he congratulated Turnbull on his scare campaign against Labor's negative gearing policy, warning the government against making any move to restrict the generosity of the existing negative gearing tax concession. This was met with enthusiastic cries of  "hear, hear"!

To Turnbull and his treasurer, Scott Morrison, it sounded like Abbott was trying to box the government in, taking tax options "off the table" before any formal decision. 

Abbott's supporters certainly think so; they think he succeeded in this little outburst in dealing a death blow to any idea of changing negative gearing. They are right. 

Scott Morrison took the opportunity to remind the party room that the Abbott government had successfully cut $80 billion from spending, only to reallocate $70 billion of it for new spending. Unsubtly, Morrison was pointing out that Abbott didn't have much of a record. 

On Friday a former Liberal minister, the Howard government's Peter Reith, went further. Reith told Sky News that Abbott's position on government spending was "incoherent". 

Abbott had gone to the 2013 election promising not to cut major programs, and even promised to add a lavish $5 billion-a-year paid parental leave scheme. 

Reith might have gone further – he might have pointed out that Abbott abolished Julia Gillard's carbon tax, yet continued paying out the $15 billion a year in compensation for a tax that no longer existed.

Part three in Abbott's one-man uprising was the most brazenly destabilising. It was to attack Turnbull on a major defence matter.

This would round out the trifecta for Abbott in striking poses as a hero for the conservative faction of the Liberal party. First, he was tough on spending. Second he was resolutely opposed to new taxes. Third, he was more serious about national security.

The Australian newspaper reported on Wednesday that it had obtained a draft of the defence white paper which had been written for Prime Minister Abbott. 

Its report, written by Abbott advocate Greg Sheridan, was headed: "PM pushed back Abbott subs dates". It began: "The Turnbull government's defence white paper delays the ¬acquisition of replacement submarines for the Collins-class boats by nearly a decade, compared with the draft produced under Tony Abbott, in a result the former prime minister says has left him 'flabbergasted'."

The basis for the former prime minister's flabbergasting was that the Turnbull document committed to having the first new subs entering service in "the early 2030s" while the Abbott draft reportedly promised the "late 2020s". 

Sheridan quoted Abbott as telling him: "I'm not just disappointed, I'm flabbergasted at this decision." And: "It's the biggest decision we face. It needs to be made swiftly so that we get the new subs from the middle of the next decade." He said of the existing six Collins submarines that it is "a fragile capability at the best of times."   

There are three problems with this. First is that the drafts written for the Abbott government are classified. The Defence department has asked the Federal police to conduct a leaks inquiry to find the leaker. 

Suspicion immediately fell on the former prime minister, but Abbott and Sheridan both said on the record that Abbott was not the leaker. Nonetheless, many of Abbott's colleagues are themselves flabbergasted that he would, in effect, confirm and endorse the leak with his comments to Sheridan.

Second is that the Abbott outrage appears to be built, once more, on a fond imagining of how things might have been, rather than the way they were.

In rapid succession, the secretary of the defence department, Dennis Richardson, the chief of the defence force, Mark Binskin, and Abbott's own first defence minister, David Johnston, all attested that defence had consistently told the government that the earliest realistic delivery date was the early 2030s, which is exactly what the white paper says.

The third problem for Abbott is that this intrusion has appalled many of his colleagues and confirmed him as a wrecker. Peter Reith spoke for the majority when he called it "a classic case of deliberate destabilisation".  

Even some hard-case conservatives were angry at Abbott. One defended him: "He puts his dissent on the public record – when those who destabilised him leaked against him, they did it anonymously." But others were harsh: "I think he's in a dark space and wants us to lose," said one. "There's now a chance we could lose, unthinkable six months ago" when Turnbull first took the leadership. The vengefulness of the betrayed leader reminded many this week of Kevin Rudd's conduct after Gillard's lightning coup against him. Asked about this on Friday, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said: "Tony Abbott is no Kevin Rudd." He's right.

The defining difference? Rudd was popular before and after the coup. This meant that there was always a plausible pathway to a comeback for him. This does not justify disruptive conduct. But it does mean that there was a potentially positive purpose to his jihad against Gillard.

But Abbott has never been popular. He was the uniquely unpopular prime minister. There is no plausible pathway to a comeback for Abbott. 

He will justify himself by saying that he is defending his record, that he is speaking for the conservative movement. But however he might rationalise it, the net effect of his destabilisations can only be negative for his party. There is no happy ending here.

Can he be assuaged? He has not asked Turnbull for anything for himself. But he asked Turnbull to appoint his former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to the post of Sex Discrimination Commissioner. And to appoint her husband, Brian Loughnane, former Liberal federal director, to the post of ambassador to the Vatican. 

Turnbull let Abbott know that the post of high commissioner to London could be available to him, but refused the requests to appoint Credlin and Loughnane.

Abbott was uninterested in London. He persisted in lobbying the prime minister on Loughnane's behalf, but to no avail. The government has since filled both posts.

Abbott probably cannot be assuaged. He seems only to want to be avenged. If so, the chance of an end to the manic phase will have passed. The mania will continue unabated.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.