Tony Abbott’s desperate effort to channel John Howard in his opposition to the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) today demonstrates just how desperate the former PM is in the face of party room indifference to his hysteria. His declaration “we will control what happens in this country and the circumstances under which it happens,” didn’t even have the cut-though ring of Howard’s original line, and was spoken on the eve of a party room victory for the Prime Minister.

Across the course of 2018, Abbott has progressively alienated colleagues with his opportunism and undermining, frustrating MPs with genuine gripes about policy by turning any discussion into a de facto leadership issue. Nor has it passed unnoticed that on literally every single issue on which he has sought to make trouble for Turnbull, he has stridently advocated doing exactly the opposite of what he himself did when prime minister. That has culminated in his absurd argument that he was somehow tricked into signing up to the Paris agreement and that his doing so wasn’t anything beyond a vague aspiration anyway. It’s all, apparently, a giant conspiracy — between bureaucrats here and overseas, disloyal colleagues and big business, which is calling for support for the NEG.

Conspiracy theorist, hypocrite, troublemaker, egotist — that’s all Abbott offers his party, and that’s become evident even to once close supporters.

Today is the final unveiling. The man who was, if nothing else, the deadliest negative politician in the country, who destroyed an opposition leader and then two prime ministers (one of them twice!) with his ruthless campaigning, can no longer work the old tricks of lies, half-truths, over-the-top rhetoric and cut-through talking points even with men (and a tiny number of women) of like mind. He wanted a showdown with Turnbull. The prime minister gave him one and will come out with an easy win.

The NEG is no policy. It will achieve nothing except further delay Australia’s inevitable transition to a decarbonised economy and make it even more expensive. It is purely a political tactic. But it will deliver victory for Turnbull against Abbott, and not just a temporary one, until the next issue crops up. Abbott has revealed how devoid of support he is among his own colleagues on his signature issue. He is now an empty threat, a man as hollow of capacity to damage his leader as he is hollow of policy beyond stunts and captain’s picks of epic misjudgment. Whatever the policy futility of the NEG, it has delivered Turnbull a hard-earned political win.

Peter Fray

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