Malcolm Turnbull has unleashed massive retaliation against Tony Abbott as appalled Liberals, who can only fear where it will all end, watch the former prime minister tear at the leadership of the man who overthrew him.
Abbott will never be prime minister again – at least that’s as certain as anything can be in the volatile world of politics. What’s unknown is how much damage he can do his successor. At a guess, quite a lot.
Abbott’s latest assault on Turnbull comes at a further cost to Abbott’s own reputation among Liberals. Many on the right, let alone others in the party, are increasingly angry at his destructiveness.
But while Abbott’s attacks might rally the troops around Turnbull, they reinforce the message that the government is divided, feed into criticisms coming from conservatives about its performance, and provide yet another free kick for Labor.
“I am not distracted by political outbursts,” Turnbull tried to claim during a news conference completely distracted by the affair.
Abbott’s Thursday onslaught was swingeing and calculated. Launching a book of conservative essays, he outlined his alternative policy agenda, helpfully dubbed a “manifesto” in media reports, which included lower immigration and torpedoing the Renewable Energy Target.
He threw in a broadside against Turnbull’s latest pet and ill-founded idea of subsidising so-called “clean coal”. As he put it succinctly: “We subsidise wind to make coal uneconomic so now we are proposing to subsidise coal to keep the lights on. Go figure.”
In his accompanying performance on the Bolt Report, Abbott declared that: “the risk is that we will drift to defeat if we don’t lift our game”. In his speech he said the election was “winnable” (on his agenda, that is) – the government’s “challenge is to be worth voting for … to win back the people who are giving up on us”.
There are three ways for a leader to try to deal with a predecessor forcibly removed who has turned feral. Appease him by inviting him into the tent. Grit teeth and suggest a little freelancing is really OK – just what an “ex” does. Or hit back hard.
On Friday there was no pretence, let alone compromise: Turnbull let fly with barely repressed fury, first on Melbourne’s 3AW and at a news conference.
His message about substance was that Abbott had talked about doing things – such as abolishing the gold pass, restoring law to the building sector, cutting taxes – but he, Turnbull, did them.
Gone is the old line that there was some continuity, among the differences, between the Abbott and Turnbull governments. Now ministers, presumably following talking points, are falling over themselves to say, in effect, that the Abbott government, of which they were senior members, wasn’t much good.
As for Abbott the tormenter: “Tony Abbott is a very experienced politician … He knows exactly what he’s doing and so do his colleagues,” Turnbull said.
So exactly what is Abbott doing?
Obviously, he’s indulging himself, finding therapy and purpose by letting his pain and fury come in a sort of primal scream.
If Turnbull won’t put him in cabinet, as he thinks his due as a former leader and experienced minister, well, he’ll do just what he wants. He’ll make himself a centre of attention, an alternative voice, a critiquer of a floundering government. He will find comfort in the emails from people in “the base” who thought he was treated badly.
What he is not doing by this week’s behaviour is gathering internal support. Surely he must know this.
He must have winced to hear on Friday morning Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who described the TV interview as “deliberately destructive. It was completely unhelpful. It was not designed to be helpful. He was not trying to help our cause or help our country. It was quite self-indulgent”.
Cormann is a senior conservative. As he pointed out, he’d been “loyal and supportive and reliable” for Abbott until the very end of his leadership. On the night of the ballot that Abbott was clearly going to lose, Cormann went out to publicly back him.
In recent times Turnbull, as he’s become frustrated with Treasurer Scott Morrison, has grown closer to Cormann. So his intervention, which was powerful, was still met with some cynicism. “Have you dispatched Mathias Cormann … to blow up Tony Abbott because you’re concerned he’s going to blow up your party?” one journalist asked Turnbull.
In terms of leadership, it does seem Abbott has harboured the unlikely thought that lightning can strike twice. In 2009 he became leader against the odds – sometimes strange things happen in ballots.
It’s said he’d hoped to get allies to stir party support on his behalf but that’s not happened. Sky News reported he told Cory Bernardi late last year that he would not challenge Turnbull, but left the door open for a second coming if Turnbull quit before the election.
Maybe he now thinks that, if he can’t wrest the leadership back, he can influence who might get it if Turnbull collapsed. He’d push conservative Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, and be particularly anxious to hold off Liberal deputy Julie Bishop and Morrison, both of whom he believes were disloyal to him.
As tends to happen after one of Abbott’s guerrilla attacks, on Friday he struck a sort of “who me?” attitude.
But his declaration of loyalty to Turnbull was formulaic. “He’s the person that the party chose to lead the government and obviously I support the leader of the government.”
And there was this, which can only be described as breathtaking: “My duty as a former party leader is to try to ensure the party and the government stays on the right track.”
One Liberal backbencher summed up the whole 24 hours: “Tony was right about one thing, they are drifting towards losing – except it’s no longer a drift.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra