News National The government’s fight club is now in full swing
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The government’s fight club is now in full swing

Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull
Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have been trading blows. Photo: AAP
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The image of Tony Abbott in boxing gloves in the weekend papers was fake news as far as the former prime minister was concerned. But there’s nothing fake about the blows he continues to land on Malcolm Turnbull.

The fake news bit was the story that Mr Abbott was to be in a curtain-raiser bout with Labor senator Anthony Chisholm ahead of the sellout Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight in July. An overzealous promoter was behind the headlines, which worked like a treat for him.

There was nothing fake about an angry Mr Abbott last Friday lashing out at the “weak and sneaky” leaking of a story that Mr Turnbull had to come to his rescue in the final days of the 2016 election campaign.

That story, designed to damage Mr Abbott and to pay him back for his high-profile criticisms of the government, only served to remind the nation the political cage fight between Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull was in full swing – and admission was free.

There can be little doubt that every time Mr Abbott throws a punch in print, on radio or TV it feeds the perception of a government at war with itself.

Mathias Cormann certainly sees it that way. He confirmed on Friday he had confronted his former boss previously. That led to a heated confrontation, according to Mr Abbott.

Mr Cormann has no hesitation in describing some of Mr Abbott’s behaviour as “destructive and unhelpful”. Disunity, after all, is political death.

It may go some of the way to explaining why this week’s Newspoll did not show the big gains Mr Turnbull was hoping for after his flurry of announcements last week. It was very much the status quo in line with the six-point trend against the government in polls since the election.

According to analysis by John Black, who specialises in the demographics of political strategies, Mr Turnbull had pressed all the right buttons. He is expecting a lift in the government’s two-party preferred standing.

Those buttons ranged from renewable energy with support for expanding hydro in Tasmania, jobs in western Sydney with the new airport and the 457 working visa reforms, a killer punch playing to voters’ fears and prejudices about migrants, especially Muslims.

turnbull dutton
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (right) swears he is loyal to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: AAP

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is not so critical of Mr Abbott. He even praises him for attacking Labor’s Bill Shorten and says as a former prime minister he deserves respect.

That has some of Mr Dutton’s colleagues puzzled about his motives. A clue was his leaving open in Sunday’s Insiders interview his ambition to be leader one day.

He also enhanced his reputation with hardliners for shamelessly demonising refugees holed up illegally on Manus Island. With echoes of “children overboard” the facts are secondary to the purpose of whipping up fear and loathing.

But if all of this is designed to win back Liberal voters who have deserted to Pauline Hanson, there was no evidence of it in the Newspoll.

Being all things to all voters may cancel out the benefits. For example, would Hanson voters like the government pouring record amounts of funding into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services? That was announced on Monday, but the point is made.

The word out of the Turnbull office is there are plenty more announcements to be made. A big one would be ending the Medicare doctors’ rebate freeze. It should prove popular if it saves bulk billing.

But voters may be too distracted by the fisticuffs to notice.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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