Abbott a punching bag for Liberal-hating activists
by ROSS FITZGERALD
There’s much more at stake in Warringah than the future of a former prime minister
The battle for Warringah, normally a safe seat in northern Sydney, has become a struggle for the soul of the Liberal Party and a test of whether conservative politics can survive in modern Australia.
As anyone visiting Manly Beach on a Sunday morning or driving through Spit Road in the morning peak would know, GetUp, unions and former Labor operatives have blitzed the electorate, with hundreds of activists. The question is whether former Liberal voters will support a quasi-Green candidate masquerading as a centrist in order to purge the Liberal Party of a conservative former PM.
Although Tony Abbott’s foes cite climate change policy and same-sex marriage as reasons to be rid of him, it’s a very nasty personal campaign they’re waging, as shown by last week’s withdrawn ad depicting Abbott as the lifesaver who wouldn’t save a drowning man. To his opponents, he’s not just mistaken on some policies: he’s a bad person who should be eliminated.
To poison Liberal voters against him, GetUp is pushing the line that Abbott has “wrecked” the Liberal Party; that he’s only in parliament to seize back the prime ministership; and that he is the co-ordinator of the “hard right”. Never mind that Abbott stands with Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard as one of only four federal Liberal leaders to win government from opposition.Last week, Abbott’s volunteers were jostled by GetUp activists and accused of being “friends of pedophiles” on the strength of Abbott’s refusal to be a fair weather friend to Cardinal George Pell.
If Abbott really was a wrecker, on losing the prime ministership he would have denounced the coup leaders as parliamentary terrorists, quit federal politics and had his proxies work against an endorsed Liberal successor. Instead, he sat quietly on the backbench, penned three essays for ‘Quadrant’ in defence of the Abbott government and campaigned around the country to have the Turnbull government returned at the 2016 election. When Malcolm Turnbull failed to put Abbott into his cabinet after that near-loss (despite Abbott having had Turnbull in his cabinet), he used the freedom of the backbench to call for new high-energy, low-emissions coal-fired power stations, lower immigration and ending the ban on nuclear energy. What’s “hard right” about that?
Abbott has repeatedly said he could come back to the party leadership only if he were drafted, and he’s fully accepted that same-sex marriage is here to stay. He’s declined to repeat his earlier call for Australia to pull out of the Paris climate treaty, and faithfully defended the government’s “get the balance right” climate change policy, lest any differentiation of him from the current PM make it harder for Scott Morrison to win.
Although there’s an official Labor candidate running in Warringah, the real Labor candidate is former Olympic skier Zali Steggall, whose co-campaign directors are a former Labor staffer and a GetUp activist, and who’s admitted to never voting Liberal in her life at a federal election.
Even if Steggall professes not to know, GetUp has no doubt who is their candidate. Early last year, a GetUp inspired group called North Shore Environmental Stewards tried to stack people into Liberal branches to threaten Abbott’s preselection. Then another GetUp-linked group, Voices of Warringah, started canvassing for a high-profile independent to run against him.
Before Christmas, GetUp organised a series of recruitment meetings for the anti-Abbott activists who are now the backbone of the Steggall campaign.
Late last year, it was reported that three rich Mosman climate warriors were each putting $250,000 into the independent campaign against Abbott. Then ‘The Daily Telegraph’ reported that the CFMEU would be putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the independent campaign in Warringah because Labor couldn’t win. Steggall claims to have 1000 campaign volunteers and says that 250 donors have given an average of $1000.
No one knows at this stage, what GetUp has contributed from its $10 million-plus annual budget but it’s clear that Warringah is its main fight in this election.
Despite all he’s done for the electorate, Abbott knows he’s vulnerable in any popularity contest against a plausible independent.
Abbott’s campaign is stressing the importance of the northern beaches road tunnel (and the $50m he’s secured to improve it) that Steggall cannot bring herself to support without reservation. He’s reminding voters that Bill Shorten’s capital gains tax increases and negative gearing changes will cut the value of people’s homes by 10 per cent (which in Warringah could easily be hundreds of thousands of dollars). He’s pointing out that more than 10,000 Warringah voters stand to lose on average $3315 under Shorten’s so-called retiree tax. Abbott stresses the half-a-trillion-dollar cost of Labor’s climate change policy, and reminds voters that Steggall says Labor doesn’t go far enough. And he’s put Steggall behind Labor on his how-to-vote card to make the point that parliament doesn’t need more independents to the left of Labor.
Still, Abbott knows that many of his voters are thinking of supporting an independent to punish the Liberals for their revolving-door prime ministership. That’s why he’s stressing “vote Steggall, get Shorten”.
Abbott rightly doubts that “teaching the Liberals a lesson” would extend to punishing themselves and impoverishing the country by voting for a Shorten government.
Ross Fitzgerald AM is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, April 29, 2019, p 12.
As Ross Fitzgerald (“Abbott a punching bag for Liberal-hating activists”, 29/4) makes clear, Tony Abbott is leading not only a battle for his Warringah seat but also the battle for the future of conservative politics.
It is important not to forget that Australia is fundamentally conservative. And, even if Labor wins it will only be in for three years and it won’t be so bad.
Indeed, exposure to a short spell of Labor government may be the opportunity to remind us that conservative values are as relevant to 21st-century Australia as they were in the Howard years.
Whatever the result in May, one thing is certain: we can continue to count on Abbott remaining as the leading champion of an Australia underpinned by conservative values.
Peter Smith, Lake Illawarra, NSW
The Australian, 30 April, 2019
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