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If Abbott hadn’t been hyper-partisan on Malaysia people swap, Turnbull mightn’t have a Nauru problem

Tony Abbott initially aspired as prime minister not to get sucked into the 24-hour media round, but he quickly did. AAP/Jason Edwards

The Sunday Telegraph reported at the weekend that Malcolm Turnbull had visited only seven electorates since the July 2 poll, and contrasted his “hermit-style approach” with Bill Shorten’s “never-ending election campaign”. The story was headed: “Where’s Mally? PM is MIA”.

Shorten, who has re-started his “town-hall”-style meetings was quoted as advising Turnbull to get out of his “big office” and go and meet ordinary people.

Let’s just think this through. It’s been a month and a half since the election. The next one is nearly three years away if it is on schedule. Should the prime minister spend the first days of a new term running around seeing voters, like he did in the eight weeks before the election, or should he have feet under desk in that “big office”, getting his head into issues, and doing some planning?

Heaven knows the government seems more adrift than is good for it or the country. Pseudo-electioneering ought not be the first priority.

Of course a prime minister should move around the country to keep in touch – and not just when an election looms. But it is a matter of balance between “retail” and “wholesale” politics.

Retail is the selling, the media round, the fluro-jacket appearances. Wholesale is the preparing and putting in place of the policies. Retailing must be done throughout a term but should intensify later on. The more work done early on the wholesale phase the better the outcome, and the easier the retailing.

Even if a prime minister is five times as clever and efficient as the rest of us, he or she is going to find the “wholesale” work harder if constantly on the move.

The balance for an opposition leader is different. Being out and about, ever visible, has become core business from the start of the term – although, with the public so heartily sick of politics and politicians, I suspect it can be overdone.

One can expect Turnbull’s advisers will fret somewhat about the “hermit” description. They’ll worry whether he should be in the public domain more – even if the objective answer is no, he shouldn’t be, the political one can be different. The modern media demand visibility and leaders flout that insistence at their peril.

In general terms, today’s phenomenon of what is dubbed “the permanent campaign” benefits opposition leaders, not leaders in office. But the latter find it hard, indeed nearly impossible, to break the cycle.

Tony Abbott initially aspired as prime minister not to get sucked into the 24-hour media round, but he quickly did. And, it turned out, the fluro jacket was the uniform in which he felt most comfortable.

Abbott in a speech on Friday to the Samuel Griffith Society once again reflected back on his leadership, and in doing so offered a breathtaking (sort of) mea culpa from opposition days. He said he wondered whether the Coalition should have taken a different attitude towards the Gillard government’s attempted “people swap” with Malaysia.

That plan was designed to deter asylum seekers getting on boats. It was struck down by the High Court; the government could not then get legislation through parliament to validate it. Abbott and his immigration spokesman Scott Morrison dripped concern – that was hypocritical at the time let alone in retrospect – about the human rights situation in Malaysia, where the boat people would be sent.

Abbott says he doubts the policy would have worked. “Still, letting it stand would have been an acknowledgement of the government-of-the-day’s mandate to do the best it could, by its own lights, to meet our nation’s challenges. It would have been a step back from the hyper-partisanship that now poisons our public life,” he told his audience.

This is an extraordinary case of second thoughts. The people swap might not have been successful but it was worth a go. If it had succeeded, the Coalition government would not have its present intractable problems on Nauru and Manus Island; it would not be facing a likely parliamentary inquiry about what’s happened on its watch on Nauru.

When he was in office Abbott apologised to the Malaysian prime minister for having caught that country up in Australian domestic politics. “I offered an act of contrition,” he said at the time. Now he is saying the Coalition’s whole stance was wrong.

Abbott’s political modus operandi has been marked on occasion by acting and then seeking absolution retrospectively. But this issue was too big, and the Coalition’s obstruction too significant, for any political absolution to be granted. He, Morrison and the opposition generally behaved cynically and irresponsibly.

Apart from its immediate policy implications, their move helped degrade the political system and set a marker for oppositions to follow.

Precisely how far Labor will take Abbott’s “hyper-partisan” style of opposition is yet to be seen. Labor’s new finance spokesman Jim Chalmers, in a recent interview with Guardian Australia, said the major parties needed “to find a way to be more open minded and constructive … because that’s what people expect”.

“I think the public expect more bipartisanship,” he said.

The first tests will come soon. On Wednesday Turnbull in a major economic speech to CEDA will highlight the budget repair challenge, the rating agencies’ warnings, the need to tackle spending, and the onus that puts on parliament – on the opposition and crossbenchers.

Shorten knows Turnbull is on the defensive on many fronts; Shorten also has to keep his momentum going strongly to guarantee his own leadership position in the longer term. The imperative of budget repair is very pressing, but the Abbott model of opposition – stir up a heap of trouble and keep any regrets for later – is very tempting.

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