During the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, whenever the rivalry between the prime minister and her dumped predecessor burst into the media, there was a standard damage control protocol.
Senior ministers, particularly then Leader of the House Anthony Albanese, would proclaim: “We are getting on with governing.”
One of his favourite boasts was how much legislation Labor was getting through both houses.
When it hit 100 successful bills he was ecstatic. In there was the carbon tax along with the more popular Gonski education funding reforms and the long overdue National Disability Insurance Scheme.
But when it came to the election the voters marked the government down. Six years of unresolved tensions over the leadership and a constant framing of the political narrative in terms of division and chaos had sapped the electorate’s confidence.
As former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu said to friends over the weekend: “I’ve seen this movie before and I know how it ends.” It ended the Liberal government in Victoria after he was dispatched as leader and the coup failed to end the disarray.
The prompt for the Baillieu observation was the spectacle of last week’s contretemps between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his leadership coup victim Tony Abbott over gun laws.
The low point of that scarcely concealed bitterness was on the floor of Federal Parliament itself. Kevin Rudd kept most of his undermining subtly subterranean. Last Thursday the current Prime Minister and his predecessor none too subtly accused each other of lying.
Dragged into the fray were two senior ministers in both the Abbott and Turnbull administrations. Peter Dutton and Michael Keenan not surprisingly undermined Mr Abbott’s version of events and were duly backed to the hilt by Mr Turnbull.
Labor leader Bill Shorten could not believe his luck. He seized the opening given him by Mr Abbott’s interventions – on Twitter, in a doorstop, on national television and in parliament – to proclaim the government was at war with itself.
The media didn’t miss the implications. The rivalry narrative was turbocharged. It defined the weekend’s Liberal state council in Sydney.
There a party reform move backed by Mr Turnbull and Premier Mike Baird won unanimous support steamrolling an Abbott push. Rather than retreat Mr Abbott insisted on his motion being put. It was defeated 267 to 174.
This was widely seen as Mr Abbott flexing his muscle. A display of the support he’s got and that he’s not to be trifled with.
An ‘excellent week’
On Sunday morning, the current Leader of the House Christopher Pyne did an Anthony Albanese of old. He said on TV there was no particular problem the public would be concerned with.
He told an incredulous Insiders host Barrie Cassidy: “Last week we had an excellent week … in four days we passed six different important pieces of legislation. That is what the public are expecting us to do. Keep getting on with the job.”
Never mind that much of what passed the House of Representatives faces hostility in the Senate. And if it doesn’t, the public may not be too impressed with the rising cost of medical treatment, the disappearance of some family payments, the expensive same-sex marriage opinion poll and even the union-busting legislation.
Much of this is playing to the base and alienating wider mainstream opinion.
But all of it will be academic if a bitter Tony Abbott in full “pugilist mode”, as a senior Liberal describes his current mood, keeps picking fights.
We all know how that movie ends.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno