Consistent in this if little else, Tony Abbott’s capacity to generate WTF political moments — the moments where the Overton window of what is considered not completely berserk in normal political discourse widens appreciably — continues unabated by his fall from power.
With Abbott as prime minister, the constant procession of laboured stunts, gaffes, misjudgements, bare-faced lies and denials of objective reality eventually re-engineered our political brains to the point where the most bizarre and remarkable occurrences were accepted as barely worthy of remark. And that’s continued in Abbott’s Tour of No Regrets series of media appearances since his fall.
First there was the small matter of his shift from claiming Treasurer Scott Morrison lied about warning Abbott’s office his leadership was in danger to admitting to that rigorous interrogator Ray Hadley that Morrison had indeed spoken to chief of staff Peta Credlin; how that discussion was interpreted now appears to be the issue. It’s quite the thing to accuse your own government’s treasurer of lying to the public, or at least it used to be quite the thing; in the Abbott era, it’s barely worthy of remark.
In any event that was just the warm-up for probably the single most remarkable lie Abbott has uttered in recent years, his insistence yesterday that The Australian had failed to support him enough (yes, the paper that employs Chris Kenny and Dennis Shanahan failed to provide enough support for Abbott). This statement laid bare — along with his description of the Prince Philip knighthood as merely “injudicious” and his insistence that the 2014-15 budget broke no promises and was merely “too gutsy” for Parliament — the extraordinary extent of Abbott’s self-delusion, particularly given his “if you want better coverage, be a better government” advice to Labor some years back.
Understandably, inch by inch, tiny step by tiny step, the Turnbull government is moving away from Abbott, like commuters giving a wide berth to the angry old guy yelling on the bus. Abbott can insist nothing has changed, but much is changing. One of the most damaging decisions of Abbott’s government, to launch fee deregulation, coupled with funding cuts, at the higher education sector, has been dumped — well, suspended, technically, pending consultations, but in effect dumped while new Education Minister Simon Birmingham, one of the best younger talents in the Senate, starts from square one.
The Abbott-era reform proposal, masterminded (irony alert) by then-minister Christopher Pyne, was a playbook of how not to pursue major reform. The government sprang it out of the blue on both the public and sector in the 2014 budget, amid a welter of other measures deemed unfair, having done no preparation for why such major reform was needed. It has done no modelling of the effects of its reforms. It had no comeback to the campaigns quickly put together by Labor and the Greens; the Greens rapidly established a website where you could calculate the cost of your degree under the changes; the government had no response except to dismiss them as lies. Pyne then failed to negotiate effectively with the Senate crossbenchers to secure passage of the bill, then failed again after abandoning the savings associated with the measure, with one crossbencher saying he’d simply stopped talking to Pyne about it. Then Pyne hired a former senior bureaucrat to engage in a meaningless dialogue with the crossbenchers. It made Labor’s mining tax debacle look like an orderly policy process.
And Abbott’s refusal to accept the one tax reform on which there is near-unanimous agreement, curbing exorbitantly expensive superannuation tax concessions that will soon cost us $50 billion a year, has also been ditched, at least if the outcome of yesterday’s micro-summit is anything to go by. In effect, that outcome was simply a recognition of the painful reality that the only person standing in the way of fixing super tax breaks was Abbott himself — not Joe Hockey, who initiated Treasury work on it, not Labor, which has its own proposals on the tables, not business and not unions.
The shift is underway, too, on national security, an area where Turnbull had been unable to contain himself in response to an Abbott WTF moment when it became official policy of the Abbott government that Islamic State was the greatest threat to civilisation in the history of everything. In an intriguing story today from (that treacherous anti-Abbott rag) The Australian, by a group of reporters led by Cameron Stewart, we learnt that security agencies had become concerned about the degeneration in relations between them and the Muslim community under Abbott, with Coalition Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells in effect admitting that the government had alienated Muslims and shut down a valuable source of intelligence.
Key to this alienation was Abbott himself, who — as part of a cynical hyping of national security for partisan advantage — attacked Muslim leaders for failing to say that Islam was a religion of peace often enough. It’s another example of Abbott actually making Australia less safe with his exploitation of national security.
Ignore Abbott and Labor — he might not being doing it ostentatiously, but Turnbull is moving as far as away from this dangerous man as political grace will allow.