Abbott's backbone is more rubber than steel say his opponents
Advertisement

Abbott's backbone is more rubber than steel say his opponents

According to his opponents inside the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott’s key political attribute is not the conviction that he has crafted into his political brand but his lack of it; not the iron of his spine but its extraordinary suppleness.

Abbott has made his determined lack of conviction a potent political weapon, says the former Liberal leader John Hewson.

“He will take any position that suits him on any given matter on any given day.”

Former prime minister Tony Abbott in Parliament this week.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott in Parliament this week.Credit:AAP

As an example, Hewson notes that last week Abbott and his bloc demanded a new concession from Malcolm Turnbull to further dilute Australia’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. When Turnbull conceded the point, Abbott responded brutally via 2GB, that “making an absolute commitment on a Tuesday only to abandon it on a Friday” was no way to run a government.

Advertisement

It is Abbott’s various positions on climate and energy policy that have caused the most frustration within the party and the most allusions to the Kama Sutra among media commentators.

Though he had signed the Paris Climate Agreement while prime minister, Abbott railed against Turnbull for seeking to abide by it.

As prime minister he had claimed to believe in climate science, which he had called “absolute crap” in 2009. Last year he gave a speech to a group of climate sceptics in London in which he observed that climate change might be a good thing because, "far more people die in cold snaps".

Over the years he has backed and opposed both an emissions trading scheme and a carbon trading scheme before arriving at his own “direct action” policy of climate change mitigation, a measure considered by experts to be at once ineffective and expensive.

But his willingness to surrender and adopt antithetical positions and incoherent ideologies runs deeper.

He is the free marketeer who has demanded the taxpayer invest in coal-fired power plants, the free speech champion who demanded that the rapper Macklemore be banned from singing Same Love at the NRL grand final.

It is not a coincidence that a dossier outlining Abbott’s various positions on the purchase of $50 billion worth of submarines – the largest and most complex defence procurement in Australian history – was leaked to Fairfax Media this week.

Using Abbott’s words in correspondence and public comments, the dossier demonstrates that Abbott in 2014 advocated for the purchase of “off the shelf” Japanese Soryu class submarines.

One letter from July 2014 to the then defence minister David Johnston included the inscribed note from Abbott saying, “purchasing of Japanese subs is vital to our future sub capability at an affordable price”.

This position softened in the first year of Abbott’s prime ministership, when he began to warm to the idea of a tender program that would benefit ship-building industry in South Australia.

“It is standard defence procurement procedure for very sophisticated items of equipment to have a competitive evaluation process between selected tenderers but certainly we would encourage the Australian Submarine Corporation to be part of this competitive process,” he said during a doorstop in February 2015.

“Now, I have to say that whatever happens with the competitive evaluation process for submarines that is now underway, there will be more submarine jobs in Adelaide in the years to come,” he added in August.

But with Turnbull in power Abbott had a significant change of heart. “Not more robustly challenging the nuclear no-go mindset is probably the biggest regret I have from my time as PM," he lamented during a speech in 2017.

Now Australia should be considering a fleet of nuclear powered subs, perhaps from the United States.

“The French-based design is hardly begun, let alone finalised,” he explained. “No contract to build has been signed and won't be for years. This is because it's a completely new sub – inspired by, rather [than] based on the existing nuclear model – that needs to be designed from scratch rather than simply modified to take a different engine.

"The first question would be whether the US could provide us with their nuclear-powered subs. The US already provides Australia with its most advanced aircraft and tanks and its most sophisticated submarine torpedo weapons system. We have nothing to lose from starting a discussion on this issue with our allies and friends – Britain and France – as well as primarily with the US."

According to Hewson, Abbott’s ideological and policy agility might be a short-term strength for the man himself, but he believes it will prove to be destructive to the Liberal Party in the long term, not just because it lacks consistency or a founding philosophy, but because it encourages policy work to be done at haste and emboldens opportunism and populism.

“Look at the damage [Abbott's campaign] has already done, it has got Dutton himself believing that he is leadership material. Mate, he is unelectable outside Queensland. Yesterday he had no policies, today he wants a Royal Commission into power prices and he wants to rework the GST. That stuff is political poison. You don’t think Labor and the unions and GetUp! can’t exploit the shit out of that? By the time they have finished they will have destroyed the Liberal Party.”

Hewson believes that should Abbott succeed in destroying Turnbull, and should Peter Dutton be installed as prime minister, Abbott's first act will be to turn his sights on Dutton.

Nick O'Malley is a senior writer and a former US correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.