02 March 2016
by Fleur Anderson

A battle of aggressive complimenting

Tony Abbott could be talking to Malcolm Turnbull about tax reform or singing happy birthday to him in a pair of red budgie smugglers, and there will be a level of social awkwardness.

An outbreak of aggressive compliments between the former prime minister and the current one in the joint party room on Tuesday had backbenchers and ministers squirming in their seats as the awkwardness level hit extreme..

The match between Tony "People Skills" Abbott and Malcolm "Communication Skills" Turnbull was variously described as "gracious", "a love-in", "an almost nauseating exchange of compliments" and – more bluntly – a "cockfight".

Now a genuine compliment is a rare and beautiful thing to behold. A "jellyfish" – a backhanded insult inflicted painlessly only to burn hours later – is an altogether different beast and sometimes it's impossible to differentiate between the two.

Haunting words
Take this one for example. Malcolm "brilliantly destroyed" Labor's negative gearing policy, Abbott told the party room. That's why he, Abbott, would be cautious about going anywhere near negative gearing because "our words [that's your words, Malcolm] would come back to haunt us".

Everyone present had been expecting a scrap about negative gearing in the meeting because, well, it was leaked on the front page of the newspaper. And the former PM, who promised no sniping, was backing the Coalition rebels. Awkward.

Turnbull responded with a jellyfish. He, Turnbull, and Treasurer Scott Morrison were only completing the tax reform process started by Abbott and (Joe) Hockey who had been so "open and courageous".

Yikes, it's the political equivalent of "you look good for your age". That's gotta sting.

Labor leader Bill Shorten was in no doubt about the true meaning behind the party room praises.

Shirt-fronting PMs
"Today the former prime minister has shirt-fronted the current prime minister over his lack of economic leadership," Shorten said in Question Time.

While Abbott has his supporters among the backbench, many are tiring of the unwanted attention attracted by his interventions.

That's why there were a few sideways glances and approving nods among Coalition MPs when Andrew Nikolic, Liberal MP for Bass and Abbott's former enforcer, stood up twice in defence of Turnbull to deflect Shorten's questions about Abbott's "shirt-fronting" in the partyroom.

Here was Nikolic, the former army brigadier who once served as Abbott's whip, protesting that questions about the party room were out of order and against Question Time protocol.

"We've all got our game faces on and if you're in a marginal seat you really don't appreciate leaks against your prime minister," one backbencher said.

Disturbances in the force
Elsewhere, there were indications of other disturbances in the Coalition universe.

Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, who opposes same sex marriage among many other things, will be sent to New York in September for three months as a parliamentary observer of the United Nations. That should solve a few problems.

And Foreign Minister Julie Bishop complimented Western Sydney MP Fiona Scott on her electorate being the filming location for the post-apocalyptic hellhole in the Oscar-winning Mad Max: Fury Road.

And no one was insulted.