News National Abbott may be ‘out of control’ but Turnbull still has the reins – just
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Abbott may be ‘out of control’ but Turnbull still has the reins – just

Tony Abbott
'What the heck just happened?' is presumably what Mr Abbott was thinking. Photo: AAP
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Exasperation is the order of the day for the Turnbull government’s senior ministers. They can’t appear anywhere without the latest Tony Abbott-inspired destabilisation being raised.

Arthur Sinodinos, one of cabinet’s most experienced operators and who spent nearly a decade as John Howard’s chief of staff, says nobody can control Mr Abbott.

This is credible given that the Liberal Party is split over personalities and policies.

“If you’re in government you can only control what you control, I can’t control Tony Abbott,” was Senator Sinodinos’ frank admission on Radio National.

The most colourful shoulder shrug was beamed in from Europe. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, previously seen as an Abbott admirer and ally, now dismisses his mate as an irrelevant distraction.

He would wish, but Mr Joyce’s description of the Abbott conservative manifesto unleashed last week as “peripheral discussions about basically fluff and mirrors” is particularly apt.

Certainly, as another former Abbott ally, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann points out, nothing that Mr Abbott now wants the Turnbull government to do was his government’s agenda.

Senator Cormann accurately says that many of the policies now being condemned as left or ‘Labor lite’ by the dumped prime minister and his media cheer squad were in fact pursued by Mr Abbott.

“If the proposition is the government now is supposedly more left-wing than he would like, that would have applied equally to his government,” was the way Senator Cormann puts it.

“Unhelpful,” is his summary of Mr Abbott’s contribution. To put it mildly, that’s an understatement.

Infighting continues to plague the Turnbull government. Photo: AAP

But there is no ceasefire. Mr Abbott turned up again on Radio 2GB to hear top-rating breakfast shock jock Alan Jones slam Malcolm Turnbull as a serial political assassin.

Former Liberal member for Wentworth Peter King, and then Brendan Nelson and Mr Abbott himself, all listed as victims.

Mr Abbott had an equally bloody analogy: “Alan, it is a simple truth, a simple truth we are haemorrhaging members.”

By his reckoning, it is because the government’s direction and compromises in the Senate are leaving the base cold. Furthermore, the Liberal Party itself, particularly in New South Wales, is undemocratic, ruled by left-wing oligarchs.

His crusade is for party reform to a plebiscite or “one member, one vote” model in all pre-selections.

Mr Abbott is urging conservatives to “take our party back, make it a party of the people again and then we can win the next election”.

The Liberal moderate from South Australia, Simon Birmingham, told Sky News pre-selection reform like that a decade ago in his state hasn’t “made a world of difference to membership”.

Even if more people joined, the party’s founder Sir Robert Menzies made sure they would have no real say in a government’s policies; at best they can put up a wish list to MPs but can’t bind or direct them.

The bigger challenge is surely being in touch with contemporary mainstream Australia. But every time Mr Turnbull moves in that direction Mr Abbott and his allies try to hogtie him.

Victorian Liberal Party President Michael Kroger is forecasting an end to what he calls “the dislocation”. The membership won’t tolerate it for much longer and will demand an end to it, he says. This will be achieved by “sitting down and trying to work out differences”.

Mr Kroger predicts this will be achieved by Christmas and Mr Turnbull will go on to win the election he expects to be held next year.

Whew. That’s hard to swallow but it seems Mr Turnbull shares the optimism.

At the weekend he was saying he would quit Parliament if he ever lost the prime ministership. He has now clarified by saying he intends to be PM for a very long time. He will lead the government to the next election “and we will win”.

Betting agencies have that on very long odds – but stranger things have happened.

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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