The view from Billinudgel

A polite friction
Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to ignore Tony Abbott while pinching his policies is not working

When Pauline Hanson burst into the federal parliament in 1996 like an exploding sewer main, the then prime minister, John Howard, had two tactics to deal with her.

The first was more or less overt: it was to starve her to death, to deprive her of the oxygen of publicity by, as far as possible, ignoring her.

The second was more subtle: it was to attack her from the rear, to undermine her appeal by quietly adopting many of the policies which had made her popular among the marginalised and disgruntled.

The climax came with the slogan of the 2001 election: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” But long before that, there was a concerted attack on what is called political correctness, and the demonisation of what are now called the political elites.

This led in part to the demonisation of so-called special treatment for minorities, especially one of Hanson’s favourite targets, the Aboriginals: hence the neutralisation of the Wik legislation guaranteeing limited land rights.

The Howard formula did not entirely succeed; Hanson did not go away but she was at least driven into remission for several years before reappearing, bigger, bolder and smellier than ever as a result of Malcolm Turnbull’s ill-judged double dissolution.

Turnbull, driven by the iron law of the numbers in the senate, is somewhat more accommodating than his predecessor. But on another front he is attempting to emulate Howard’s 1996 ignore-and-imitate approach: the clear and present danger presented by Tony Abbott.

The problem is that it is just not working. His moves to quietly assume Abbott’s more divisive policies, most notably direct action on climate change and the plebiscite on same-sex marriage, have been exposed and derided as cowardice and lack of principle. But more importantly, his attempt to pretend that Abbott is a political irrelevance, a discard of the Liberal party’s history, has become a lamentable failure.

It is not only that the nanosecond the PM left the country Abbott was ready to jump into the vacuum, pontificating on everything from superannuation to the Don Dale Royal Commission; this, perhaps, was only to be expected. He has, after all, been rabbiting away almost from the moment since he was deposed.

The real problem is that a lot of people who should know better are taking him seriously, and the media – and not only his rusted-on supporters – are talking about him as a man of power and influence, even (horror of horrors) a potential political Lazarus.

He has even joined forces with Howard himself, the man who was nominally Turnbull’s mentor, to reject any idea of a treaty with Indigenous Australians, a proposal that will have to be considered in the context of the forthcoming recognition referendum. And he is taking the lead from Turnbull on the matter of donation reform.

So as far as Abbott is concerned, the Hanson strategy has not worked. There will have to be a plan B, but in the first year of his leadership, Turnbull has been reluctant to even consider the possibility: he is not one for admitting defeat on any level.

But then, nor is Abbott. The irresistible force meets the immovable object. The classic solution to this dilemma is that both will be destroyed by friction, and it may be true: at least the friction is already palpable.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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