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Undermining Boom: Tony Abbott on the Comeback Trail

Like so many of his promises, his "no sniping" pledge was an indicator that he was about to do the exact opposite.

by Lee Zachariah
Nov 26 2015, 10:40pm

Image via Flickr user Alex Ristea

It's no secret that Tony Abbott is planning a comeback as Prime Minister.

Well, maybe it is a secret. But it's a secret that everyone knows.

That might sound like a contradiction, but it's a contradiction that feels consistent with Tony Abbott's Prime Ministership. Like when he said he was the best friend that Medicare ever had before introducing an objectively disastrous co-payment option. Or when he said there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS before announcing cuts to the ABC and SBS. Contradictions are Tony Abbott's wheelhouse.

Abbott had not yet reached two years on the Prime Ministerial clock when he was swiftly replaced by Malcolm Turnbull in September. The coup was a shock to Abbott and nobody else, and yet his reaction was, relatively speaking, graceful. The following morning he gave a speech to the nation's press that promised "no sniping". If Abbott had failed to learn any lessons from his own actions, he had at least learned from those of Kevin Rudd, whose endless undermining of Julia Gillard managed to bring down an entire Labor government, as well as leave a permanent smear on Rudd's own legacy. Rudd still appears baffled as to why Gillard is remembered fondly by the Left, and he remains an outcast.

Abbott does not want to be Kevin Rudd. But he does want to be Prime Minister again.

Related: Examining Life Under Prime Minister Turnbull

He may have been sincere when he made the "no sniping" promise, but like so many of his promises, it was an indicator that he was about to do the exact opposite.

There have been many quotes to the press, but his recent trip to the United Kingdom was a key moment. Abbott remains convinced that his "Stop the boat" rhetoric is the defining aspect of his Prime Ministership. He's right, of course, but not for the reasons he thinks.

His trip to talk to the mother country was part of a comeback tour disguised as a farewell tour. But it revealed the real truth: his message is so outmoded, so hardline that even the UKIP—the party for people who find David Cameron's Tories not nearly conservative enough—find Abbott's policies "tougher than we in Britain can perhaps stomach".

Abbott presumably imagined a warmer reaction from the country of Margaret Thatcher, but even her party thought his speech was "fascistic". We can only presume that was intended as an insult.

This week, Liberal MP Bruce Billson announced his plans to step down at the next election. Billson, who was Abbott's Minister for Small Business, was dropped from the position when Turnbull took the reigns and has been on the backbench ever since. Billson's announcement did not have the ring of bitterness about it, yet he was quite open about the fact that his demotion at the hands of Turnbull has led to him moving on.

With the next election almost certainly less than a year away, Abbott will have to make a similar decision as to whether he will again run for the seat of Warringah.

If he does step down, it could be seen – retrospectively – as a fairly extraordinary example of loyalty to his party and his electorate. A clean handover, no need for a messy by-election. That would be the kindest interpretation, even if it is the result of a slow realisation that there is no comeback on the cards.

What happens if Abbott does run again? If that happens, it will be impossible to argue that he is not planning another go-around as PM. It's unlikely that Abbott, who is every bit as ambitious as every other career politician who eyed off the top job, is so committed to being a portfolio-free member representing the people of Warringah, he will happily sit out the rest of his career, or even just another three years, on the back bench.

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And that brings us to the other lesson that Abbott learned from Rudd: a comeback is always, always possible.

Labor's panic at being in power led to them quickly ousting Kevin Rudd after he'd won an election, and then quickly ousting Julia Gillard after she'd won an election. In that second panic, they turned to the only other person who had a proven track record: Kevin Rudd. Hoping for a bit more of that Kevin '07 magic, they went running to him on this, the day of his daughter's wedding, even though they'd known one another for many years and Kevin couldn't remember the last time he'd been invited over for a cup of coffee.

When Turnbull's numbers drop, and they certainly will at some point, Abbott will be waiting by the phone, waiting for the call that Kevin once received.

As tempting as it is to rubbish the idea of an Abbott return, anything is possible. It's not clear if Australia's quite moved past the temptation to replace Prime Ministers with the frequency that we upgrade our phones, which makes Abbott's sitting-on-the-sushi-train a pretty reasonable strategy. And the impossible has happened before: despite what the public may think of him, Turnbull's ascendency was a longer shot than it seemed from the outside, and one that was unlikely to ever happen outside of a last-minute coup.

A lot was made of a report in the Sydney Morning Herald this week that revealed regular lunches between the more conservative MPs, including Tony Abbott. The meat of the article concerned the holdouts in the Liberal Party who haven't quite accepted that Abbott's gone, who are holding onto an "Abbott government in exile".

"How long will it take for Tony to realise he isn't coming back?" one minister asked the SMH.

For a party that watched Labor destroy itself by knifing two first-term PMs, and then did the exact same thing itself, electing someone most within the upper echelons of the party never wanted to see as PM, the Libs shouldn't get too comfortable with the belief that Abbott is gone forever. Although a Tony Abbott Prime Ministerial comeback is completely impossible, that's a definition of impossible that 21st century Australian politics is basically defined by. And that's the sort of contradiction that Abbott loves.

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