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Wherever he goes, Turnbull is haunted by Abbott

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By David Speers

Even by the standards of a Prime Minister, yesterday was a big day for Malcolm Turnbull. It began with an early Canberra press conference to unveil sweeping changes to the Citizenship Test. Then, a quick visit to Tasmania’s Trevallyn Power Station to detail his vision for the state to become the hydro power “battery of the nation”. And finally back to Sydney to face the formidable Leigh Sales on the ABC.

This was Turnbull the policy action man; setting the agenda and “delivering” as he likes to boast. The first event was about Australian values and tougher screening. The second was about energy security and making renewables more viable. All messages that should play well with middle Australia. But wherever he goes and whatever he does, Turnbull is haunted by Tony Abbott.

This week, Abbott made it clear he’s not for turning. He’s determined to keep causing headaches for the man who tore him down. His one time numbers man, Mathias Cormann, may have labeled him “destructive”, “self-indulgent” and “sad”, but that’s had zero impact. 

In print, on radio and TV, the former PM was out pushing his “5 point policy plan” aggressively this week. He told anyone who would listen that Bill Shorten is on track to become Prime Minister. Not that he’s suggesting Turnbull should be replaced, of course. That would be a declaration of open war. No, this is a Cold War where Abbott attacks Turnbull by repeatedly pounding the government for just not being conservative enough.

That’s despite Turnbull passing more Budget repair than Abbott did, putting changes to the Racial Discrimination Act to a vote where Abbott refused to, passing industrial relations reform that Abbott couldn’t, holding the line on a same sex marriage plebiscite, cutting company tax, cutting some personal income tax, refusing to put a price on carbon and now toughening up immigration and citizenship laws.

Malcolm Turnbull isn’t “Tony Abbott Light” as Labor likes to call him. He’s actually delivering for conservatives. The truth is most conservatives in the Coalition can’t complain about the process or the policy outcomes right now. Sure, they’re worried about the polls and fear many voters may have deserted Turnbull for good. But on policy, they’re largely getting what they want.

When Abbott began his latest flurry of media activity this week, the official strategy from senior Ministers was to shrug it off. “He’s a backbencher, entitled to contribute to the debate”, was the line most used while pointing out Cabinet was getting on with the serious business of governing. Put Abbott in his place and don’t pour petrol on the flames. A reasonable approach.

Until some genius decided to leak internal pre-election polling on Abbott’s seat of Warringah to Phil Coorey in the Australian Financial Review. As Coorey reported, the poll showed Abbott was on the nose and faced a tough fight to hold the seat.

No one is disputing the existence of the poll or its findings. Abbott reluctantly agreed to have the poll done towards the end of the campaign, as he was keen to know just how tight things were in his own seat. Having campaigned in several marginals he was worried about how much danger the Coalition was in.

What really got under Abbott’s skin was this week’s leak and the suggestion he only clung on because Malcolm Turnbull “saved the day” by making robo-calls to voters in Warringah. As one source close to Abbott put it, “this is a declaration of war”.

Trying to guess who leaked a story is usually a pointless exercise, but there are strong suspicions those within the NSW Liberal Party division trying to force Abbott out of the seat may have been responsible. Whoever it was, they’ve guaranteed the Cold War is only going to get worse.

The Turnbull Government faces a crucial few weeks ahead. There will be more major policy moves over the next fortnight and then the Budget itself. The Coalition needs every one of its members focused and fighting for the government’s agenda. Not fighting amongst themselves.

Given it’s Malcolm Turnbull rather than Tony Abbott who has most to lose here, he needs to find a way to take some of the heat out of this toxic relationship. The time has probably passed to bring Abbott into the Cabinet, but some sort of peace offering might help.

Published: Friday, April 21, 2017


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