In the House of Representatives chamber, failed PM Tony Abbott sits two rows back and slightly to the right of Mal Brough. Just to Abbott’s left, across an aisle, is Abbott’s government-in-exile lieutenant, dumped defence minister Kevin Andrews. He sits right behind Wyatt Roy, who’s right behind Brough.
Abbott and Andrews thus have had a ringside view of Mal Brough’s travails over the last fortnight, watching the 33 times Brough has made the long trek up to the dispatch box to answer questions from Labor’s shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus. You can bet Abbott and co haven’t exactly been devastated to watch Brough, one of Abbott’s most open critics during his prime ministership and a key supporter of Malcolm Turnbull, edge toward oblivion. Nor would the way the scandal has also ensnared Wyatt Roy, another Turnbull backer, be a cause for upset.
Brough was involved in a campaign to expose alleged misuse of travel entitlements by then-speaker Peter Slipper, via Slipper staff member James Ashby obtaining Slipper’s diary to provide evidence. Brough told 60 Minutes he had asked Ashby for the diary; he now says he did not.
Until Tuesday, Brough had fended off Dreyfus’ attack with simple stonewalling, quotation of the Federal Court judgment in the Ashby case and straightforward refusal to answer questions. After some dabbling with Michael Keenan on Tuesday, Dreyfus tried a different angle on Brough and asked about what he’d said on television about getting James Ashby to obtain copies of Peter Slipper’s diary. Brough gave a two-part answer. The second part was a continuation of his previous tactic of simply referring to the Federal Court judgment. He should have confined himself to that. But Brough couldn’t help himself; he prefaced that by declaring “in relation to the 60 Minutes interview, what was put to air was not the full question”.
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Brough had now broadened the argument between the government and the opposition to the media, in effect accusing the Nine Network of selective editing to make him look bad. That elicited not one but two nights of deeply harmful coverage on Nine News, and led to Brough having to apologise to Parliament for how he had “unwittingly added to the confusion” with his answer. The problem is, there was no confusion except Brough’s, exemplified yesterday when Dreyfus repeated the 60 Minutes question to him (“Did you ask James Ashby to procure copies of Peter Slipper’s diary for you?”) and got a “no” instead of a “yes”.
Brough has to survive one more question time, then it’s the summer break, but Labor wins whether he stays or goes. After enduring a Turnbull honeymoon that has cruelled their prospects at the next election, Labor MPs are, thanks to Brough, ending the parliamentary year with a spring in their step.
The damage Brough has inflicted on himself and the Prime Minister — who didn’t exactly soar to the sort of heights of oratory of which we know he’s capable in defence of Brough yesterday — factors into the ongoing campaign by the government-in-exile, which is part destabilisation, part vengeance. The vengeance has been directed at first Scott Morrison, and now Julie Bishop, both of them in effect called liars by Tony Abbott himself, while Abbott, Andrews and the reactionary detritus of the backbench like Andrew Nikolic have exploited the Paris attacks to try to undermine Turnbull’s national security credentials.
Kevin Rudd’s campaign to undermine Julia Gillard was partly founded on the consistent evidence that voters still liked him better than Gillard, meaning he offered colleagues a greater chance of salvaging the government (that Rudd himself had done his best to wreck) than she did. Abbott is a pinchbeck Rudd: not merely did he not last as long in the prime ministership as Rudd, but he is plainly far more poorly regarded by voters than his replacement, who immediately lifted the government into a strong position in the polls. But the comparison won’t faze Abbott, a man who as opposition leader and then as prime minister showed a consistent disregard for — even hostility to — facts, logic and evidence. This is a man who continues to believe his government was a successful one, who says he would have died happy on the morning of his ouster given how successful he’d been as PM, who thinks the only problem was Malcolm Turnbull and “white-anting”.
With such a delusional mindset, don’t expect a ceasefire from Abbott and his small band of loyalists any time soon. And we saw the direct link between Brough’s woes and the Abbott camp when long-time Turnbull hater Cory Bernardi deliberately invoking a much-criticised Abbott tendency to say “the current captain will take all events into consideration in determining Mr Brough’s future”. Current captain, hmmm?