Inside Story

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Abbott in wonderland

The former prime minister is unlikely to be opposition leader after the election — and it’s mainly a question of timing

Peter Brent 10 December 2018 693 words

Right place, wrong time: Tony Abbott (centre) with portraits of three opposition leaders who never made it to the Lodge. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

From time to time it’s suggested in commentatorland that the Liberal Party might return former prime minister Tony Abbott to the leadership if, as is likely, government changes next year.

He was so effective last time; his methods crude but devastating; he just never let up. True, he wasn’t at any stage popular, but he kept banging away, with the results there for all to see. And the new Liberal leadership rules make the ultimate prize of prime minister even more appealing.

But this scenario is a fantasy. If the Labor Party wins the next election, and wins it comfortably, Abbott will not be first-off-the-rank opposition leader — and not just because his party would baulk at such a move, with all it would signal to the electorate. Abbott himself would avoid the job like the plague.

Expectations of a 2019 Abbott leadership ignore one crucial factor: the human dimension. For Tony, the risk analysis doesn’t remotely stack up.

Abbott became opposition leader in December 2009, with an election due within a year and his tenure secure until then. In early 2010 he ruminated to an interviewer that he would either win the election or become “political roadkill.” Neither occurred in the end; the election was a tie. Remaining Liberal leader for three years was a huge challenge — that’s why he was constantly demanding an early election — and he met that challenge by generating massive two-party-preferred leads in the polls, month after month, year after year.

And then in September 2013 the Coalition took office in a thumping win.

I suspect Abbott has a more realistic view than most commentators of the role in his success of electoral cycles, timing and luck. He surely appreciates that not getting the leadership in December 2007 (when he famously campaigned on his “people skills”) was the hugest blessing. He knows he would have suffered the fate of Brendan Nelson, buried under the (then) most popular prime minister in polling history.

And he would have an inkling that if Labor hadn’t dumped its carbon pollution reduction scheme in April 2010 — a blunder that led to the deposing of Rudd two months later — it would probably have been comfortably re-elected. Hullo Road Kill Tony.

It’s one thing to grasp the opportunity of the opposition leadership, with success seemingly unlikely (as it appeared in late 2009), when you have nothing to lose. Today, though, Abbott is a former prime minister of Australia, and one who can boast of bringing his party back from the wilderness. He travels the world delivering sermons to conservative groups. Supporters, a tiny but opinionated minority of the population, insist he was cut down unfairly, and that the government’s woes began with that act of betrayal. He agrees.

Adding “failed opposition leader” to that CV would massively dilute the cachet. Oh, it turned out he wasn’t that great a campaigner after all. And the experience would be emotionally bruising.

Scott Morrison’s new leadership rules apply only to prime ministers and do nothing for Liberal opposition leaders. The former PM would be unlikely to last the whole term, let alone win the next election.

Against the Rudd and Gillard governments, part of his sales pitch was a promise to bring back the Howard government glory days of surpluses and open wallets. That’s not a trick he could pull again.

Of course it’s possible he could succeed, but the chances are slight. For him, the risk is simply too great.

But a repeat of his timing in 2009, taking the leadership during the home run (which means in 2021), could appeal. And that’s presumably why he’s doing nothing to hose down the rumours. It’s quite possible he will, Peter Costello–like, flirt with the party room for the first two years in opposition. (Peter is still kicking himself for leaving parliament, triggering a by-election days after the Liberal leadership changed.)

There’s one possibility that might entice him earlier: if Labor barely scrapes in next year and is forced to form a minority government.

Barring that, though, Abbott as first post-election opposition leader is a fairytale. And fairytales never come true. •



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