View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Former cabinet ministers Billson and Macfarlane considering whether to quit at the election

Tony Abbott, backbench member for Warringah, sat beside former treasurer Joe Hockey. Mick Tsikas/AAP

The first thing you notice after walking into Tony Abbott’s new Parliament House digs is the bicycle. In good times and bad, cycling has become his motif: the pollie pedal, the rides with VIPs and mates and, the other week, the photograph of wife Margie wheeling a bike out of Kirribilli House post coup.

There are large works of Aboriginal art, from the national collection, on the walls of the backbench office. Abbott the Anglophile has a bust of Winston Churchill, and a painting by Churchill that he and John Howard before him had in the prime ministerial office.

A framed telegram from Churchill to John Curtin on VE Day and a page of a first world war British soldier’s letter talking about the magnificent Australian troops were gifts from British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Over the receptionist’s desk is a photo of the G20 leaders. Abbott recently told Ray Hadley the 2014 Brisbane meeting was “one of the highlights of my time” as prime minister.

The G20 was a political lifetime away when on Monday Abbott walked into the House of Representatives for the first time since being deposed.

The backbench member for Warringah sat beside Joe Hockey, soon bound for Washington and said now to be relatively positive about his future, and across an aisle from long-time supporter Kevin Andrews, still angry at Turnbull dumping him from the ministry.

Some government MPs came up to greet Abbott and shake his hand. He joined the applause for newly sworn-in member for Canning, Andrew Hastie, for whom he’d campaigned on the eve of the coup he couldn’t believe would be attempted before the byelection.

Bill Shorten asked an obvious but effective opening question.

Shorten referred to the praise Malcolm Turnbull had heaped on Abbott at Saturday’s New South Wales Liberal Party council. Given his admiration for Abbott’s great achievements, why had Turnbull overthrown him a month ago?

It would have been unsurprising if Turnbull had fobbed off the ploy. But Turnbull is an orator, actor, and barrister, and the House is his stage and courtroom.

He was “delighted” that Shorten “showing his gallantry has given me the opportunity once again to praise the member for Warringah. A prime minister and a leader who took us out of opposition, took on the Labor Party, brought to an end the most dysfunctional government in Australia’s history, brought to an end a period of reckless spending and dysfunctional management and brought in a Coalition government.

"We have done great things together. We have fulfilled our election pledges of abolishing the carbon tax and we have … been able to once again restore the security of our borders … The trade agreements are a tribute to his leadership. So I say to the leader of the opposition that we are proud of the member for Warringah. I am proud, as prime minister, to honour my predecessor.”

For most of Question Time, which saw new ministers and ministers in new portfolios strut their stuff, Abbott, aware all eyes and cameras were on him, attended to a great deal of paperwork. As did Hockey.

Earlier, Treasurer Scott Morrison had told Hadley (they’re best of mates again) that he and Abbott had shaken hands and “exchanged a few words” at the Liberal council. “I said g’day and I had sent him a little note last week. So, I am sure we will catch up,” Morrison said, but he was coy when Hadley probed what Abbott had replied. “Well, mate, that’s just between us but he said g’day.”

In the House, ministers had a lightness about them – an air that everything has changed and the future looks good. A 50-50% two-party vote in Monday’s Newspoll showed a lot of work was still ahead but Turnbull had trounced Shorten 57-19% as better prime minister.

For losers out of the changes, such as former cabinet ministers Bruce Billson and Ian Macfarlane, there is little to look forward to in politics.

Then there is that earlier loser, former speaker Bronwyn Bishop, who turned against Abbott in the leadership ballot because he had finally accepted she must go over the entitlements affair. She is having to adjust to life without the luxuries of office. In a peculiar twist, Abbott and Bishop now have neighbouring offices.

The losers are coping with their circumstances in varying ways. Hockey is headed for the green fields of diplomacy. Both Andrews, who already has his preselection, and Bishop have indicated they want to run again. Bishop is doing the rounds of her branches and is said to have the numbers.

Billson, who declined to accept a junior ministry, says “the summer break will provide a good opportunity to … consider my next steps in a thoughtful, optimistic and clear-minded way”. Macfarlane says he will decide his future by March.

Abbott is not making up his mind before Christmas. In the meantime, he’s off to the UK to deliver the second annual Margaret Thatcher lecture in the Great Hall of London’s Guildhall. The Margaret Thatcher Centre describes him as an “iconic conservative leader”.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Cities Minister Jamie Briggs, here.