At the end of a week in which Tony Abbott appeared to put personal retribution ahead of the Government’s re-election chances, his colleagues finally mobilised to pull the former prime minister into line.
It has become increasingly clear Mr Abbott has no intention of playing the elder statesman role now that he’s been relegated to the backbench.
Instead he appears committed to being a controversially outspoken defender of his legacy and a warrior for the conservative cause.
In other circumstances, it would seem petty to deny Mr Abbott this right. However the events of the past week suggest the former PM cares more about protecting his interests than seeing Mr Turnbull re-elected.
When the vanquished Kevin Rudd ran his destabilisation campaign against his successor Julia Gillard, his Labor colleagues initially remained quiet out of respect to the former PM.
But by not taking an early opportunity to call out his destructive behaviour – which in retrospect was subtler than Mr Abbott’s has been this week – Labor MPs inadvertently legitimised Mr Rudd’s behaviour.
In the eyes of voters, the popular Mr Rudd was just being the helpful Kevin from Queensland that they’d grown to admire.
And so it was only later, when Mr Rudd launched his first leadership challenge against Ms Gillard, that former Rudd ministers were forced to aim the political equivalent of ballistic missiles against the former PM to in attempt to shrink his popularity and thwart the move.
Voters weren’t impressed by the spectacle of Labor MPs piling on to one of their own – it was not only shocking to hear such things said of the helpful Kevin, but unavoidable proof the Gillard Government was seriously fractured.
As Bob Hawke once said of the Peacock-Howard feud that raged within the Liberal Party, “if you can’t govern yourselves, you can’t govern the country”.
Emerging criticism this week of Tony Abbott’s behaviour suggests Turnbull Government MPs have realised they can’t let matters deteriorate to the same point.
One of the advantages the Coalition had over Labor in more recent times was the perceived stability within its ranks.
First there was the speech telling the Europeans to shut their borders against asylum seekers, and then another protesting that gay marriage would destroy the traditional version.
There was the call for Islam to undergo an overhaul and another for the Safe Schools anti-bullying program to be defunded because it was “social engineering”.
This week Mr Abbott considerably upped the ante. During the Government party room meeting he challenged “the leadership” to disavow any tax increases and use spending cuts only to fund tax relief.
That is, the former PM pressured Mr Turnbull to take the same hard-line approach to the budget that he did – so disastrously – in 2014.
The following day’s press showed Mr Abbott had been busy on another front, expressing his “flabbergasted” disappointment at what appeared, according to leaked defence documents, to be a delay in the building of Australia’s new submarine fleet.
Safe in the knowledge that no self-respecting journalist would ever divulge their sources, Mr Abbott denied having leaked the documents.
He nevertheless defended his right to speak out, saying he would do so when he wished.
This development appears to have taken ministers and other MPs to the limit of their patience with Mr Abbott, moving them to admonishing the anonymous leakers of the highly classified defence documents, if not Abbott himself.
According to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the leak was “a criminal offence”, while Treasurer Scott Morrison called it “a very dangerous and disappointing thing”.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann denounced the leaker as having been “incredibly reckless with our national security”.
Interestingly, the Abbott-supporter Senator Cormann also took his criticism a step further, expressing disappointment with Mr Abbott’s preparedness to comment on the leaked papers.
This is presumably because Mr Abbott’s cooperation could be seen as him condoning the provision of highly classified government material to the media.
Saying he would have “preferred if Tony had chosen not to comment publicly” on the documents, Senator Cormann showed a gift for stating the bleeding obvious by also noting: “But he has. We are where we are; we move on.”
Even the Prime Minister chimed in, pointing out Mr Abbott’s criticism was incorrect.
“I respect Tony’s right to speak his mind and he should continue to do so,” said Mr Turnbull “but it’s very important that as PM, I set the record straight.”
No Coalition MP has as yet been prepared to publicly call out Mr Abbott for deliberately destabilising the Government.
That task has so far been left to former Howard Minister, Peter Reith, who described Mr Abbott’s comments on the leaked defence papers as a “classic case of deliberate destabilisation”.
Senator Cormann denies this is currently the case, but may not even have managed to convince himself that Tony Abbott is “doing a Rudd”, given he has only been prepared to suggest we haven’t seen the same destabilisation from Mr Abbott “at this stage”.
Former Labor minister and Rudd lieutenant, Anthony Albanese, begs to differ.
Having seen Mr Rudd’s relentless campaign for vengeance and redemption up close, the MP says of Mr Abbott’s behaviour: “I’ve seen this movie; I know how it ends.”
* Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.
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