Tony Abbott

This time only two years ago progressive poster boy Malcolm Turnbull was weighing up a challenge against prime minister Tony Abbott, who’d had a horror start to the year.

The communications minister at the time had been preparing the ground with a number of subversive media appearances and speeches that set him up as the Coalition government’s saviour, but he was yet to get the numbers in the Liberal party room that would make him PM.

Not even Abbott’s indulgent bestowing of an Australia Day award on the Queen’s consort was enough to push reluctant Liberal MPs over the line. However, that event was the last straw for many Australian voters, demonstrated through the opinion polls, and it was only a matter of time before Liberal MPs accepted that something had to be done.

None of this is lost on the small but vocal group of Abbott enablers who, seemingly like the man himself, are intent on recreating this scenario in 2017.

It was the beginning of the end for Abbott in February 2015 when the first Newspoll of the year, as well as the parliamentary session, showed Bill Shorten’s Labor opposition had pushed further ahead of the Coalition government on primary votes (from 39-38 to 41-35) as well as two-party preferred (from 54-46 to 57-43).

Shorten’s net satisfaction rating was +2 (the last time in positive territory) while Abbott’s had crashed to -44 over the summer break, and Shorten had extended his lead as preferred PM from seven percentage points (44-36) to 18 (48-30).

After a weekend of ultra-hyped media speculation, including breathless reports from journalists camped outside the gates of Turnbull’s home, impatient Liberal backbenchers tried to force Turnbull’s hand by calling for a leadership vote. But the manoeuvre failed when Turnbull refused to take the bait, leaving a chastened Abbott to promise to change and to rein in his chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

Of course he didn’t, and the rest is history.

Keen observers of federal politics would have noted the almost perfect symmetry of the Rudd-Gillard death match, with Kevin Rudd knocking off his successor almost exactly three years after she had challenged him.

[Whisper it softly: is this government any better than Abbott’s?]

Another happy coincidence is on offer this week with the first Liberal party room meeting of the year, and, just as there was with Abbott in 2015, a strong likelihood that the PM will be called on to explain how he had managed to balls things up before Parliament had even commenced.

Today’s Newspoll also shows a deterioration in the Coalition’s position over the summer break, potentially placing the PM in dangerous territory. The main difference between this time and February 2015 is that Labor’s primary vote is not growing as the Coalition’s falls, and, for all his flaws, Turnbull is still preferred over Shorten as prime minister — in fact, the gap between the two men has grown from nine percentage points to 12.

This explains the veritable barrage of curveballs, slights and criticisms that have flown from the Abbott camp in Turnbull’s direction over the Christmas break and early weeks of 2017.

Alongside calls from Abbott enablers like Catherine McGregor and Rowan Dean for their man to be returned to cabinet, there’s been Abbott’s unhelpful call — apropos of nothing — for Australia to join any move by the Trump administration to move its embassy to Jerusalem, his demand for Turnbull to pursue reforms to taxation and climate action policy that he had eschewed, and pointed interventions on social media such as the complaint that the search for MH370 had been called off and the protest that “traditional cabinet processes” had operated at all times under his government (despite Turnbull implying otherwise).

These actions are not just designed to make trouble for Turnbull. By opening up as many contentious political issues as possible and suggesting each one is a test of Turnbull’s leadership, the Abbot camp aims to chip away at Turnbull’s annoyingly persistent leadership credibility.

[Five reasons Tony Abbott should stay on the backbench]

Today’s Newspoll suggests those cunning plans have failed so far, even as Turnbull is faced with a significant drop in the Coalition’s primary vote over summer. This drop can be attributed, at least in part, to Abbott’s destabilisation, which was met with similar voter disapproval during the Rudd-Gillard wars.

Abbott appears to be working off the theory that the Liberals will turn to him in desperation if he can pull the party’s primary vote down far enough. But if this is the plan, as conservative columnist Miranda Devine observed during the break, this makes Tony Abbott more deluded than the zealots agitating for his return.

“Conservatives control the partyroom, and they have no appetite for change,” wrote Devine. “They do not want Abbott back. The people who want Abbott back in the Lodge are outside government, the delcons, or delusional conservatives who believe Abbott was a conservative hero who will be back on his throne soon.”

Noting that conservative MPs are under no illusions about who is to blame for the predicament the party finds itself in, Devine exposes Abbott’s campaign for the twisted fantasy that it is, brutally remarking: “In a head to head contest against Turnbull, Abbott cannot win. He does not have the support of his colleagues.”

Peter Fray

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