So it turns out that Tony Abbott’s party isn’t better than this, that his government isn’t better than this and, by God, that his country isn’t better than this.
That was Tony Abbott’s cri de coeur as Malcolm Turnbull advanced confidently against him on September 14, 2015 — that the Liberal Party wasn’t the Labor Party, in which Kevin Rudd had been knifed by Julia Gillard who was in turn knifed by Kevin Rudd. “The destabilisation just has to stop,” Abbott implored at the time, but Turnbull wasn’t doing any destabilisation, he was coming for Abbott and knocked him off, quick smart, in a lightning-fast coup.
Now Abbott is — in perhaps the least surprising Abbott move since he claimed he’d “stopped the boats” in response to Turnbull’s criticism of his reliance on three-word slogans — remaining in politics, clearly with the goal of doing to Turnbull what Rudd did to Gillard, albeit with the complication that Turnbull has already done that to Abbott.
At first glance the key difference between Rudd and Abbott — apart from how Rudd managed to survive longer than Abbott, and actually ran a competent government for a while, and was popular with people who’d never met him — is that Rudd’s revenge was motivated by his ego rather than significant policy differences with Julia Gillard, while Abbott is seen as ideologically much further to the right than Turnbull.
This is undoubtedly true, but it’s more complicated than that: as the self-described “weather vane” has long demonstrated, Abbott’s ideology is wholly malleable in the service of political purposes. Abbott and his coterie of dead-enders, supposedly distinguished by their obsession with national security, in fact are happy to undermine the country’s national security for their own purposes, in particular by demonising Australia’s Muslim communities, to the extent that security agency heads have specifically warned about the impacts of such recklessness on their capacity to usefully engage with families who are best placed to spot extremists. For Abbott’s quest to topple Turnbull, ideology is merely a means to an end.
The other complication is that Abbott’s real ideology is conflict. “I’m no good at fighting Liberals, but I’m very good at fighting the Labor Party,” Abbott said at the time of the February leadership spill motion. This summed up his attitude toward the prime ministership; he saw it as a tool to attack his enemies, and it was a crucial flaw that helped end his time as leader. No matter how often Abbott looked and sounded more prime ministerial when he dropped the aggro and tried, Howard-like, to appear above petty partisanship, he always defaulted back to aggression and attack.
Now it is Turnbull that that instinct to attack is aimed at, rather than Labor. Abbott — despite his modesty about his capacity for intra-party fighting — has become the internal opposition leader to Turnbull, and given his talent for it may even do a better job than the official Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, who must be delighted that the government’s divisions will continue to be on vivid display through until the election. And even if Abbott himself remains uncharacteristically silent — perhaps he’ll hunker down and pen Battlelines II, in which he’ll characteristically repudiate most of what he wrote in the original — his small clique of supporters will continue to leak, criticise and undermine on his behalf. Remember that not all of the destabilisation that went on in the Gillard years was at Rudd’s instigation; much of it was freelancing, not always productive, by his rusted-on backers. The likes of Abetz, Andrews and Nikolic — three duds whose only chance of further promotion rests with an Abbott return — are already busy on this front.
But having removed Julia Gillard, Rudd was visibly at a loss as to what exactly he wanted to do as prime minister; his life’s goal had been achieved. The same flaw would beset Tony Abbott in the highly unlikely event an unpopular, hard-Right incompetent was restored by Liberal MPs to the top job. That’s the problem with political revenge: the desire to tear down your enemy is so overwhelming, you forget what you actually want to do with their job.