Warringah Tony Abbott zali steggall
Warringah candidates Tony Abbott and Zali Steggall (Image: AAP/Peter Rae/Crikey)

In one way, calling Tony Abbott the most influential politician of the past 10 years seems a laughable claim. His concrete policy legacy is minuscule; after he was elected as prime minister in 2013 he largely maintained the social infrastructure put in place by the previous Labor government, although he sent mixed messages on and ultimately wounded much of it. More or less everything he tried to actually change famously collapsed, or was scrapped after he was ousted as leader in 2015.

Should he be voted out come May 18, Abbott will in some ways leave behind nothing. But in others, his legacy will outstrip that of all the political corpses — Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull — he leaves in his wake.

Since Abbott scraped to the Liberal Party leadership by a single vote a decade ago, there is no one who has dictated how we do public discourse in this country in the same way. His genius for destruction, for a negative campaign, for pure opposition, has forever shifted the territory on which politicians discuss issues; it’s forever shifted how we deal with policy difference. His background as a boxer became too easy an analogy. As Bernard Keane noted in these pages, Abbott is only energised by opposition — opposing an Australian republic, or marriage equality, or a carbon tax or action on climate change. 

Abbott weaponised saying the quiet part out loud. Misleading and divisive rhetoric was always an element of Australian politics, but what was largely subtext under John Howard was supercharged in Abbott’s hands; the loaded aside, the content-free provocation. It cut through, it worked, and now look. To pick just one recent example: Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s gratuitous, personal comment about Labor rival Ali France’s disability is pure Abbott.

But this legacy is in content as well as tone. Look to the continued use of refugees as a political dartboard — inherited from Howard, and taken by Abbott to a new feverish pitch after 2009. Look at the gash down the Liberal Party’s centre where a climate change policy ought to be. Look to the “threats to Western civilisation” stuff, his belief that left-wing politics at universities, political correctness, or sexual difference of any kind imperils the family unit and thus the future of the country. Cribbed from his mentor B.A. Santamaria, it seemed at one point so quaint, so grandiose, and so hopelessly dated. It’s now a standard line parroted by the vast majority of Australia’s conservative media. 

Most politicians have their defenders and their detractors — but people love Abbott, and people loathe Abbott. This is particularly noteworthy during an election where Australians are choosing between two potential prime minsters for whom they feel almost nothing. The member for Warringah has rarely shown great interest in the details of policy; cast against technocrats and policy wonks like Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, he’s a big ideas man, and therein lies his appeal and repellence. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, it’s been strange seeing the last great defender of the West, the conservative thought leader, wandering around Warringah marveling at teensy libraries, promising to sort out the beach toilets, whinging about public transport

Why the shift from culture warrior to overzealous councilman? Because he’s in real trouble this time. For 25 years he’s held the seat with relative comfort. Now this bluest of blue ribbon Liberal safe seats (Labor hasn’t had a look in in the 97-year history of Warringah) has turned marginal, in a large part thanks to the chaos that Abbott himself brought about.

Abbott is only in so much trouble because he has succeeded in the thing he has been chasing since September 2015: destroying the leader of his own party, his purest act of opposition. For one thing, the chaos around leadership hobbled any chance at coherence of messaging or progress on policy for his party, and put them in such a state that formerly safe seats are up for grabs.

But most of all, the election of Kerryn Phelps that followed Turnbull’s resignation solidified the realisation that an independent candidate with a good local profile, a relatively conservative economic policy and more progressive social views might be able to outflank the Liberals in wealthy, disillusioned seats like Wentworth. So too Warringah? Abbott has never been a particularly popular candidate, inside his party or outside of it. No one would be surprised that GetUp’s polling doesn’t favour him, but it wasn’t their campaign that leaked that “diabolical” internal polling that also showed him losing the seat. Nor was it GetUp who orchestrated Abbott’s preselection vote, where 30 local members voted for an empty chair rather than him. 

All of this would be bad enough, without Zali Steggall to contend with. In many ways, the Olympian-turned-lawyer from an illustrious Manly family is Abbott’s worst nightmare. She calls herself a fiscal conservative, and being an Olympian gives the same impression of the physical discipline and vigour as Abbott. This means she fulfills the things that people actually liked about Abbott, and as a woman who believes in climate change she points to two of his most glaring weaknesses.

Indeed, Abbott calling Steggall a puppet of GetUp/Labor/the Greens is perhaps an acknowledgement he can no longer use gender the way he did against Julia Gillard. Steggall has performed strongly so far, and one suspects Captain GetUp won’t change that. 

The whole election, in many ways, will turn on the influence of independents, the state of modern conservatism and whether the Liberal Party can overcome the calamity and chaos of their time in government. Warringah will be a microcosm of all those issues. Beyond that, Abbott is the last of the post-Howard cult-of-personality PMs left in parliament, and a leader of a group who would rather destroy their party than not completely control it. Come May 18, there is a real chance both these groups will be repudiated, and the process of scrubbing the last vestiges of Abbott’s legacy from public life will begin.

But people have been writing Abbott off since he mounted that leadership challenge in 2009. If he does hold on, he will quite possibly spend the rest of his career in opposition. But, of course, that’s where he’s always been. 

Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here, and send any story tips through to [email protected].