The Politics    Wednesday, June 28, 2017

History repeats, but never precisely

By Sean Kelly

History repeats, but never precisely
Abbott might come back, but Turnbull can still head him off

In the world of political commentary, we are rather limited by the paucity of data. Historical parallels to current events abound, as any reader of such commentary can tell you – but there’s always a catch. The circumstances are slightly different. The personalities are not the same. The world itself has changed. Historical examples are useful, but never definitive.

Of course, the same is true for those actually making the political decisions – if it were not, political victory could be guaranteed. It never is.

There’s a parallel that comes up a lot these days, between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, both effective Opposition leaders vanquished in their first term as prime minister and thereafter converted to the cause of revenge. This parallel is useful, to some extent, and after all we’re not talking about ancient history.

But one of the lessons drawn from the comparison has bothered me for a while. I remain surprised by its persistence.

This is the idea that Abbott is not popular with the public and therefore cannot come back to the leadership. Rudd, the liturgy goes, always had a secret weapon. He was popular when torn down, and remained so. When he was restored, there was a clear logic: his popularity might yet be turned into an election win. Abbott, we’ve all heard many times, has never been popular with the public, and therefore there’s no reason to bring him back.

Abbott might not come back, but this reasoning is too simplistic. It assumes that when history repeats itself, it must repeat precisely.

Abbott does not need to have the same reason as Rudd to convince his colleagues. He just needs a reason. If Liberal MPs get despondent enough about Turnbull’s leadership, they’ll be scrabbling for reasons. Luckily for Abbott, he has three.

The first is that he’s a strong campaigner. In fact, unlike Turnbull, he has convincingly won an election – and he wasn’t popular then, either. There’s a logical argument against this – Labor tore itself down, and Abbott was incidental – but when you’re looking for a reason to do something you already want to do the excuse doesn’t have to be perfect.

So the weakness that Abbott has when compared to Rudd isn’t as important as it seems. Moreover, Abbott has advantages that Rudd did not.

The second reason, then, is that Abbott is seen internally as a natural creature of his party. Rudd (like Turnbull) never had that – and in fact had to overcome its lack (and did so, twice).

The third is that Abbott is fighting for a particular cause, that of conservatism within the Liberal Party. As Paul Kelly said yesterday, “The fact that Tony Abbott is not popular in the community doesn’t matter. He is the banner-carrier for the conservatives …” The Rudd–Gillard war was never about ideology. Abbott’s war against Turnbull is.

It’s true that many of Abbott’s colleagues, and even his ideological comrades, are frustrated by his troublemaking. As an election comes into view, I doubt that will be enough to stop him.

None of this means that Abbott will succeed. But he is better placed than most. It is worth noting that Sharri Markson recently wrote that the right has returned to considering whether Abbott is a better option than Peter Dutton [$].

In all this, timing is crucial. When the first Abbott spill was on, Turnbull did not challenge, presumably in part because his numbers were not certain. By the time Turnbull challenged later in 2015, victory was assured.

This brings us to the Great Marriage Dispute of June 2017.

Turnbull has spent the past two days ruling out a parliamentary vote on marriage equality anytime soon.

Peta Credlin, Abbott’s former chief of staff, has done her bit to stir up further trouble by suggesting the vote might happen anyway [$]. The theory goes that moderate Liberals might cross the floor to support a suspension of standing orders – given a helpful heads-up by Christopher Pyne – and then cross the floor again to vote with Labor to deliver same-sex marriage. The same prospect was raised today by Janet Albrechtsen [$], and Latika Bourke reports a “very senior Liberal source” made a similar suggestion to her privately last year.

Perhaps this tactic could have worked if it had been a genuine surprise. Now that it has been foreshadowed in the national media, such events would lead immediately to a Turnbull leadership spill. He would, at best, suffer from perceptions of instability and weakness, while getting little out of a marriage vote he had nothing to do with (though at least the matter would be resolved). At worst, if the numbers had moved against him by then, he would lose his job.

There are only two other alternatives. The first is to let things stay as they are, knowing that it’s a ticking time bomb.

The second is to act when he is certain he has the numbers. This can’t be done carelessly; Turnbull would have to ensure that both Dutton (who is known to want the problem fixed) and Mathias Cormann were behind him. He would have to pick his moment. At that point – perhaps relying on the excuse that the issue has become a running sore for the party, as it has clearly been this week – he could move for a parliamentary vote.

Would there be a spill? Almost certainly. But if done at the right time, Turnbull might win. He would then have the authority to bring on the marriage vote. Crucially, he would get the clear public win against Abbott that he so desperately needs. And Abbott would lose one of his most potent weapons.

Of course, there’s a very good chance this would end in disaster for Turnbull, but all available options have massive risks attached.

A final point. Conservatives making the argument that same-sex marriage is not a vote changer are misreading its status. On its own, it may not win votes. But it has become a symbol of Turnbull’s authority. To cherrypick my own historical example, the emissions trading scheme was not popular when Rudd dumped it; its importance lay in its totemic status for Rudd himself. That is the correct way to see marriage as it relates to Turnbull.

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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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