There’s now open warfare between Tony Abbott and the government in response to Abbott’s latest attack on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his attempt to set out a new path (or, more accurately, the same old path) to the right for the Liberal Party.

Let’s skip the pro forma footnote that Abbott is an egregious hypocrite for urging a cut in spending when he dramatically increased spending as prime minister and get straight to it. This is Turnbull’s response: Abbott “knows exactly what he’s doing and so do his colleagues”.We are acting and we’re getting things done. We’re getting things done that we couldn’t or wouldn’t or didn’t get done in the last Parliament.”

“I’m not going to be provoked,” Turnbull added, having been provoked almightily.

Julie Bishop bit back at Abbott’s sniping at her, insisting: “I have been elected by the party as the deputy leader. I have been elected directly by the party room, and I owe my loyalty to the party room, and I continue to be elected and that’s the way it is, so I’m not sure what other matters anyone could be referring to.”

Then there’s Christopher Pyne — doubtless particularly annoyed by Abbott’s entirely justified lament that the submarine purchasing decision was made to protect South Australian jobs — who criticised Abbott’s immigration and non-spending proposals.

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

And Mathias Cormann, the most aggressive of all: “Nothing good that comes from an interview like that. It was deliberately destructive, it was completely unhelpful, it was not designed to be helpful. It was quite self-indulgent and I think it is very sad that Tony Abbott has chosen to go down this path … He’s not helping our cause, he’s not helping our country, he’s not helping himself. Much of what he says is either wrong or inconsistent with what he did when he was prime minister.”

Cormann hit the nail on the head — Abbott’s post-prime ministerial career as sniper has entirely been founded on the “principle” of “do as I say, not as I did when I actually was prime minister and could do the things I say we should do”.

All it needs now is a Wayne Swan-style extended savaging of Abbott to look like Kevin Rudd’s failed 2012 challenge.

[Two years after Turnbull first made his move, can Abbott pull off a Rudd?]

Naturally all this will be seen through the prism of Turnbull versus Abbott. But Abbott is no longer the heir apparent — or challenger apparent — for many in the right. The mantle has fallen on the gormless shoulders of Peter Dutton, now viewed by many as the best replacement for Turnbull if and when continued poor polling results in his knifing later this year. Dutton has been railing at Muslims and trying to sound tough on immigration in an effort to cultivate a Trumpesque persona, but it’s not so much that posturing that has driven his rise as Abbott’s ongoing alienation of his colleagues. His constant destabilisation has turned off many MPs who otherwise might have backed Abbott off the former leader.

In that context, Abbott’s interview and “manifesto” (which, characteristically for Abbott, is entirely about stopping things, not anything positive, because negativity is his strength) are less a direct challenge to Turnbull than a cri de coeur to his former followers who have shifted to Dutton to look again at the man they once loyally backed. Forget Dutton, Abbott is saying — I’m the real thing when it comes to right-wing populism.

The problem for Abbott, however, is that this is just more of the same destabilisation and undermining of the government that he’s been doing for many months, and it will likely simply drive whatever is left of his support within the party away. And it’s now a Melbourne Cup field to win the right-wing, anti-immigration populist race: Abbott, Dutton and Cory Bernardi are all competing in the Trump Stakes, but they’re up against a proven champ in Pauline Hanson, the original and best when it comes to hating immigrants and Muslims.

So Abbott comes out of this damaged still further; it hasn’t helped Turnbull either, except to the extent that it further weakens his rival. The big winner is Peter Dutton, who ever more clearly emerges as the right’s preferred replacement when the time comes.

Peter Fray

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