Judging by his latest interventions, Tony Abbott’s campaign to drive Malcolm Turnbull from the Liberal leadership began in earnest at the end of last week.
Let’s call this stage of the campaign “Operation Goldfish”, because it seemingly operates on the assumption that voters have no memory of what occurred before Abbott was shafted in September 2015.
In a strategically placed tabloid column over the Easter weekend, the vengeful backbencher said his recent taxpayer-funded “charity” ride was a “listening tour”, during which he took the pulse of the nation’s politically disenchanted populace.
Claiming people were frustrated with “governments that don’t deliver” and “oppositions that oppose just to score political points”, Abbott warned Bill Shorten would win the next federal election if the government didn’t “do its job better”.
He also took what could only be a direct shot at Turnbull, claiming “people are sick of politicians who are more talk than action and are especially sick of politicians who change their policies to suit their political convenience”.
Yes, the man’s front is breathtaking. Tony Abbott almost single-handedly created the platform of voter distrust and disenchantment that has been built upon by political leaders who’ve followed.
It would be a mistake to think this is a lack of self-awareness on Abbott’s part. Just as he has done in the past — most memorably with the sustained “carbon tax” lie — Abbott appears prepared to twist any fact to suit his purposes.
Which former opposition leader had one of the lowest net approval ratings at -36%? Tony Abbott. Why? Because he ran (or perhaps deployed) a campaign of enduring negativity against the Rudd and Gillard governments.
It’s not that long ago, but Abbott assumes voters have forgotten how he lied to us about the carbon tax, saturated our news feeds with easily digestible but policy-lite soundbites, and adopted a hyper-masculine combat style that was shamefully mimicked by supporters and some elements of the media.
But no, according to Abbott, voters are unhappy because of Prime Minister Turnbull.
Turnbull’s net approval rating is currently hovering around -30%, but is it the lowest? Well no, Prime Minister Abbott has the honour of holding the second-lowest net approval rating at -44% (after Julia Gillard at -45).
Why? Because Abbott not only broke almost every promise he’d made to voters during his time in opposition but vehemently denied he’d done so. Then he compacted the lie with a budget that hit the poor and the needy, demonised Muslims to embellish his nationalistic war on terror, and stymied his own legislation by picking fights with the Senate.
But hey, according to Abbott voters are unhappy and isn’t Malcolm terrible?
So what is Abbott’s endgame, other than causing grief for Turnbull?
One of the former PM’s friends and conservative commentator Cate McGregor wrote after Abbott’s column was published that he was “now even angrier at his removal by Malcolm Turnbull in September 2015 than he was at the time of the coup.”
“Time has not healed his wounds,” noted McGregor. “Rather Abbott’s desire for revenge has deepened and his contempt for Turnbull has festered.”
Other commentators have observed that Abbott seems to have explicitly ruled out running again for the top job. Indeed, Abbott wrote in the Easter column that “the best way to keep Shorten out is not to sack an elected prime minister yet again but to ensure that the government does its job better”.
According to the former PM, “the government” can up its game by adopting his latest five-point plan.
But it always pays to consider what Tony Abbott does not say. Abbott and his media surrogates are building momentum for Turnbull — not to be sacked — but to step aside towards the end of the year “in the interests of the party”. We can expect the number of bad Newspolls to be invoked fortnightly until then.
If this was to have any chance of happening, it would require Turnbull being tapped on the shoulder by the “young” conservatives who have until now stood with him.
These MPs, rather than the Liberal Party’s base, are Tony Abbott’s real intended audience.
For this Abbott gambit to work, “Operation Goldfish” will have to apply equally to the Young Turk conservatives. Abbott will be hoping they’ve forgotten he overlooked them to keep dead wood like Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz in cabinet.