When President Lyndon Baines Johnson was reviewing the reappointment of his adversary, the FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ opined: ‘it is probably better to have the sonofabitch inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.’
Malcolm Turnbull would undoubtedly prefer Tony Abbott not to urinate anywhere; indeed, the prime minister would prefer his predecessor not to do anything much at all. But the reality is that Abbott remains defiantly inside the tent, pissing out, in, and in every direction.
His political incontinence is a clear denial of his undertaking of no sniping, no undermining, no wrecking; but clearly Abbott regards the need to defend his legacy, as he calls it, as the overriding imperative. His promises, like so many of those proffered when in office, have become inoperative.
Last week Abbott regaled the party room with a fantasy account of his economic record. It was, he averred, bold and courageous – the 2014 budget was an exemplary document designed purely to repair the debt and deficit disaster inflicted by the disastrous regimes of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. And this, he continued, is precisely what is needed by Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.
Yeah, like a hole in the head. In fact the 2014 budget was an abject failure – regarded not only as a litany of broken promises, but as a manifestly unfair recipe which was rejected by the voters and, eventually by the senate.
There were indeed cuts to spending – some $80 billion of them, The problem was that Abbott and his colleagues immediately spent another $70 billion in the hope of assuaging the outrage. As a result the 2015 budget was a pussy-footing creation about which Abbott had, wisely, very little to say. It was a fiasco: contradictory and incoherent and it led, among other blunders, to his ultimate downfall – which is, perhaps, why he is commending it to Turnbull.
To underline the point Abbott followed up with an all-guns-blazing assault on the highly classified Defence White Paper, leaked, if not by Abbott himself, by someone giving him aid and succour. Exasperated, Turnbull was forced to correct the record: Abbott was just plain wrong. But he was essentially unabashed: in a public speech in support of one of his few remaining allies, the sacked minister Eric Abetz, Abbott declared: ‘I intend to defend the legacy of the Abbott government and, as a former prime minister, I will speak out in defending that legacy. I will speak in the party room on issues where members have a right to put their views.
Even if Abbott himself heroically keeps quiet, much of the damage has already been done; his economic narrative has spooked the bed wetters to the extent that it is all but impossible for Turnbull and Morrison to put together any meaningful tax reform.
‘However, plainly, I believe there is a vital obligation upon us as Liberals to win the coming election campaign. Whatever might be my concerns about the Turnbull government, they pale in comparison with the prospect of a Shorten Labor government.’
Optimistic conservatives, The Australian’s Paul Kelly at their head, chose to interpret that as a guarantee that Abbott would be disciplined during the campaign and that he would not sabotage – or rather not continue to sabotage – the Turnbull government campaign. And it is true that’s what is at least partly what Abbott intended to say; he may even mean it. But let’s face it, he cannot help himself.
For starters, he will not only defend himself within the party room; his foray against the white paper was offered to his best friend Greg Sheridan on the front page of The Australian itself. And even if he does confine himself to the party room, whatever he says will certainly come out in the media, as it is intended to. That, after all, is the whole point of the exercise.
And even if Abbott himself heroically keeps quiet, much of the damage has already been done; his economic narrative has spooked the bed wetters to the extent that it is all but impossible for Turnbull and Morrison to put together any meaningful tax reform.
The GST is, of course, off the table; now the focus is on retaining every aspect of the rorts of negative gearing and capital gains concessions. Any attempt to remove what Morrison used to call the excesses (he now calls them the enthusiasms) would confuse the voters when Turnbull has been embarking a ferocious attack on Bill Shorten’s modest proposals in those areas. And presumably superannuation – what Abbott has already christened the seniors’ tax – is also to be off limits.
This is not policy; it is pure politics, and seriously body-minded politics at that. It is reminiscent of the approach of Peter Reith (now, ironically a critic of Abbott) in the campaign of 1988 when the Hawke government included the recognition of local government in the constitution as a referendum proposal. This was in fact part of the Liberal party platform, but Reith insisted that it should be opposed because it was politically simpler for the coalition to oppose everything.
Tony Abbott killed off a similar proposition by the Gillard government in 2013. This is apparently what he means by his legacy – don’t worry about the rights and wrongs of it, just bash the opposition – and if you end up bashing Malcolm Turnbull in the process, well, that’s just the way it goes.
So while Abbott is still around – and there is absolutely no sign that he is going, rather the contrary in fact – it makes it almost impossible for Turnbull to get clear air. An early double dissolution might help – even without the Building and Construction Commission bill it remains the most sensible option, but even assuming that Turnbull reluctantly pulls that trigger, and wins, the vigorously immodest member for Warringah will still be there, and no doubt micturating even more energetically once the minor self-imposed of the election campaign have disappeared.
It is no longer a question of whether Tony Abbott is less of a nuisance inside or outside the tent: there is only one way that he will piss to Malcolm Turnbull’s satisfaction and that is off. Unless and until that happens, our prime minister’s hopes for relief are, well, just pissing in wind.