If there was universal agreement about Tony Abbott’s political talent, it was in relation to his genius for negative campaigning. Abbott is a man implacably opposed to most progressive policies, and it has long been his forte to lead negative campaigns against them, to thwart them or undermine them. He has a genius for fomenting doubt, for finding the pithy phrase to encapsulate scepticism, for fabricating the glib untruth to grab a headline. Incapable of offering positive leadership he might have been, but no one ever doubted Tony Abbott’s capacity for negative campaigning.
Abbott was a prominent No campaigner in the postal plebiscite, even to the extent of upsetting his own sister by revealing family confidences. He was a key figure in the argument that the issue was virtually nothing to do with marriage equality and instead related to free speech, political correctness and freedom of religion. He deployed his full arsenal of obfuscation, deception, inconsistency and misdirection, which had worked brilliantly during the republic referendum and against the Gillard government’s carbon price. Only, this time, it didn’t work. The No campaign failed to significantly shift the dial on public sentiment and was thumped. Abbott’s own electorate voted overwhelmingly yes. Even before the outcome was known, homophobes were preparing a fallback position of trying to delay and stymie marriage equality legislation after losing.
In his opposition to marriage equality, Abbott advocated neither a liberal position, nor a conservative position. Conservatives value institutions such as marriage, rightly or wrongly, as contributing to stability and the benefit of society. They are reluctant to embrace change but do so if the case is made it will benefit society. Liberals value the rights of individuals over the ability of governments to regulate their behaviour when it affects no one but consenting adults and pertains to personal matters. Abbott is now in the position of rejecting change supported by voters, a change that would provide greater freedom for individuals, and supporting the kind of bizarre government interventions proposed by Senator James Paterson and others, intended to protect those who would actively discriminate against LGBTI people.
Without a coherent ideological framework beyond reflexive oppositionism to anything he deems progressive or associated with his internal and external opponents, without even his brilliant capacity to successfully undermine progressive achievements, what is the point of Tony Abbott in public life? What does he add to it? His own personal goal, we know, is to destroy the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull. Perhaps that’s sufficient to make him get out of bed every morning. But what benefit does he offer the parliament, his party, or his voters? By the end of the plebiscite campaign, Abbott had been banished from the hustings and went off to the United States to address a homophobic hate group that promotes the recriminalisation of homosexuality — the ultimate rejection of any belief in either conservatism or liberalism.
Abbott’s future lies outside parliament, not within it. He offers nothing but division and incoherent obstructionism, powered by nothing more than his rage at Malcolm Turnbull and his rage at how 21st-century Australia isn’t the 1960s Australia he arrived in as a child. Without his legendary powers of negative campaigning, he isn’t even of use to the right of his own party.