Former prime minister Tony Abbott appears to have finally named his price for continued cooperation in Parliament – a return to the frontbench.
Malcolm Turnbull is being urged to return Mr Abbott to cabinet and give him responsibility for indigenous affairs to heal the rift with the man he deposed.
And one of Mr Abbott’s closest friends, Catherine McGregor, believes John Howard is the man to bring them together.
Ms McGregor used her News Corp column on Tuesday to argue Mr Abbott won’t be content sitting silently on the backbench, and will continue to accept speaking engagements some see as destabilising.
“Only the discipline of the cabinet can completely align Abbott with his own avowed mission, the re-election of this government,” she writes.
“He would be an ideal minister for indigenous affairs.”
Returning a political rival to cabinet has proven a risky strategy as Julia Gillard’s decision to make Kevin Rudd foreign minister, and even Mr Abbott’s loyalty to Mr Turnbull while in opposition, shows.
Speaking on Channel Ten’s The Project, Ms McGregor said while there are no guarantees a return of Mr Abbott to the frontbench would fare better, the current situation was not sustainable.
And Ms McGregor said the Prime Minister needs Mr Abbott more than Mr Abbott needs him.
Ms McGregor earlier told Sky News a cabinet promotion would impose limitations on the former prime minister that don’t exist in his current position as a backbencher.
“He just said pragmatically he would be more constrained if he were to be a member of the government back in the ministry, he would honour that and it would impose limitations on him,” she said.
“He’s not actively trying to destabilise the government, but everything he says is seen through that prism.”
Ms McGregor, who says she has not had a more stalwart friend through the very difficult times in her life, notes the Turnbull government is living through a controversy a week at present and the ball is in the PM’s court.
“Abbott believes that only Turnbull can restore their relationship,” she said.
“Abbott actually believes that the solidarity imposed upon him by cabinet is the best insurance against his being deemed a wrecker.”
John Howard the fixer
Ms McGregor, the 2016 Queensland Australian of the Year, said there had been some friction between Mr Howard and Mr Abbott when he lost the top job, but he could be an intermediary.
“I think Howard has the weight and the motivation to get these two men in a room and talk sense to both of them,” she said.
“The party has to be big enough for both of them. You can’t squander a heavyweight former prime minister the way he is being squandered.”
She admits public exchanges between Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott over the recent guns debate damaged the latter.
She spoke to him this week and says two things are clear: Mr Abbott is committed to the re-election of the Coalition government and he made up his mind to stay in Parliament indefinitely before the last election.
Ms McGregor puts Mr Abbott in the same category as Kim Beazley, describing both men as consummate “vocational” politicians.
“Evidently Turnbull is still engaging in wishful thinking that entails life without Abbott to kick around anymore,” she said.
– with AAP