A high price for killing Prime Ministers
You don’t politically execute prime ministers and not pay a price , as Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd , and now Malcolm Turnbull have all discovered. There is not the slightest doubt that the drop in the Liberal National coalition’s primary vote and the spike in support for conservative micro-parties owes much to dismay at what the Liberal Party did to the person who had led them into government.
“He was elected by the people and should have been judged by the people,” was Tony Abbott’s lethal response to Rudd’s political assassination in 2010. It had millions of Labor supporters nodding their heads in rueful agreement. Incredibly, the Liberal Party emulated federal Labor’s mistake and has now repeated Labor’s result: a shredded majority and a prime minister and government stripped of political authority.
Gillard, to her credit, tried to atone for her error by offering Rudd a ministry in a returned Gillard government. Turnbull, by contrast, went out of his way to scorn Abbott during the just-concluded campaign, claiming that Abbott would have lost the election and insisting that the 28th prime minister would not be part of any post-election Turnbull ministry. No doubt Turnbull thinks that Abbott restored-to-cabinet would undermine him as Rudd undermined Gillard , and as he undermined Abbott.
But as his conduct since last September’s coup shows, Abbott is not Rudd and he’s not Turnbull either. Unlike Rudd, he didn’t sabotage his successor’s election bid by strategic bomb-throwing about how people had behaved in cabinet. Unlike Turnbull, who always managed to sound ambivalent about Abbott-era policies, Abbott gave the Turnbull government’s policies , even the bad ones, like superannuation , unambiguous public support.
Apart from campaigning in Warringah, Abbott travelled around the country to help his colleagues in marginal seats. He deliberately avoided the limelight except to tell disillusioned conservative voters that they shouldn’t damage the government or the country in order to punish Turnbull.
All the evidence shows that Abbott, were he to get a ministry, would be an effective team player. Under John Howard, Abbott was the Employment Minister who settled down the privatised job agencies and built up work for the dole. He was the Workplace Relations Minister who laid the foundations for the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Health Minister who took bulk-billing rates to record levels. Under Brendan Nelson and then Turnbull, Abbott was the Indigenous Affairs shadow minister who spent serious time every year as a volunteer in remote communities. After 2009, Abbott was the accidental opposition leader , although a highly effective one , after Joe Hockey refused take a position on the emissions trading scheme. As prime minister, Abbott’s problem was less that he was arrogant or out-of-touch than he was too loyal to colleagues who were seriously letting him down.
Especially now that Turnbull is badly damaged by the election result, he needs Abbott in his team. Choosing Abbott as a senior cabinet minister would demonstrate that the PM is capable of magnanimity. More importantly, it would be a sign that the government is listening to conservatives as well as to progressives in its ranks.
After eight months of waffle and dither and a lethargic and directionless election campaign, the question is less “does Turnbull need Abbott?” than “does Abbott need Turnbull?” Abbott spent the campaign telling any who asked that he expected to spend the next three years as a diligent local member and that being a local MP was a more-than-worthy occupation even for a former PM. After Turnbull’s campaign slights, he’d be perfectly entitled politely to decline any request to return to cabinet.
Abbott is said to be thinking about another book. There’s not the slightest doubt that someone of authority in Australia needs to work out where centre right politics goes next, given the likely gridlock of the coming parliament and voters’ increasing disillusion with the major parties. A ministry would not put a stop to Abbott-the-writer but it could make honestly and swiftly facing up to the government’s mistakes somewhat more difficult. My judgment is that Abbott would accept a senior role even though it might well expose him to the sort of colleague bastardry that undid him as prime minister.
After the comprehensive failures of his first 10 months, to succeed now as prime minister, Turnbull needs to show a humility and readiness to learn from others for which he has no history. His government needs to be able to actually get things done and to prosecute a clear message in the teeth of ferociously tenacious opposition in both Houses. These are much more Abbott’s skills than his. But the need to survive can force even the most obstinate to change. While I don’t expect Turnbull to bring Abbott in from the cold out of the goodness of his heart, I think he might still do this , if only because it’s absolutely in his self-interest to do so. And, to put it mildly, Malcolm has never been shy of using people when it suits him.
Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books.
The Canberra Times, July 12, 2016. Also The Age & The Sydney Morning Herald online, July 12, 2016