31 January 2016
by Paul Bongiorno

Tony Abbott leading the conservative fight from the backbench

No matter what oppositions think, elections are all about governments. When incumbents run out of puff or present as a disunited circus more focused on themselves than the nation’s welfare, they get the shove. Just ask John Howard, or Kevin Rudd.

When parliament resumes next week, appearances will be that Malcolm Turnbull and his government are riding high. But appearances can be deceptive and short-lived. The biggest threat to the Coalition’s success in the election due this year isn’t the Labor opposition: it is the internal dynamics of the Coalition itself.

Nothing epitomises this more than the member for Warringah, Tony Abbott. On Tuesday when parliament resumes there he will be again adorning the backbench, no longer flanked by his old treasurer. Joe Hockey has moved on to greener pastures. Abbott has toyed with the idea of doing something else with his life. His nemesis, Turnbull, even dangled the carrot of the coveted post of representing the nation at the Court of St James’s in London. Abbott rejected it. Waging political war is more to his liking than the niceties of diplomacy.

In announcing his decision to recontest his seat he put the choice in the most banal of terms. He appealed to his branch members’ parochial self-interest by promising to work for better transport links for the area. He needs their votes in the preselection and would be aware of a sentiment picked up by an Australia Institute poll that found most of the locals think he should quit.

There was no pledge to work tirelessly for the return of the Turnbull government. Former Liberal Party federal president Shane Stone thinks he should make one soon. It was left to Paul Kelly in The Australian to spell out what Abbott meant by acceding to the urging of trusted colleagues “to continue to serve the country as a member of parliament”. His intention is to operate as the banner carrier for the conservative wing of the Liberal Party on a range of issues at home and internationally, according to Kelly. It gets scarier for Turnbull, as Abbott sees his role as a champion for cultural conservatism and the “true conscience of the party” on these values. What we have here is a declaration of war rather than peace and co-operation. Instead of merely being a lightning rod for internal dissent, Abbott intends to lead it in public as well. He knows he won’t be returning to the ministry either before the election or, if Turnbull wins, after it.

Not all Liberal MPs are thrilled. The capacity of Abbott and his acolytes to not only destabilise but to present the government as bitterly divided makes them angry. One marginal seat-holder says even branch members who weren’t happy with the dumping of Abbott do not appreciate his sniping from the sidelines. The former prime minister and his mate former defence minister Kevin Andrews’ undermining of Turnbull’s national security credentials while the incumbent PM was in Washington was particularly infuriating.

But what has gobsmacked others is the former prime minister lending his prestige to an American homophobic freedom group as guest speaker this weekend in New York. Sure, he’s free to do and say what he likes, but does he endorse the Alliance Defending Freedom’s agenda to discriminate against homosexuals, wind back rights belatedly accorded them and to recriminalise consensual gay sex?

The alliance is apparently impressed by Abbott’s manoeuvres to deny Australian gays the right to civil marriage. They see him as a champion of the family as it is narrowly defined by them. Far from being defenders of freedom, they are the antithesis of the concept as it is understood in contemporary, secular, pluralist societies such as Australia.

Turnbull was quite statesmanlike when he told Network Ten’s The Project he respected Abbott’s right to address the group, “just as they would respect my right to disagree with them”. The largesse was not returned. The very next day one of Abbott’s staunchest allies, dumped Liberal senate leader Eric Abetz, torpedoed whatever shred of credibility the plebiscite on marriage equality had. He told Guardian Australia that even if the plebiscite backed same-sex marriage, he would not vote for it. Fellow conservative Cory Bernardi immediately echoed the sentiments. They are not alone: by one MP’s estimate, at least 30 in the current party room would never vote to support same-sex marriage. When Turnbull was privately warned this would always be the case last year, he angrily rejected the possibility. He repeated his belief in parliament: “If you imagine that any government, this government or any government, would spend over $150 million consulting every Australian on an issue of this kind and then ignore their decision, then they are really not living in the real world.”

The reality for the conservative proponents of the plebiscite is their world ended when Tony Abbott was shown the door. Just as the former prime minister was completely disingenuous in his promise of a conscience vote after the 2013 election, the nationwide vote was nothing more than a ploy to defeat the gay marriage push. One Turnbull insider says it was always the conservatives’ intention to either hold off on the plebiscite or trick up the question. Labor’s Mark Dreyfus says whatever the case, it is now clear the plebiscite, estimated by the Australian Electoral Commission to cost close to $160 million, is pointless. He says the prime minister is captive of the hard-right wing of his party and refuses to take a stand for something he actually believes in.

The republic is a similar issue for Turnbull. Probably not since Turnbull himself led the campaign for an Australian head of state in the ’90s has the issue had a more dedicated or effective proponent than journalist and author Peter FitzSimons. He organised on the eve of Australia Day a declaration from the country’s premiers and chief ministers endorsing an Australian head of state. Only one, Western Australia’s Colin Barnett, didn’t sign up. He supports the idea, too, but believes the time is not right. He says there should be 25 years between referendums, which would put the next vote in 2024. Not all that far away from FitzSimons’ 2020 goal.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten seized on the initiative, saying never before in Australia’s history have we had this important consensus of our national political leadership. He offered bipartisanship on a timetable and on a process. Turnbull, he said, should not be spooked by the failure of the 1999 vote. “Malcolm Turnbull needs to shed the ghosts of the past generation and indeed Tony Abbott and the right wing of the Liberal party,” said Shorten.

Other Labor heavyweights weighed in accusing the prime minister of selling out his beliefs. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph took up the theme, throwing Turnbull’s words after the 1999 defeat back at him, accusing him of “breaking the hearts of the nation’s republicans”.

For his part, Turnbull insists he is as passionate as ever about the cause. He believes the momentum has to come from the people and the next opportunity will be when Queen Elizabeth’s reign ends. The 89-year-old monarch does appear to be in extraordinary health, but in 10 years’ time she will be close to 100. Surely beginning the conversation now is only prudent. And who can deny it was Paul Keating’s leadership on the issue as prime minister that gave Turnbull’s civilian push the weight it needed to be put to the people. The pity is that by the time of the referendum vote, management of the issue was in the hands of its enemies rather than its friends.

Former New South Wales premier Bob Carr is of the view that waiting for the Queen’s death could backfire on republicans as it would revive intense focus on the monarchy and by then any residual antipathy towards Prince Charles over his treatment of Diana, Princess of Wales, would have completely dissipated, if it hasn’t already. Besides, Australia’s constitutional arrangements are all about our sovereignty and not about the functionality or otherwise of the British royal family.

Turnbull’s plea that there are more urgent matters to be dealt with wittingly or otherwise harms rather than helps the republican cause. Surely a better argument put by Labor’s Anthony Albanese is that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Asserting Australia’s completely independent status as a nation is no trifling matter.

One of the more urgent matters cabinet dealt with last Thursday was tax reform. It ditched the long-promised white paper on the issue. The plan now is to unveil what is on the table and what is off it by March. The election year debate will then begin in earnest. A 15 per cent GST, extended to fresh food but not health and education, is firming as a key part of the plan. That has backbenchers worried.

It will certainly test the government’s cohesion and whatever chance Malcolm Turnbull will have to show in the next term that he really is committed to marriage equality, serious climate change action and a republic.