- Tony Abbott defends 'common sense' in attack on gay marriage during speech to US Alliance Defending Freedom
Family values, national security, the "massive problems" in Islam and the monarchy - Tony Abbott has had plenty to say since promising "no sniping" when he lost the prime ministership four months ago.
Abbott to address US 'gay-hate' group
Tony Abbott will travel to the US to address Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious group opposed to abortion and gay-marriage.
Far from sitting quietly on the backbench, Abbott has taken up the cudgels for the conservative cause, in sharp distinction to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who pointedly promised to lead a "thoroughly liberal" government last September.
This week, heartened by the encouragement of supporters, the former prime minister announced he would re-contest his seat of Warringah and promised to work with NSW Premier Mike Baird to "ensure that the Warringah Peninsula gets better transport links to the rest of Sydney".
He promptly jetted off to the United States to address the Alliance Defending Freedom on the "importance of family". The ADF is a pro-Christian, Republican-aligned lobby group that opposes abortion and wants to end gay marriage and, predictably, the news provoked outrage from the Left.
The ADF's views on bus services to and from Manly are not widely known.
Clearly, Abbott's address, combined with his critique of Islam, interventions on national security, and claim this week that support for the monarchy is growing in Australia - a view backed up by academic research - demonstrates he has more on his mind.
But just what is Abbott, always a social conservative more than an economic rationalist, up to?
Pragmatism over purity
In his 2009 manifesto Battlelines, Abbott describes one of his political heroes, John Howard, as an "inspired pragmatist".
Howard, Abbott wrote, was a leader whose government defied categorisation as either wholly liberal or conservative; rather, he was driven by the national interest.
"For all his personal conservatism, Howard always insisted that a political party that wanted to win government had to have a broad-based political philosophy. To win elections, parties need politics that strike chords with voters, not theorists."
If you look back at his career, he [Abbott] has probably enjoyed being a bomb thrower most of all ...
As opposition leader, Abbott famously told his then-senate leader Nick Minchin that facing a choice of "policy purity and pragmatic political pragmatism, I'll take pragmatism every time".
Intellectual standard bearer for conservative right
As leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister Abbott, at least sometimes, attempted to compromise.
Think, for example, of his too-late retreats: dumping section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and after naming Prince Philip a knight.
But Abbott, a social conservative like Howard, never really succeeded in appealing to a broad cross section of the electorate.
The 2014 budget became an ideological millstone around his neck and proved to be unsaleable.
A little over two years after being elected, he was dumped by his party.
And if the early signs are any indication, the former prime minister - unlike Howard, who slowly sailed back towards the political centre after losing the opposition leader's post in 1989 - has no intention of heading to the political middle ground.
Instead, according to colleagues and allies of the former prime minister, he seems intent on becoming the intellectual standard bearer for the conservative right of the Liberal Party; an ideas man, a bomb thrower, and a regular contributor to public debate from the back bench.
'Next man' Morrison's lost support
Fairfax Media spoke to a dozen Liberal MPs this week, including supporters and opponents of Abbott in the September leadership contest, in an attempt to understand the motivations of the former prime minister (attempts to contact Abbott directly were met with a stony silence; the former prime minister appears to have decided who his "friends" and "enemies" are in the media).
The broad consensus view of Liberals is, mostly, that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (convener of the Monkey Pod lunches) and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, sitting in the House and Senate respectively, are the new standard bearers for the socially conservative faction (Treasurer Scott Morrison, once seen as the "next man" by conservatives, has lost considerable support by serving under Turnbull).
Both Dutton and Cormann are more economically dry than Abbott, though both are also socially conservative.
The distinction is important.
In the Liberal Party, economic dries are found in the socially progressive wing, the centre right and in the hard right grouping arguably most closely aligned with Abbott.
As one member of the conservative faction put it to Fairfax Media this week, the younger generation of socially conservative MPs like Alan Tudge, Angus Taylor and Zed Seselja are economic liberals, or dries, first and social conservatives second, "unlike Tony".
'People will get sick of him otherwise'
Abbott, and former cabinet ministers Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, are seen as part of the previous generation; part of the hard right grouping, but no longer its leaders in a factional sense.
That same MP says the conservative grouping embraces Abbott as someone who has a lot to contribute, but cautions:
"He [Abbott] has to work out how he is going to do it, because people will get sick of him otherwise. It's a difficult task for an ex-PM to stay and make a contribution and not be destructive."
"If you look back at his career, he [Abbott] has probably enjoyed being a bomb thrower most of all so maybe he wants to keep doing that. But as an ex-PM you have to throw a different sort of bomb."
A second conservative MP says it is "bizarre" that, now returned to the backbench, Abbott chooses to stand up for the conservatives after disappointing them while leader.
"It doesn't look like Turnbull will put him back in the ministry. He is just going to end up a shag on a rock."
'I don't think Turnbull should care'
So what does the future hold for Abbott?
"The new conservatives don't want him to be the leader, it's Dutton and Cormann," says a third MP who backed Abbott in the spill motion.
"He [Abbott] will be a standard bearer in an intellectual, not factional sense. He never really got involved in factional stuff in New South Wales for example, that's not who he is. So I think he is going to keep doing what he is doing, he will keep putting ideas out."
So is Abbott a threat to Turnbull?
"I don't think Turnbull should care, at the moment. Tony is talking to a part of the base that Malcolm can't talk to. They need to know there is a place for him in the Liberal Party and I suspect Malcolm is relatively relaxed."
That analysis is backed by several MPs who backed Turnbull in the spill but who say it is important the twin pillars of the Liberal Party - the socially conservative and liberal wings - feel they have a place.
Says one: " If anything, the [ADF] address reinforces the idea that Malcolm is now in charge."
" It also demonstrates that the Liberal Party is a broad church. Malcolm couldn't stop Tony if he wanted to. But unlike previous iterations of government on both sides, Malcolm is demonstrating the idea that people feel better when they hear politicians talk about things they care about. I'm not even remotely worried and the people around Malcolm who are MPs aren't particularly concerned about it."
Words chosen carefully
Asked this week about Abbott's decision to re-contest his seat, and fly to the US, Turnbull carefully pointed out that he had no plans to censure Abbott.
Doubtless, he is aware that, as a former leader, Abbott must be given licence to speak and any attempt to circumscribe that would blow up in his face.
"Tony is entitled to, he is obviously entitled to renominate for the seat of Warringah and I wish him all the best for that. And he is entitled to speak to such audiences as he wishes," he said..
"There are people in the Parliament, there are colleagues, there are, you know, fellow members of the Coalition, who have different views, and they are entitled to respect them - they are entitled to express them, and I respect their right to do so, just as they would respect my right to disagree with them."
Senior ministers similarly chose their words carefully about Abbott his week. Morrison welcomed the decision because Abbott has been contributing to politics all his life, not just in Parliament and he is passionate about it and that is a good thing.
Environment minister Greg Hunt said, of Abbott's decision to address the ADF, that " everybody is entitled to their views, as the Prime Minister himself has said".
And Tudge said he was " very pleased that Tony Abbott is staying in the Parliament. I think that he has got, still, an enormous amount to offer the Parliament in terms of his ideas as well as mentoring" but that, in line with indications from Turnbull, " I don't think he will be returning to the front bench".
September wounds may be healing
Ministers and backbenchers also chose their words carefully when discussing Abbott.
Few are willing to go on the record to discuss in detail the former PM's future prospects, his reasons for staying in Parliament or his decision to address the ADF for fear of kicking along perceptions the government is internally divided.
Even Abetz, a fellow ideological traveller, would say only that " before he even made his decision, I said I was hoping he [Abbott] would stay on and I am happy he has".
The fact that Abbott is staying in Parliament will, if anything, actually help unify the party, the dumped former senate leader argues.
The general reluctance of conservatives to speak out in defence of Abbott, if anything, underscores the fact that the wounds of September may have begun to heal, at least for some conservative Liberal MPs.
But still one of Turnbull's biggest challenges in 2016, aside from selling significant tax reform in an election year, will be holding his party together.
The Nationals are more natural allies of Abbott and are likely to snare an extra cabinet post in a pending reshuffle; a section of the Liberal Party, albeit settling, is still aggrieved at the events of September.
It is also almost unthinkable that at some level Abbott is not entertaining, one day, a return to the leadership of the Liberal Party and the country.
Yet while Abbott chooses to speak for a section of the party's conservative base, Turnbull will not face an existential threat to his leadership.
And the centrist Prime Minister, who has banked considerable political capital since taking over and who is still riding high in the polls, will be keenly aware that victory in 2016 will be its own riposte.