- Abbott told Forestville branch he wanted to stay in politics
- Comment: What Abbott can learn from Menzies
It's one of the biggest questions in federal politics, and only one man can answer it.
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Xenophon launches campaign to oust Abbott in Warringah
Manly psychologist and counsellor Marie Rowland is running for the Nick Xenophon Team in Warringah as the party leader says voters look for options beyond the "blue team" and "red team". Vision courtesy ABC News 24.
With respect to Bronwyn Bishop, Philip Ruddock and Bill Heffernan - who may or may not retire - and fellow Liberals including Craig Kelly, Angus Taylor and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells - who may or not face pre-selection challenges - Tony Abbott's future in or out of the Parliament is one of the biggest unanswered questions in politics at the start of 2016.
Abbott's decision, taken from the backbench, will help shape the direction, tone and tenor of the Turnbull government ahead of the next election.
And there are clear signs that the former prime minister intends to stand again, though Abbott has until February 19 to nominate for his seat of Warringah.
As Fairfax Media reported on Wednesday, the former prime minister told a gathering of supporters at Christmas drinks in his Forestville branch late last year that he wanted to continue to make a contribution to Australia and the best way of doing that was as an MP.
This comment is in keeping with Abbott's character; fundamentally, he is not a man motivated primarily by money but by service, by being a man for others, as the Jesuits teach their students.
Some Liberals mutter darkly about a tug of war between Margie and Abbott's former chief of staff, Peta Credlin; the former wishing to see him leave politics, they claim, and the latter wanting him to remain and reclaim the prime ministership (indeed, a rival Sydney newspaper reported this week Credlin was urging this course of action on Abbott; his spokesman said the article was fanciful).
And confidantes of Credlin say that, in fact, the opposite is true and she is actually urging the former PM move on with his life and leave.
Regardless, there are other signs that Abbott may be leaning towards staying on in politics.
The former prime minister has been one of the very few MPs in Canberra this week, working from his Parliament House office (Bronwyn Bishop has also been seen in the big, empty building), meeting advisers and receiving briefings.
Abbott is, also, a young 58 and keenly aware that Australia is not much good at making the best use of the political and diplomatic expertise of its former prime ministers in a formal capacity.
Life in the private sector, on an advisory board or three or with a big corporate is unlikely to be enough in itself, nor would a return to journalism.
As a friend of Abbott puts it, he is not a "portfolio of interests" guy as he "likes the scraps too much".
Similarly, speculation that he could head to London to be the next High Commissioner remains just that.
Perhaps the clearest sign that Abbott intends to remain in Parliament comes from his apparent willingness, along with conservative backers such as former cabinet minister Kevin Andrews, to chip Turnbull and his team over national security and the challenge posed by Islamic extremism.
Turnbull has little choice but to grin and bear it when the former leader chooses to speak his mind on this or any other issue; conversely, Abbott would have received, as PM, the same briefings as Turnbull receives now from security agencies about the dangers of divisive language.
His warnings about "massive problems" in Islam play well with the Liberals' conservative wing, but probably benefit Turnbull politically as they underscore the new prime minister's more centrist instincts.
Abbott speaks for a Liberal Party constituency, and more to the point, wants to continue to speak for that constituency; being an MP provides an excellent platform for the former leader to articulate his views.
There are even some in the Liberal Party who speculate that, like Robert Menzies, John Howard and Winston Churchill, Abbott believes after a period in the political wilderness, the times will come to suit him again and he could reclaim the leadership.
That seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened in politics.
One astute Liberal observer explains Abbott's situation like this: "He is probably in that awful period, still, that all former leaders go through after being replaced. It's not a happy place. He will be torn between the views of his supporters, mates and relatives".
"There is a small core of supporters saying he can come back as prime minister. Others will be saying he can still be [a] strong, constructive contributor from the front bench, that he is good at politics and can re-emerge; some will be saying to him to retire, while others will be saying he has time to forge a new career.
"On balance, I think he will re-nominate now to settle things down but he might pull the pin later in the year."
That's a view shared by many in the parliamentary Liberal Party, though it remains entirely possible that Abbott will surprise colleagues and after spending time with family over summer, discussing his future, decide to quit.
While Abbott keeps mum about his future, his office promises that, once a decision is taken, it won't be secret for long.
For Turnbull, an Abbott exit would not solve the disquiet within the conservative wing of his party, which is alarmed by the ascent of a moderate PM who some describe as "Labor lite", but it would remove a lightning rod for that discontent.
Another senior MP, perhaps cabinet minister Peter Dutton, will emerge as a standard bearer for conservatives eager to ensure their party does not move too far to the left or go "soft" on national security.
If Abbott remains in the Parliament, he has two choices.
The first is to be a bomb thrower from the back bench, using the megaphone available to all former prime ministers to articulate his views and values, setting himself apart from Turnbull and the leadership team in the process, causing untold damage to the party he so recently led and giving a leg-up to Bill Shorten in an election year.
The second is to bunker down and, while remaining true to his values, rebuild his standing within and outside the party by tempering his urge to intervene, establish himself as an elder statesman and, over time and if he so desires, make clear he has more to contribute from the front bench.
This Abbott could be a valuable contributor to Team Turnbull as, for example, defence minister or in a newly-created Homeland Security type portfolio.
Time will tell which path the former prime minister takes.
James Massola is political correspondent. Mark Kenny is on leave.