It should hardly come as a surprise that Tony Abbott and his proxies would — again — use national security as an issue in his campaign of destabilisation of the Turnbull government. As prime minister, Abbott relied heavily on national security as a political prop for his government — and in doing so made Australians less safe both by joining in yet more military intervention in the Middle East, and by criticising Australian Muslims in a manner that concerned counter-terrorism agencies reliant on good relationships with Muslim communities to do their jobs.

Since becoming the government’s internal opposition leader, Abbott and his small coterie of supporters have persisted in using the same tactics to try to undermine Turnbull’s national security credentials. Former defence minister Kevin Andrews reversed his position on further military involvement in the Middle East in order to criticise the government, and spear carriers for Abbott demonised Muslims in a way that earned an explicit rebuke from law enforcement agencies.

Dispatching a draft copy of the defence white paper to Abbott’s close friend Greg Sheridan is more of the same (the source of the leak is unknown), but with the added thrill that comes from leaking highly sensitive documents. Sheridan made — apologies for the mixed metaphor — a straw man out of the document around a fictitious “delay” in the new generation of submarines to replace the Collins class fleet, and then invited Abbott to express his dismay about this appalling lapse. The former prime minister, channelling legendary rugby league commentator Rex Mossop, declared himself “flabbergasted”. As was made clear by both the top military brass and the Prime Minister, there was no “delay” — the new subs would be arriving at the exact time they’d been assumed to do so in recent years. Abbott’s flabber had been gasted for no clear reason.

That’s not really the point, though, just as the leaks against Julia Gillard by Kevin Rudd and his coterie during the 2010 election were not really about, say, pension increases. The real point is destabilisation — and Abbott is rapidly making Rudd look a model of irenic conformity. Last week’s defence white paper is being seen as a rare good moment for Turnbull at a time when his government is looking adrift and divided. Someone, evidently, is keen to make sure that impression doesn’t last.

Just as any achievement or period of stability by Julia Gillard invariably prompted someone in the Rudd camp to say something to set leadership speculation running again, so too are the Abbott forces keen to make sure no win by Turnbull remains untarnished. Particularly in the wake of last week’s Newspoll, confirmed by this week’s Essential Report, that the government and the opposition are neck and neck. The destabilisers smell blood.

Turnbull in turn called in the AFP, given that unauthorised use of such sensitive material is, at least notionally, a crime. In investigating Sheridan, Abbott, his circle and anyone else who may fall under suspicion, the AFP will fortunately have access to data retained under Abbott’s own data retention laws to find out who has been calling and texting whom — if the perpetrators were, say, “no techheads” and foolish enough to rely on phones to communicate, rather than encrypted or ephemeral messaging applications of the kind favoured by the Prime Minister.

But as many an observer has noted, such investigations rarely find the perpetrator, and they have an almost pro forma feel to them. That’s because they’re official leaks by political players intending to achieve a political impact. It is only unofficial leaks — the exposure of government wrongdoing, usually — that genuinely grieves governments and for which the data retention laws are intended to improve the likelihood of tracking down those responsible.

In any event, there is now in effect an open war between the government and the Abbott faction, who have again made it clear they’ll stop at nothing to undermine the Prime Minister. The contrast yesterday was remarkable: while Bill Shorten was announcing the replacement of the divisive reactionary Joe Bullock with Pat Dodson — his second indigenous recruit in two days — Turnbull was forced to rebuke his predecessor in Parliament on a major defence issue and announcing he was calling in the police.

When he set out to wreck Julia Gillard’s 2010 election campaign, Kevin Rudd merely succeeded in winging her before she offered him foreign affairs to shut down his leaking and destabilisation. Having bested Rudd’s record as holder of the shortest first-term prime ministership, will Abbott now outdo him by ensuring the defeat of the man who ousted him?

Peter Fray

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