ABC news flashed the headline last Thursday: “Abbott headbutted by SSM supporter.” For a delirious moment I thought that Malcolm Turnbull had finally run out of patience with his sniping, undermining, wrecking tormentor and replied to his latest provocation with a full blown Liverpool kiss.
But alas, it was not to be; the Mad Monk’s fat lip was just the result of a drunk Tasmanian anarchist going a little over the top in his quest for freedom of expression. Turnbull was as conciliatory as ever, deploring any such incidents as unfortunate aberrations in the debate, to use the word loosely, that had been thrust upon him.
So Abbott will continue to play the role of the Liberals’ Kim Jong Un, escalating his threats in the certain knowledge that Turnbull will not, cannot, respond.
Abbott dominated the start of last week’s news cycle with his declaration that he would be ready to lead a band of insurgents to cross the floor of parliament if Turnbull dared to put forward even a modified Clean Energy Target as suggested by the chief scientist, Alan Finkel. “The party,” thundered the member for Warringah, “may have to save the government from itself” – a line ominously reminiscent of General William Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam who boasted that he had been forced to destroy a village to save it.
It is not at all clear how many in the party share Abbott’s conviction: some reports say six, others ten. But they are definitely a relatively small minority, and given very few are prepared to name themselves (and those are the lunar extremists) it may well be that not all – in fact barely any – would go through with Abbott’s ultimatum.
But that does not really matter; even a handful of nutters would be enough to produce a crisis that Turnbull would be lucky to survive.
Abbott knows this, of course: earlier in the year he talked about the gravity of any backbencher crossing the floor against government policy. “It’s obviously a dramatic loss of discipline inside the government and it’s a serious attack on the authority of the leadership,” he warned when it appeared possible that some of his colleagues might attempt to bring on a bill to enable same sex marriage without a plebiscite, or even a postal survey. And he’s right, which is precisely the point of his threat.
And there is to be no compromise – not even a hint of subsidies for renewable energy, although coal is, as always, sacrosanct, something to be cosseted, cherished and protected at all costs, especially the cost to the taxpayers. He has no actual plan, and certainly not one that would produce any benefit to consumers in the next few years, but that doesn’t matter.
Abbott is not about policy; he is about tactics, the need to ensure that Turnbull is compelled to continue the hyperpartisan attacks on Bill Shorten and indeed anything and everything that Labor might propose, however worthwhile it may be – indeed, the more worthwhile is appears, the more brutally it must be bashed down.
Thus Shorten’s offer of an olive branch, a negotiated solution that could have the support of substantial majorities in both government and opposition, is utterly off the table. In fact, if Turnbull could come to arrangement with Shorten, Abbott’s rebels would become numerically irrelevant; energy could again become a bipartisan issue in the manner the industry (and just about everyone else) is pleading for it to be.
But the politics make this impossible; if Shorten voted with Turnbull as Abbot voted against him, the shit would really hit the fan. Thus, yet again, Abbott’s bluff (if it is a bluff) will not be called Turnbull will continue to negotiate on his knees before those who are determined to destroy him.
Absurdly, he even said at one point that the party was of one mind, totally united to deliver affordable, reliable and sustainable energy. Well, perhaps, but they have very different ideas about how to go about it, and some, like Abbott, regard this laudable aim only as a means to make Turnbull’s life, as Shorten correctly said, hell.
The attack on renewables is, essentially, fraudulent. As Rod Sims of the Competition and Consumer Commission pointed out last week, renewables make up less than one sixth of the increases in power prices. The real culprits are the gold-plating of poles and wires exploited by the privatised companies, the excessive retail margins and, most recently, rises in the wholesale price of gas. Turnbull himself claims to champion renewables, especially his beloved Hydro 2.0.
But the facts are irrelevant to Abbott; what matters is the war, even if his determination to pursue it at all costs is utterly irrational – indeed, it is literally MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. Presumably Abbott still hopes to overthrow his supplanter and resurrect his own interrupted regime. This is clearly delusional, but even if it happened, what would be the consequence?
The melancholy example of Kevin Rudd is there for all to see. When a desperate Labor replaced Julia Gillard with Rudd, they were hoping to save not the government, but the furniture: Rudd, an ostensibly popular figure, achieved a dead cat bounce, and then succumbed. Abbott, generally disliked (and not only by Astro Funknukle Labe) would sink without trace, taking a large chunk of the coalition with him.
Most of his parliamentary colleagues, except the vengeful has beens of the far right, have come to realise that; if there is to be a replacement (and there is no real push for one) it will not be a recycled failure like the former incumbent. And the polling is turning around even further; the demand for Abbott to retire from parliament and politics is steadily growing.
But none of that matters to Abbott, and eventually Turnbull will have to deal with it, to find the guts to tell his predecessor the time is up. In the end, it may be easier – and a lot more useful – to deal with Blackout Bill than with the Abominable Abbott.
Mungo Maccallum is Mungo Maccallum