News Election 2016 The Tony Abbott dilemma: backbench or back to cabinet

The Tony Abbott dilemma: backbench or back to cabinet

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With elements of the Liberal Party agitated by the government’s loss of its 21-seat buffer in the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull now faces a Shakespearean dilemma.

Tony Abbott: “To be or not to be … that is the question”.

Had Mr Turnbull won the election by half a dozen seats and not just two, the Prime Minister would be in a stronger position.

But with Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, among others, pointing their angry fingers at him over the Liberal MPs who lost their seats, Mr Turnbull is under pressure internally as never before.

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On Thursday, Mr Andrews publicly advocated for fallen PM Abbott’s rehabilitation to the Turnbull cabinet.

From Tasmania, Senator Abetz joined the chorus lamenting the leadership change last September which, according to some analysts, provoked one million voters to change their vote to the minor parties, including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and The Nick Xenophon Team.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare has the king contemplating suicide at what his ambition has wrought.

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing, end them …”

In 2016 Australia, Mr Turnbull is living this nightmare dilemma.

Have no sympathy. He happily knifed Mr Abbott in yet another coup australis. He must now consider his future as leader of what is left of his government.

Over the next three days he must consider the appointment of a front bench after already having endured a spiteful negotiation with Barnaby Joyce, leader of the National Party, upon whom the survival of his government and his prime ministership now depend.

The Nationals will earn two extra cabinet spots because of the proportionate rule convention of the confidential Coalition agreement.

Mr Turnbull has some Liberal vacancies to fill and it is in this context that Mr Abbott’s return to the cabinet is on the agenda.

Team Tony

In the months preceding the election campaign, Mr Abbott conspicuously became a “team player”, earning credit points with the Canberra press gallery for his discipline.

During the campaign Mr Turnbull indicated the two had reconciled during a private meeting.

tony abbott
Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull at the Liberal Party’s election campaign launch in June. Photo: AAP

He even suggested he would kayak from his Point Piper jetty to Manly to join Mr Abbott’s Warringah campaign.

That photo opportunity did not eventuate, but even through the 10 days it took to determine the election count and the government, Mr Abbott has held his tongue.

There is speculation that he has reached some sort of agreement with Mr Turnbull for his return to the Liberal front bench, either now or at some future time in the life of the government.

If Mr Abbott were to return to cabinet now, it would send an immediate signal confirming, if confirmation was really needed, that Mr Turnbull is not his own man.

He will be seen as a creature of the Liberal Party – bound by its factional influences.

Mr Turnbull, who possess thespian skills, undoubtedly will be able to sell Mr Abbott’s return as a government of renewed unity and concord.

But if he takes the risk of letting Mr Abbott back in to the seats of power, he may sew the seeds of his own destruction. He knows this, but will he do it for short-term party stability?

“To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub”

Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He is a veteran of the ABC newsroom and has worked with a number of print titles including the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.

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