If Malcolm Turnbull is tempted to think the smart play would be to accept Tony Abbott’s offer to rein in his commentary on public affairs in exchange for a cabinet spot, there are some good reasons to reject the idea.

Admittedly, Abbott would be a superior indigenous affairs minister to the hapless Nigel “a brief is not a briefing” Scullion — indeed, Abbott has shown more interest in and commitment to indigenous affairs than any other non-indigenous MP or senator, whatever ideological baggage he may carry. And he would be a strong counterweight to other elements of the far-Right, such as the IPA, Andrew Bolt or Cory Bernardi, who vocally oppose indigenous constitutional recognition.

But other factors undermine the idea, fairly fundamentally:

It’s blackmail

The Abbott position, as relayed by Cate McGregor, is that cabinet solidarity will prevent him from free-ranging on public affairs, with every comment viewed through the prism of the Turnbull-Abbott tension. Of course, nothing prevents Abbott from taking a vow of silence on matters likely to inflame internal tensions right now. Who forced Abbott to tweet about, and then go on 7.30 to discuss, gun laws? So his argument is a not-so-veiled threat to Turnbull.

It will further encourage the far right

Turnbull already has enough difficulty being portrayed as captive to the extremists within his party. And including Abbott in cabinet won’t placate the far-right within his own ranks — it will encourage them. That’s been the lesson of giving in to extremists like George Christensen: they see any compromise in their direction by Turnbull (correctly) as a display of weakness, and a signal to demand yet more.

Abbott’s only political skill or interest is fighting

This is the core problem with Abbott as a politician, and along with his incompetence was perhaps the key reason he was shafted by his own party so rapidly: he is only interested in political combat, not leadership. And that truculence has been on vivid display over the last 13 months: picking fights with his successor, walking into a meeting on superannuation with Scott Morrison to start a brawl, lashing out at any perceived taint to his legacy. No wonder he likes Donald Trump despite the latter holding policy positions anathema to Abbott when prime minister — he loves Trump’s pugilistic approach to politics, no matter how self-defeating it proves to be. And indigenous affairs is pretty much the last place you’d want such an aggressive political personality.

Abbott was a poor minister under Howard

As cabinet ministers from the period will relate, Abbott was poorly regarded by his colleagues under John Howard, especially on economic issues. There’s a reason he was in Health for so long — the politically sensitive Health portfolio is run as much by the PMO as by the relevant minister’s office, and under Howard, much day-to-day policy decision-making on health issues came from the PMO, not Abbott’s office. Turnbull already has enough poor ministers without adding to the list.

Beware the example of Rudd

Julia Gillard was blackmailed by Kevin Rudd into giving him a cabinet position. Of course, that didn’t stop the leaking, undermining and white-anting of Gillard by Rudd and his forces. And, as it would do with Turnbull and Abbott, it magnified, rather than curbed, the problem of their relationship: everything Rudd said was still seen through the prism of the leadership, only this time everything he said was as a cabinet minister.

Turnbull has enough problems as things stand. Indulging Abbott looks like an easy option, but would only exacerbate them.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW