Just over a week ago, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a curious speech, admitting in passing that if he had supported the Gillard Government’s “Malaysian solution” on asylum seekers instead of opposing it, “it would have been a step back from the hyper-partisanship that now poisons our public life”.
Yet the speech was in itself yet another act of hyper-partisanship, this time against Mr Abbott’s successor Malcolm Turnbull.
Mr Abbott used the speech to wrench open the cracks that had re-appeared in Coalition ranks since the election over section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Egged on by the new “free speech” advocates on the Senate crossbench, who mainly want the right to attack progressives and promote their causes with impunity, Mr Abbott and his supporters are now trying to position the racial discrimination issue as the next big test of the Prime Minister’s leadership.
For now, Mr Turnbull has refused to take the bait, claiming he has more important matters to focus on, such as the economy.
In reality, the PM is more concerned with the Labor opposition’s Abbott-like antics than he is about the original protagonist.
“Reap what you sow” is the mantra that will be playing on the Prime Minister’s mind.
Thanks to the effectiveness of Mr Abbott’s time in opposition, in which he made oppositionism a brutal art form, Labor has seemingly decided to apply the same ruthless tactics in the hope of toppling the Turnbull Government.
Labor won’t play nice
Just as Abbott refused to grant leave (or “pairs”) to MPs in the minority Gillard Government who needed to be absent from parliament, so has Shorten declined to offer the same courtesy to MPs in the Turnbull government, which has a majority of one.
Labor has also indicated that it intends to play hardball on a banking royal commission when parliament resumes.
The PM’s talk this week of a banking tribunal suggests he is well aware of how exposed he is on the issue.
Labor has seemingly decided to apply Abbott’s ruthless opposition tactics in the hope of toppling the Turnbull Government.
Given the choice between making life even more difficult for the PM, or trying to improve the community’s poor perception of its economic credentials, the currently hyper-partisan Labor will likely prefer the former.
It now seems to be firmly entrenched in “win at any cost” territory.
Last bastion of bipartisanship
It is yet to be seen whether this uber-pragmatism extends to the other issue on which Labor is perceived to be weak.
For the first time since Mr Shorten as Labor leader clung to the Abbott government on asylum seekers to avoid accusations of being complicit with people smugglers.
Labor broke ranks with the government this week to call for a Senate inquiry into allegations of abuse at the Nauru offshore detention centre.
To ensure such an inquiry does not come back to bite Labor, under whose watch most of the asylum seekers were detained offshore, the opposition has tried to frame the issue according to the Coalition’s two weak points – the seeming indefinite detention now being faced by detainees, and the culture of secrecy under which the bad behaviour by detention guards is alleged to have flourished.
The Abbott approach
Just like Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten has said one thing about hyper-partisanship but his behaviour has indicated another.
On the banks and asylum seekers the opposition leader has called for a bipartisan approach, but he is not interested in finding any common ground with the PM.
In fact Mr Shorten is simply delivering an ultimatum to Mr Turnbull – either take Labor’s way or hit the highway.