Friday, March 4, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly


Abbott’s big gamble
The former PM lost some skin this week. He doesn't care

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In the past 48 hours we seem to have been flooded with people desperate to compare Tony Abbott to Kevin Rudd. This is supposed to be an insult, a way of bringing home to Abbott just how gauche his undermining of Malcolm Turnbull has become. And it’s true that Rudd hurt himself in the eyes of many Australians, especially Labor voters, with his long campaign to destabilise Julia Gillard.

But the thing everyone seems to have conveniently overlooked is this: in the end, Rudd got exactly what he wanted.

While many people might have forgotten it, Tony Abbott has not. That is the key to understanding Abbott’s behaviour right now.

Politics editor at American BuzzFeed, Katherine Miller, recently put forward what she called the Bachelor theory of political attacks. It is based on the fact that some poor Bachelor contestant always ends up telling the Bachelor that another contestant is, despite what he might have thought, actually a horrible person, with the inevitable result that both contestants are cut from the show. Yes, the target ultimately suffers, but so does the attacker. As Miller puts it: “Destroy another, destroy yourself.”

It’s really just a catchy way of describing a principle as old as politics. If you decide to fight someone, you’re gonna lose a bit of skin on the way through.

The rule holds true in the short term – but not always over a longer period. That is what Abbott is banking on.

The former PM lost a fair bit of skin this week in trying to drag Turnbull down on questions of national security. Up until now his attention-seeking has been tolerated by his colleagues. He’s managed to stay on just the right side of defensible. But his undermining hit a tipping point this week, pushing him out of the “former-leaders-have-a-right-to-comment” zone into the “blatantly disloyal” zone.

Now that he’s crossed that line, he won’t get so much slack. Every time he surfaces at a moment inconvenient for Turnbull it will be seen as sneaky and deliberate. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth will be parsed for disloyalty, far more than it has been up until now. He is no longer entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

But the thing is this: Abbott doesn’t really care. There are only two goals he’s interested in attaining, and neither of them is Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity.

The first goal is protecting his meagre legacy. The less Turnbull does, the more difficult he finds it to achieve things, the better the Abbott government looks. Every PM cares deeply about their legacy, and how it is perceived by others.

The second goal, which Abbott is not prepared to admit, perhaps even to himself, is regaining the prime ministership. However unrealistic this may seem, as long as he is in parliament he will never abandon hope, not entirely. Somewhere, in some dark corner of his soul, that flame will flicker on.

It’s important to realise that both goals will be set back – the second probably permanently – if Turnbull maintains or increases the Coalition’s majority at the election. It is not in Abbott’s interests for the government to actually lose power. That would bring on generational change. It is absolutely in his interest for the government to go backwards.

It is no accident that Abbott gave Liberal Party members a masterclass in campaigning today, and no accident that it came at the end of a week when Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison looked ragged.

Abbott won’t care that a few ministers are grumpy with him. He will, instead, take heart from the enthusiastic cheer he got at John Howard’s big 20th anniversary bash this week.

Because his gamble isn’t on this week. It’s a decidedly long-term bet. And it might still pay off.

 

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

 

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