Tony Abbott’s bravura performance as a stand-up comic at the Flat Earthers Twilight Home Laugh In, or whatever it was called, deservedly received rave reviews – the consensus was that he was a raving ratbag.
They roared at the irony when he talked of primitive people who killed goats to appease the volcano gods as he demanded the sacrifice of the Clean Energy Target to pacify the ideological knuckle-draggers in the party room and their corporate donors. And they slapped their thighs over his boffo about how even if climate change was real (which of course it isn’t) it would be a good thing because more people die from the cold than from the heat.
Actually the increase in extreme weather events means that a lot more people will die from both, not to mention drought, flood, famine and a few associated inconveniences, but it might be a good opportunity to reprise Peter Dutton’s previous bell ringer along these lines: at least the people of the Pacific islands will have warm feet while the water laps around their doorsteps. Boom-tish!
Of course, the hilarity was not universal: Abbott’s acolyte at The Australian, Chris Kenny, praised the former prime minister’s “sceptical and intelligent critique” while insisting that he was the only one who could save the government from itself — apart from the minor problem that he would be highly unlikely to muster double figures if a spill motion was proposed, and there is no sign of that on the immediate horizon.
Let’s face it, the dwindling rump led by Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews and Craig Kelly (who?) is hardly a dream team. The rest of what used to be the Praetorian guard of the right have given up in despair; they not particularly happy about Malcolm Turnbull – who is? – but they regard Abbott’s constant and deliberate sabotage as no longer acceptable.
There have been suggestions of a planned conspiracy, to destabilise and undermine the leader every time a Newspoll is on the way, or when an important decision, like the long delayed energy policy, is in the offing, but this is not Abbott’s way: his tactics, like his zingers, are blunt instruments. He is intent on clobbering Turnbull whenever and wherever he has the opportunity.
And Turnbull has turned out to be the perfect patsy, never prepared to stand up to the bullying, always ready to compromise and capitulate. As another Liberal John Hewson, pointed out last week, this makes him seen weak – let’s face it, he is weak, less a leader than a lettuce leaf. And as parliament resumes, the salad looks like becoming even limper in the season of advent.
Apart from the great dilemma over energy the same sex marriage survey is nearing completion, and the aftermath of that is not going to be easily resolved whatever the final count may be. Assuming there is a yes vote – probable but not assured – the religious warriors of the far right will continue to delay and disrupt, seeking to make the legislation as unworkable as possible. This by itself will leave a bad odour under the Christmas tree, with continued acrimony on both sides of the shemozzle –which is, of course, exactly as Abbott planned it all those years ago.
And if that is not enough, we can expect the High Court to bring down its verdict on our seven dual citizens. If most of them are cleared, it will be a short term relief to the government but it could easily make problems in the future: under what circumstances will ignorance of the black letter provisions of the constitutions be excused? The lawyers will still have plenty to do and given that the taxpayers have to pay the bills, there will be plenty of incentive.
But if some– and especially Barnaby Joyce – are rubbed out there will be huge trouble: the coalition agreement itself could be endangered and at the very least there would have to be an extensive ministerial reshuffle. It is believed that Turnbull is resigned to the idea that some of the dead wood on his front bench will have to be carted off anyway and some of the ambitious young – or at least younger — Turks will need to be rewarded but he would prefer to do it in his own terms and at a time of his own choosing.
Anything else would look like panic, and, as we all know, panic, or even mild alarm, is something Turnbull eschews. But the way things are going, he may not have any choice. As Abbott continues to escalate his attacks, however deranged they might be, however his former supporters shun him and the voters turn away from the government he purports to serve, there will have to be a breaking point.
If it was not obvious already, it is now clear that there is no longer room in the Liberals’ broad church for both Turnbull and Abbott, just as previous party rooms could no longer accommodate both Andrew Peacock and John Howard or Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Even in opposition it can be rough; in government it is unworkable. But neither of them will budge on their own volition, so sooner or later the party will have to give one of them – if not both – a big kick in the arse.
But this, too, seems improbable: the party is divided, confused and increasingly resigned to the idea that barring divine intervention defeat is inevitable. Thus, having abandoned trust in both their leader and his adversary, many are preparing for a life after politics.
It would be infinitely preferable to suggest the same course of action to Tony Abbott, but that is not an option. He is enjoying his role in vaudeville, throwing custard pies at his Prime Minster – he would probably prefer them to be bombs, but at least it’s a start. And although he has lost all his serious backers in the party room, and never had a lot in the electorate, he still has his cheer squad in the media.
Relevance deprivation syndrome? Perhaps, but who needs relevance when you have Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones?
Mungo MacCallum is Mungo MacCallum