05 September 2016
by Adam Gartrell

Tony Abbott left grinning as Malcolm Turnbull flounders

Tony Abbott's grin said it all. When the former prime minister left Parliament House after Thursday's embarrassing lower house debacle he looked perilously close to schadenfreude overdose.

Abbott's government was an incompetent mess from top to bottom; a circus that lurched from one self-inflicted crisis to another until it finally tore itself apart. But at least it never lost a vote in the house.

Abbott will never get the vindication he truly wants – he'll never reclaim the top job – but he's already getting the next best thing: a front row seat to watch as the man who vanquished him falls apart.

Malcolm Turnbull had one job last week: to prove to Australians that his "solid working majority" was real.

And in typical Turnbull style he blamed everyone but himself.

Bill Shorten reneged on his promise to be a constructive opposition leader in favour of "schoolboy tricks"; frontbenchers Peter Dutton, Christian Porter and Michael Keenan were guilty of "complacency" for leaving Parliament early; the government whips clearly didn't crack the whip hard enough; the media was making a mountain out of a meaningless, procedural molehill.

It was all very reminiscent of his graceless election night speech. Shorten was a big liar; Labor sent out tricky text messages; the Australian people were too dumb to see through the Mediscare campaign.

The result had nothing to do with his dull and lacklustre campaign. Or his uninspiring and threadbare agenda. Or the previous nine months of backflips, thought bubbles, scandals and sellouts. It wasn't until days later he finally shouldered some of the responsibility for the disaster.

But make no mistake, here too the buck stops with Turnbull. He's at the top of a government that was careless and sloppy.

Whenever Gillard's Parliament descended into farce – and it certainly did from time to time – Abbott didn't blame whips or frontbenchers or backbenchers or anyone else. It was all Gillard's fault, all the time.

The PM's authority – already at its lowest ebb after July's humiliating result – has taken another knock. Labor's line – "If you can't run the Parliament you can't run the country" – is both accurate and effective.

And Turnbull can't blame Abbott for this stuff-up, as Gillard could so often blame Kevin Rudd.

Except in that Shorten is now following Abbott's playbook. From Abbott, Labor learnt all it needs to know about how to destabilise a weak government and prime minister. Abbott helped Labor sharpen and hone its parliamentary tactics. Labor is good at this stuff because up against Abbott, it had to be.

Turnbull called last week's debacle a "wake-up call". But what sort of government needs a wake-up call three days into a new Parliament after coming within a whisker of losing power? If July 2 didn't wake them up, nothing will.

No, the Australian people don't care about Parliamentary procedure. But they know chaos when they see it.

They've seen a lot of it, after all.

And so now the tone is set. Turnbull and his team wanted the first week to be all about economic management and budget repair, with a side serving of union-bashing. They introduced 26 bills in a bid to reassure Australians that they have a plan and they're executing on it.

(Just what they plan to do once these 26 bills are passed – or perhaps more likely stalled in the Senate – remains something of a mystery. Like I said: uninspiring and threadbare agenda.)

Instead, the first week raised serious questions about Turnbull's competence and his government's longevity.

So what now?

Turnbull has to work twice as hard to convince us he knows what he's doing. If he gets stuck in the same cycle of endless stuff-ups that ensnared both Gillard and Abbott, he's finished.

One way or another, leaders who lose authority lose their jobs. If his party doesn't tear him down, the voters will.

In the short-term Turnbull has a couple of things going his way that could help him regroup.

First, Parliament's barely sitting; it will convene for just four of the next 35 days. So not much opportunity for more stuff-ups.

Second, it's summit season. For the next couple of months Turnbull will spend a great deal of time outside of the domestic fray, looking important and prime ministerial on the world stage.

The benefits of such trips often prove ephemeral – just ask Julia Gillard – but they can be a useful circuit-breaker when things are going awry.

Of course his number one asset – apart perhaps from that $50 million harbourside mansion – remains that he has no obvious internal challenger, unless Kevin Andrews finally decides to have his tilt.

But that won't necessarily last.

Nature abhors a vacuum and politics abhors a power vacuum. If Turnbull can't start providing leadership someone else will.