The pain in politics is not pretty. Most leaders relish imposing it on adversaries. But then, when they come to bad ends, as they often do, they bleed and vent.
Tony Abbott’s anger and distress is clear through a calm veneer, as he struggles between, on the one hand, defending his record and expressing his outrage, and on the other hand, trying to avoid being accused of behaving badly and undermining the Coalition government.
The former prime minister’s post-coup stress might be awkward for the new regime but it will not be threatening in the way Kevin Rudd’s was. Rudd was always determined to make a comeback, an option that would never be open to Abbott, who is still deciding how long to stay in parliament.
In between resorting to his traditional balm of exercise, Abbott is doing interviews with favourites. On Tuesday it was the turn of Sydney shockjock Ray Hadley, a strong Abbott loyalist who, in his own grief and fury, spectacularly mauled Scott Morrison recently.
It is worth deconstructing the Abbott-Hadley interview.
Abbott took several aims at Malcolm Turnbull.
One could hardly avoid the double meaning in his comment that politics was a game of “snakes and ladders and yes, I’ve hit a snake”. Later he referred to the Coalition in 2009, before he deposed then-opposition leader Turnbull, as in “diabolical difficulty because we were making weak compromises with a bad government”.
Then there was his reply to whether he would have survived if he had dumped his treasurer Joe Hockey and his chief-of-staff Peta Credlin, and elevated Morrison to treasurer.
“This is a real myth,” he said. “The idea that people who were hungry for advancement would somehow be mollified if Joe went or if my chief-of-staff went is just nonsense. When someone is absolutely focused on a particular objective, they’re not going to be put off if they’re thrown a few human sacrifices, as it were, and frankly it’s wrong to feed this particular beast.”
Is Abbott correct?
It’s true that Turnbull was perennially stalking him, carefully, discreetly but always with a hope for the top job. Turnbull’s aspiration, however, could only be achieved off the back of Abbott’s failures and unpopularity.
If Abbott had unloaded Hockey in favour of Morrison, and Credlin had fallen on her sword, he would have been better off.
But those transitions would have been costly, possibly prohibitively so.
As he said, “Joe and I were absolute blood brothers when it comes to economic policy and the idea that I could have just casually sacrificed Joe to save myself is dead wrong”. But he did offer to do so at the death knell when he wanted Morrison to run as deputy, a route to Treasury. If Credlin had gone, as she should have, Abbott would have felt bereft, with an unknowable impact on his performance.
Abbott told Hadley: “I’ve never believed in watching my own back”.
Actually, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was obsessive about Turnbull’s threat to Abbott’s back. But he and the PMO, by their conduct, made that back more rather than less at risk.
Even late in the piece his Office did not judge the signals properly. Morrison has said that on the Friday before the challenge he warned the PMO of the febrile atmosphere in the party. Some days ago Abbott claimed: “Scott never warned anyone, certainly he never warned me”. But he conceded to Hadley the conversation did take place with Credlin; he said Morrison obviously put one construction on it and the PMO another. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Credlin was just not willing to recognise the danger.
Abbott said that Coalition voters disaffected by how he was treated should “support the PM, support the government” while adding “even if they have to do it through gritted teeth”.
He can’t advise them to vote any other way, but he’s throwing a dash of lemon in.
Abbott claimed that one reason for the challenge’s timing was the prospect of a strong showing in the Canning byelection, which Liberal internal polling was indicating. This “would have put paid to this notion that somehow I was unelectable because of the polls”.
He said party polling the weekend before the byelection suggested the Liberals would end with 57% of the two-party vote. This was much better than Fairfax-Ipsos poll around the same time that had the Liberals ahead 52-48%. The byelection result was 55-45%.
The prospect of a good result in Canning may have been a factor in the coup’s timing – if Canning was not a disaster and with a three-week break in parliamentary sittings after it, Abbott would have had a chance to regroup, if only temporarily. But Turnbull was confident a while before he moved that he had the numbers, so had every motive to use them ASAP.
Abbott argued on Hadley that the polls notwithstanding, he would have won the election, pointing to the experience of David Cameron in Britain.
Maybe, maybe not – the point is his Liberal MPs were not willing to test the hypothesis.
He said that “no policy has changed since the change of prime minister”. In fact, there have already been new signals – not least on media ownership policy – and everyone expects a good deal of change in the next few months, although deals Turnbull has done and backbench feeling on various issues will put limits on it. In areas such as tax, we don’t know what Abbott and Hockey would have done.
Abbott makes much – as he did when trying to save his leadership – of the revolving-door prime ministership. Of “the last four changes of PM, only one has been at the hands of the people, the other three have been at the hands of what the public would think is a backroom cabal. Now this is a real problem for our country.
"The difficulty with the revolving door prime ministership is that government can’t do what is necessary for the long-term good of our country if you’re subject to death by polls and then ultimately a party room coup,” he said.
He is right about the problems thrown up by the sudden death model.
The combination of constant polling, feral media and the continuous campaign makes badly performing prime ministers very vulnerable between elections, regardless of appeals to loyalty or claims that all will be well in the end. This vulnerability has affected the way they govern, as well as their tenure.
The distinction Abbott draws between the people and the polls/party deciding a prime minister’s fate is actually rather blurred. The recent coups were driven indirectly by “the people” – the people speaking through the polls (although the Rudd one was complicated, with more factors involved and the polls not set in concrete).
The voice of the people, when it comes via the polls, is rather different than when it is registered at an election – the difference, if you like, between a reality show and the real thing. Abbott’s downfall was that the reality show became an endless repeat, convincing enough Liberals it would morph into the real thing.
POSTSCRIPT: Tuesday’s Essential poll shows the government leading Labor 52-48%.