There was great jubilation last week at the news that Tony Abbott would nominate again for Warringah, with a view to remaining in parliament more or less forever.
But unfortunately for the Coalition, almost all the rejoicing was coming from the Labor Party. True, it was more about wistful dreaming than about confidence; while the ALP’s polling is not as abysmal as that of its leader, it remains pretty bad.
The possibility of pulling off an unlikely victory at the election – mercifully now almost certainly to be called in the latter part of the year – is too remote to contemplate realistically. But while there is Abbott, there is hope. And there is now no real doubt that there will be Abbott, perched securely on the back bench (an honourable position, as he rightly avers) to divide and disrupt the government, and most particularly its leader.
Clearly he will bolt in the preselection – he may not even be opposed. And such is the nature of the insular peninsula of Sydney’s northern beaches that blind loyalty, not to mention unwavering conservatism, will ensure that he will retain the seat for however long he wants it. Some others may be in danger – but they may not.
Even Abbott’s mad neighbour, Bronwyn Bishop is more likely than not to hang on with a mixture of bluff and chicanery. The local terrorists will continue to quake in their boots, or at least in their thongs. The only consolation, assuming she wins yet another term, is that she will demonstrate to her colleagues that there are even more absurd has-beens than Abbott.
But in the immediate future, that will not be much comfort to Malcolm Turnbull. We are assured by his supporters that their mighty general will not, in fact, be a distraction: but this is so silly as to border on insanity. The media will not leave Abbott alone, and every word he utters, every move he makes, will be seen in the context of division and distraction. To pretend otherwise can only prove that those who deny it are fools or liars, or more probably both.
Abbott’s avowed intention is to preserve his legacy, which, in practice, means to pursue the uncompromising and belligerent agenda of opposing gay marriage and sensible action on climate change, to take the fight to the death cult, whenever and wherever there is an opportunity, and, of course, to stop the boats. Turnbull’s moderate and reasoned program is utterly inconsistent with that of his unlamented predecessor, as he is constantly striving to demonstrate.
Abbott tells us that all he wants to do is work with his local state member, Mike Baird, in the leafy electorate to enhance local transport issues and the foreshores. It is a laudable and achievable ambition for a modest backbencher, but in Abbott’s case a wildly improbable one.
But even if Abbott himself holds back – and there has never been any sign of him doing so – his supporters will not. As long as the tattered flag of Abbott still flutters in the parliament, there will be jihadist warriors prepared to fight to the death for the return of the king.
And this does not apply only to the deposed generals, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews. The foot soldiers of the party, both in and out of the caucus room, have already mobilised in the cause. They still labour under the delusion that Abbott can, in fact come back, and the reports are that he continues to encourage that fantasy.
Just look at the heroes who have risen from the political dead: Winston Churchill; and Charles de Gaulle, to name but two. But these were the real great war leaders from a great and real war, in an entirely different time and place. And it is worth remembering that even Churchill, as a peacetime prime minister, was hardly an unblemished triumph.
In Australia, of course, the big success story is Robert Menzies, tossed out in the early days of the Second World War. He came back to lead a victorious Coalition for a record 17 years; but he had to hang around for eight years and form an entirely new conservative party to do it. And then there was John Howard, the Liberals’ second-longest serving prime minster; but he too had to wait nine years to be rehabilitated, and he was removed from opposition – not from government.
Abbott, Abetz declares, more in hope than in confidence, is not Rudd. But even if this is true, so what? Abbot does not have to be Kevin Rudd: being Tony Abbott is quite sufficient.
The others were all stories of tragedy and farce. John Gorton hung on for months to the acute embarrassment of his successor, the hapless Billy McMahon. Gough Whitlam lasted another full, humiliating term to contest, and be clobbered by, another election. And we all know what happened to Kevin Rudd, forever a dreadful exemplar of what not do with former party leaders.
The Abbott spruikers insist that the circumstances are entirely different: Abbott, Abetz declares, more in hope than in confidence, is not Rudd. But even if this is true, so what? Abbot does not have to be Kevin Rudd: being Tony Abbott is quite sufficient. And his speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom makes the point.
Abbott’s address was, by his standards, restrained: it must have been a great disappointment to his zealous audience. But the ADF, an affiliation of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, formed to oppose abortion, homosexuality, and probably climate change is a terrible reminder of Abbott’s own past. The ADF crusades, it says, for a return to the Christendom of the third, fourth and fifth centuries – a throwback even earlier than the Dark Ages. Is this really the company a 21st century Australian politician wants to keep?
Amanda Vanstone, a long-term and graceful Liberal retiree, opines that it will end in tears, and she is probably right. But strife springs eternal. Last week The Australian’s editor at large, Paul Kelly, penned a portentous treatise (exclusive, of course) under the headline: ‘Why PM will not put Abbott in cabinet’. In fact, the somewhat rambling article provided no real explanation.
But perhaps there was no need to: the reasons are obvious. Abbott is a reactionary ideologue, an unregenerate brawler, a political buffoon, and, most importantly, a proven failure. Does anything else need to be said?