What people have forgotten about the circumstances of Labor’s removal of Kevin Rudd in 2010 was that, initially, it was very successful: while Labor still led Tony Abbott’s opposition when Rudd was knifed, under Julia Gillard Labor entered the election a few weeks later with a much stronger poll lead — by one poll, 55-45 in two-party preferred terms. For the first week of the campaign, Labor looked headed for an easy victory. But Rudd soon fixed that, with an extraordinary act of leaking.

That would set the pattern for the next three years: Gillard managed to cling on to power despite Rudd’s treachery, but any time she looked like developing some momentum, he or his supporters, with the help of compliant journalists, would hurl a bomb. The process became like clockwork.

Tony Abbott has adopted a very different approach in the wake of his ouster. There’s been little leaking, no treachery, no behind-the-scenes undermining of his conqueror. His acts of dissent have been in public, on policy issues. He’s been disingenuous, of course — the whole “staying in politics to represent my electorate” thing — but that’s politics. But Abbott has been altogether cleverer than Rudd, because it’s become clear that, while Turnbull enjoyed a Gillardesque honeymoon in the immediate aftermath of knifing of Abbott, it has been Turnbull who has inflicted the greatest damage on the Turnbull government. Abbott has only had to sit back and wait patiently while his successor has lurched from stuff-up to stuff-up. The fact that, courtesy of his own inexperience and subtle undermining from Turnbull, Scott Morrison has vanished from leadership calculations is an unexpected bonus for Abbott.

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Now, with virtually no help from Abbott, Turnbull is in almost the exact position Julia Gillard was in, give or take a couple of seats: he’s just a division away from disaster in the House of Reps and he faces a difficult Senate that will require all his negotiating skills. At least Gillard didn’t call a double dissolution election and change the Senate voting system with the express goal of removing obstacles in the Senate.

On Friday in Adelaide, Abbott used a speech to the right-wing Samuel Griffith Society to ramp up his campaign of public dissent and burnish his own credentials, albeit delivered with the air of a penitent admitting his failings.

What caught media attention was his statement that he should have supported the Gillard government’s “Malaysia Solution”, as “it would have been a step back from the hyper-partisanship that now poisons our public life”, and his returned enthusiasm for amending section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act just as right-wingers in the Senate are pushing the subject once more.

It’s a little hard to pin down Abbott on the subject of hyperpartisanship, despite the fact that his time as leader of his party, in both opposition and government, was defined by it. He appears to wants to take credit for the Gillard government’s success in passing so much legislation compared to his own government’s legislative failures, as if in opposition he was waving through Labor bills rather than hyping each one as a threat to the nation. But he then — in what is the clearest poke at Turnbull — praised Bill Shorten for supporting him on national security. “I could invariably count on Bill Shorten’s support on national security issues,” Abbott said. “On deploying the armed forces or strengthening anti-terror laws, there were cabinet ministers harder-to-persuade than the Leader of the Opposition!” (the exclamation marks are Abbott’s). And Abbott — the man who stood in front of that “Bob Brown’s Bitch” sign — in all seriousness laments “the loss of civility” in public life.

But if Abbott now improbably longs for a kinder, gentler polity, he’s still keen to fight on in the culture wars:

“A few weeks back, I addressed my old school and spoke briefly about the debt that the modern world owed to Christianity: how democracy rested on an appreciation of the innate dignity of every person; and justice on the imperative to treat others as you’d have them treat you; or to love your neighbour as you love yourself. The subsequent questions, I have to say, focussed on the alleged cruelty of the Abbott government’s border protection policies, the inadequacy of its climate change policies; and the insensitivity of its approach to same sex marriage! And why wouldn’t these be students’ concerns, given teachers’ preoccupations with multiculturalism, reconciliation and global warming? At least the Safe Schools programme isn’t yet mandatory at Catholic schools in NSW.”

“Alleged cruelty”. Oh and that’s the Safe Schools program Abbott himself funded, by the way. As has often been the case with Abbott’s policy dissents since he was dumped, he offers a case of “do as I say, not as I did when I ran the country.”

The speech — which concludes with “I won’t try to persuade you that there’s never been a better time to be an Australian” — shows Abbott’s signalling to colleagues and the right-wing commentariat what another Abbott prime ministership would be like: perhaps less aggressively focused on picking partisan fights wherever possible, but essentially the same as the last one. Abbott still wants to fight the culture wars, still wants to “upset thin-skinned activists”, still wants to withdraw the Commonwealth from areas like education (alas, Tony, you don’t get to complain about state curricula having too much climate change in it if you take the Commonwealth out of education), and still wants to couch everything in the name of security. The current parliament will need to be sensible on “economic security” like the previous one was sensible on national security, he urged. Remember, after all, this was the man who as prime minister responded to a question about the economy by talking about how he’d stopped the boats.

The Abbott shingle has been hung out. Colleagues know what they’ll get if they return to him: more of what he provided when he was prime minister. All he has to do is wait for the Turnbull government to stumble yet further into oblivion.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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