Peter van Onselen, a university professor who also goes under the title of ‘Contributing editor’ at The Australian, told us last Monday that a group of Liberal MPs had tried to bring Malcolm Turnbull down (paywalled):
A group of conservative Liberal MPs calling themselves “the deplorables” held regular phone hook-ups after last year’s close election result to co-ordinate a strategy to attack Malcolm Turnbull on several policy fronts and to get Tony Abbott back into cabinet.
The hook-ups throughout the second half of last year were instigated by Mr Abbott and Eric Abetz via calendar invites and group texts, with the pair chairing meetings that included directives to junior MPs to use the media to pressure the Turnbull government on issues such as Safe Schools and amending section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The idea was to avoid Abbott having to push too hard on various issues, given he had publicly declared there would be “no sniping”. Others would do it for him. The group included Kevin Andrews, Michael Sukker, Rick Wilson, Andrew Hastie, Zed Seselja, Ian Goodenough, Cory Bernardi, Nicolle Flint, Jonathon Duniam, Craig Kelly, Scott Buchholz and Tony Pasin.
Problem was that most of the junior members of the group thought that the focus was on policy, and trying to press Turnbull on conservative issues. They gradually twigged that it was really about Tony, and that they were being used.
So Abbott’s outburst came at a time when his support group was in fact falling apart. This supports my impression that Abbott in effect blew himself up. Van Onselen says that some of the group told The Australian that:
- the intervention of conservative minister Mathias Cormann, slapping down Mr Abbott for his remarks on Friday, was a marker for other conservatives to distance themselves from the former leader. “It’s all about Tony, that’s what most of us have come to realise,” one said.
Paul Syvret in a piece in the Courier Mail beginning “IF THE answer is Tony Abbott, then it was a pretty dumb question to begin with” (paywalled, Google the first line) outlined Abbott’s legacy:
- In opposition he was a wrecking ball wrapped in a scare campaign; a man who marked his policy turf on what he would dismantle rather than what he would build, Australia’s carbon pricing scheme being a case in point.
In campaign mode he was a series of slogans painted on a tissue of lies: remember “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”?
In government he was dysfunctional, impulsive and politically tin-eared, his legacy being one of division and destruction.
His promises to end the “debt and deficit disaster” delivered us instead record deficits and a debt now approaching $500 billion.
Tony Abbott has defined himself by what he would dismantle rather than what he would build.
Along the way he delivered a first Budget so toxic and inequitable many of its measures remain in limbo nearly three years later.
He found the time to gut VET funding, kill Australia’s car industry and fan the flames of culture wars wherever they burned – free speech, marriage equality, progressive education and multiculturalism.
It is clear that Abbott is going to keep speaking his mind, as Peta Credlin says, speaking out on policy as a “custodian” of the party’s right-wing base. However, if there was ever any hope of a second coming for him, it has now evaporated.
It is also clear that Turnbull can’t blame Abbott for the parlous state the party is in. When Turnbull took over in September 2015 the LNP surged in the two-party preferred vote from 46-54 to 53-47. Turnbull looked unbeatable. The fact is, as I pointed out in Poll stuff: the redhead on the surge the LNPs primary vote has lost 10 points since that time, while One Nation, polling only 1.3% in the House of Reps in the last election is now up at around 9-10%.
There is a tendency in the media to say that both major parties are bleeding to One Nation. This may be so, but that post also showed that Labor’s primary vote has picked up since Turnbull took over, and since last October looks remarkably stable while ON has surged. Similarly the Greens’ vote looks stable.
Tim Colebatch in The Saturday Paper has nailed the real problem. The Nationals made Turnbull an offer he couldn’t refuse by insisting on Turnbull continuing with Abbott’s policies. He should have refused, but he didn’t. The right continues to dominate the policy agenda, and no-one in the government will criticise One Nation because they depend on ON to get their policies through the senate.
- The Coalition today seems to be increasingly dominated by … people focused on securing conservative dominance of the party, even if it ends the party’s dominance of politics. Malcolm Turnbull’s star still shone just brightly enough to win them the 2016 election; it has gone out now. If they want to win the next election, they have to step back, and let it shine again. They have to let Turnbull be Turnbull.
If the Nationals are frightened of One Nation, then the Coalition needs to treat it like the opponent it is, exposing its idiocies, while tackling the problems that are generating its support. But the votes the Coalition needs to win back to get over 50 per cent of the vote are not to its right but in the middle, and that is the direction it needs to move in, and govern from.
Colebatch says that only one person can take the lead in doing that – John McEwen’s heir, Barnaby Joyce. He needs to match McEwen’s foresight, courage, and sense of responsibility.
Personally I don’t think Barnaby has it in him, but unless he changes tack no-one else will want Turnbull’s job either. Not this side of the next election.
Bernard Keane at Crikey thinks we deserve better as Coalition backbenchers return to their electorates to hear what voters think about penalty rates and economic growth that’s not delivering wage rises:
- Something has to give. A government can’t remain this cripplingly dysfunctional for an extended period.
But one way or another we stagger on.