Maurice Newman The Australian 9 March 2017
What eats at Malcolm Turnbull’s backers is the inescapable realisation that much of what Tony Abbott says resonates with voters across the political divide. Issues such as cuts to immigration, slashing the renewable energy target and making the parliament more workable appeal to voters of all colours. It is why his comments at a recent book launch are judged a threat to the Liberal Party and why the former prime minister is demonised as a “wrecker”.
Indeed, it is a measure of the Prime Minister’s grip on leadership, and the party’s perception of its place in the hearts and minds of the Australian people, that Abbott’s remarks should cause such consternation. When his opinions are labelled “catastrophic”, “unhelpful” and “sad”, what other conclusion can be drawn?
Yet we are told Abbott is friendless. So does it really matter if he harbours ambitions to return to the leadership? By keeping the former prime minister on the backbench, Turnbull should have expected he would speak his mind. But if there is no support and no merit to his arguments, why worry about this latest “outburst”? The party is firmly united behind Turnbull, right?
But Turnbull does worry.
The self-styled “fixer”, former education minister Christopher Pyne, once an irrepressible cheerleader but now a critic of the Abbott government, advised his former boss: “When you’re throwing stones it’s important not to stand in a glass house.”
This adolescent sense of self is a metaphor for what ails the party. It’s a blind, lesser-evil approach. Abbott is worse than Turnbull. Bill Shorten is worse than Turnbull. Labor’s renewable energy target is worse than the Coalition’s. It projects weakness and the people know it.
A confident party should be receptive to fresh ideas, regardless of the author. However, in the current climate of paranoia, the author does matter. If an Abbott recommendation becomes party policy, it may be interpreted as a “win” for him and contrary to the leader’s best interests. Self-preservation trumps principle. Of course, the anti-Abbott forces don’t have to look far for support. The media are first responders. Anxious to nip any latent support in the bud, the old Abbott blame files are being dusted off.
Laura Tingle, writing for Fairfax, channelled Monty Python’s “what have the Romans ever done for us, aside from sanitation, medicine, education, public order …?” when she asked: “Can you remember anything positive he has contributed to our polity that has not involved tearing something down?”
Well, nothing aside from beginning budget repair, stopping the boats, completing beneficial trade deals with Japan, South Korea and China, scrapping the mining and carbon taxes, agreeing to a second Sydney airport, ending wasteful corporate welfare, reducing the public service by 12,000, and abolishing 300 unnecessary government boards and agencies. But fear and loathing run deep in the hate media and facts should never stand in the way of a good story.
In reality, this collective theatre has less to do with any prospect of Abbott’s return to The Lodge than the growing realisation that the Liberals are a stranded party. They are a nebulous grey, in a soft-left kind of way, at a time when the electorate is polarising. To date, the Turnbull Coalition team’s achievements are few and ad hoc. Reflecting its leadership, it lacks conviction and purpose. One day things are on the table, the next they are off. Its instincts are more Rudd than Howard, more Obama than Trump.
The disheartening July 2016 general election result and disastrous polling since point to serious voter disenchantment with the party. The Prime Minister’s strong suspicion that the latest devastating Newspoll was delayed until after Abbott’s book launch speech is, at best, naive. He doesn’t see that casting Abbott as the culprit, rather than acknowledging genuine voter dissatisfaction, insults the voting public. It makes winning back support even more difficult.
Right-wing Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s defection to set up his Australian Conservatives, citing the Liberals’ abandonment of their party’s conservative principles and heritage, validates voter concern and, carries with it a despair that the leftward drift is irreversible. This seems at odds with an international trend to the right.
In a dramatic turn, Donald Trump is now in the White House. His pledge to “Make America great again” means upsetting the status quo and shaking up vested interests. That he is doing, in the face of fierce opposition from progressive urban elites.
Over the next few months, similar dramatic changes are likely in Europe. General elections in The Netherlands, France and Italy should see new right-wing governments installed. Their agenda, like Trump’s, is far-reaching and much of it is a repudiation of years of leftist ideology. Australia will not be quarantined, yet seems unprepared for the inevitable influence these changes will have on voters and the economy.
While the media presents Tony Abbott’s “outburst” as settling old scores, it is now obvious the last leadership change was ill-conceived and a disservice to the nation. There is a reason that this government scarcely has a mandate. Now most voters no longer trust the present leader to deliver the changes it wants.
Blaming Abbott is futile.
Some Turnbull supporters may hope the present slide in the polls will be arrested by a few good weeks. It is a total misread, as the latest polls and the Prime Minister’s continuing indecisiveness are screaming. Abbott’s manifesto was a good start, but he alone cannot deliver it. Judgment, unity of purpose and, courage, are required, qualities not currently in evidence.
Irrespective of whether Abbott has a pathway to The Lodge, Australia’s future prosperity depends on a fundamental change in leadership and policy direction. Without that, the people’s confidence in this government cannot be restored and the voters’ search for something better will continue.
Original article here