Is Tony Abbott going to tackle Malcolm Turnbull for the Liberal Party leadership? It’s unlikely say many commentators, but Dr Martin Hirst writes where there’s smoke there’s (usually) fire.
TASMANIAN SENATOR Jacqui Lambie says the Liberal Party would be "stupid" to return Tony Abbott to the leadership and make him prime minister again.
Speaking exclusively to IA late this week Senator Lambie said an Abbott return
"... would be like the whole party decided to go sky diving without parachutes".
And it seems there’s not much love for Tony Abbott on the Senate crossbenches. The Coalition Government needs nine of 11 crossbenchers to hold the floor in the Senate and, at the moment, Turnbull is not guaranteed the numbers. This week, IA approached some of the crossbench senators and independents to see if they would swing in behind a second Abbott Government.
A spokesperson for the Greens said there is no doubt that Abbott is "shopping around" for support but doubted there is a stomach for a change inside the Liberal Party room at the moment.
NSW Liberal Democrat, Senator David Leyonhjelm, says he would "never entertain" giving the Liberals support for some of its current policies:
"Liberal Party policies that result in higher taxes, a higher deficit and further limits on individual rights are anathema to the Liberal Democrats. We would never entertain giving the Liberals support for these."
~ Senator Leyonhjelm
In an exclusive interview with IA, Senator Leyonhjelm pointed out that it’s up to the Liberal Party room to elect the leader and that there is "no precedent" for the views of the cross-bench senators to be taken into account.
However, when scratching around for a reason why the party room might (even reluctantly) mobilise behind Abbott again, one logical thought would be that if he could swing a deal with enough crossbenchers to guarantee Government legislation passes through the Senate, it might persuade nervous backbenchers into supporting him.
Why are we once again speculating on an Abbott return?
The simple reason is, like the undead, he refuses to remain dead, buried and cremated.
This week, Fairfax newspapers carried an "exclusive" report that Tony Abbott feels confident that he can once again be leader of the Liberal Party and therefore prime minister of Australia in a Coalition government.
Abbott quickly took to Twitter to deny the story and say that "as usual" Fairfax journalist, Latika Bourke, had got it wrong.
Bourke is based in London – a long way from the action in Canberra – and she reported that Abbott had made remarks to the effect he could be PM again in Birmingham at a Tory party meeting. However, like a lot of these speculative "exclusive" yarns, the only source Bourke actually quotes is a ‘senior Liberal source close to Mr Abbott’.
Bourke contended in her story that several other participants backed her version of events.
The only further evidence presented for Bourke’s story is ‘other Liberals’ who apparently
‘... did not rule out the possibility of an Abbott comeback, saying his prospects grow as Mr Turnbull fails to improve.’
According to one Canberra insider, Bourke is known to be "close" to, or at least on speaking terms with, Cory Bernardi and fingered him as one of Bourke’s sources.
If this is the case, then maybe talk of Abbott’s return is more hopeful than realistic.
Even the normally supportive News Corp is sceptical of an Abbott comeback. Political editor of news.com.au, Malcolm Farr – a veteran Canberra reporter for whom I have enormous respect – wrote this week that an Abbott return ‘doesn’t make sense’.
No it doesn’t, but that is not to say that there is no ambition. After all, the smoke-fire saying is not without some truth.
However, given Abbott’s denial of Bourke’s story,, it seems obvious that someone is lying. My bet is that it’s Abbott. He has lied so many times in the past, particularly in the lead up to the 2013 election, in which he made promises he had no intention of keeping if elected, that one more lie is hardly going to weigh on his conscience.
We all remember the "no sniping" comment he made after being rolled by Malcolm Turnbull when he promised to be a "humble backbencher".
Everything he’s done since then indicates this too was a great big lie — and a deliberate one at that. Since Turnbull took over, hardly a week has gone by in which Abbott has not managed to be front page news.
He has flown to the four corners of the globe
not sniping and not offering advice to his successor.
This week, he also announced he was to join the advisory board of a new conservative think tank to preserve the legacy of the "Western canon" of liberal thought. It seems Abbott is still in crusader mode and not likely to just shut up any time soon. This advisory position with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization will give Abbott plenty of scope for more globetrotting and speechifying to receptive right-wing audiences.
More importantly, it will keep him on the media radar and no doubt The Australian will eagerly reprint every turgid word of every boilerplate speech on the evils of socialism that Abbott barfs up.
His surrogates inside the Liberal Party – Cory Bernardi in particular – have also kept up the pressure on Turnbull and have advocated Abbott-style policies without necessarily uttering his name.
The cumulative impact of all of this non-sniping and non-advice offering is that the Turnbull Government is almost indistinguishable from the Abbott Government. Most of the ministry is still in place (with one or two exceptions) and Turnbull’s policy platform is a slightly warmed-over Abbott-lite.
Abbott would also face problems securing any agreement to shore up the Government’s razor-thin majority in the lower house.
Conservative Queensland independent Bob Katter has history with Abbott and he believes that the former PM dudded him over mandating ethanol content in fuel. A Katter spokesperson told IA that Katter wants to have a good working relationship with the Government in the interests of what’s "best for Kennedy" and if that means working with Abbott, he would do it.
However, it is not certain that Abbott would enjoy a good working relationship with Xenophon team members or other independents. David Leyonhjelm says too many of the cross-benchers are at odds with the Liberals for even an alliance of convenience to work on more than an issue-by-issue basis.
"Given the political leanings of Hinch, Lambie and NXT, it will almost never have that."
For good measure, Leyonhjelm added that an agreement limited only to "confidence and supply" issues is of "no value" to the Government in the Senate.
Jacqui Lambie is also scathing in her assessment of the Liberals for even contemplating an Abbott return.
She told IA:
"The problem with a lot of Liberals is that they all think they are Robert Menzies — when Australia would be much better off if they took their political inspiration from Harold Holt."
So can we rule out an Abbott return?
If the polls for Turnbull keep heading south then the possibility of a challenge will rise in proportion.
The momentum may gather for a change and the party room disquiet will grow. Given that only a small swing to the ALP will be required to unseat the Coalition at the next election due in 2019, nervous backbenchers may be scratching around for an alternative.
For the hard right, Abbott might seem like a logical choice but at the moment he is still toxic to a large section of the electorate. However, with the injection of Pauline Hanson and One Nation into the mix – some sort of right of centre Coalition based on anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and homophobic opposition to marriage equality – might make Abbott palatable to enough Liberals that he is invited back into the top job by a nervous party room.
IA tried several times to put this question to Pauline Hanson but her newly-minted factotum James Ashby would not provide a comment when I called him.
When I identified myself as being associated with IA, his response was brief and to the point:
"I have no interest in talking to you fuckheads."
The only grouping in the Senate that is even remotely close to Abbott and the Liberal right is One Nation — and now that Tony and Pauline have kissed and made up, some form of convenient alliance might make sense to both of them.
I’ll keep trying to find out more.
Watch this space...
Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter@ethicalmartini.
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