It was a defining moment of the 2017 same-sex marriage campaign. You could almost feel the tectonic shift.
The Turnbull government had announced the details of the Australian Bureau of Statistics survey, and former prime minister Tony Abbott had called a press conference to reiterate his firm opposition and urge Australians to reject same-sex marriage.
“If you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote No. If you worry about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, vote No, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote No because this is the best way to stop it in its tracks.”
Equality advocates quivered, opponents sat up and journalists cooed. This was classic Abbott — the pugilist, rhetorician and master of the effective line. “Cut through,” as the ABC’s Andrew Probyn put it on 7.30.
With John Howard also on board, the Yes side was facing two of the most devastating campaigners in Australian history. Could it withstand such artillery?
The rest, as we know, is history. Through sheer force of personality and determination, Abbott leapt out of television screens into living rooms around the country, night after night, almost single-handedly turning the campaign into a vote about political correctness, gender fluidity, safe schools and free speech. As usual with Tony, it wasn’t always pretty, it sailed close to the wind and on occasion it crossed over, but he was devastating, and when the No case won, narrowly, everyone knew who was chiefly responsible.
From that moment Malcolm Turnbull was doomed. The Liberals understood that if they wanted to win the next election they had better make the switch, quickly, and by Christmas the former PM was back in the Lodge…
That was Abbott’s plan, anyway. And for the first few days the script did appear to be unfolding appropriately, in the political-class narrative sphere at least. But opinion polls didn’t show much movement, the campaign continued (and it turned out that most forms were returned before either side had shifted into second gear), and in the end the Yes forces prevailed convincingly.
One moral of the story: politicians are never as brilliant, or as woeful, as the tales depict them to be.
A year later, Abbott is still determined to return to the prime ministership. He will use any tool he can get his mitts on, and his chief argument is: I know how to win elections; I know how to beat Labor. Remember the “carbon tax,” remember the Gillard government?
One obvious problem with this argument is that Abbott has only won from opposition, an entirely different task to winning from government. When he was opposition leader, the Coalition was usually way ahead in the opinion polls, which were vindicated by the 2013 election result. When he was PM his government was usually far behind.
But the bigger problem — and in this he could not be more different from Kevin Rudd when he was destabilising Julia Gillard — is that the electorate can’t stand Tony. Most voters would react with horror to his return.
And so he directs his offensive more and more to those at the extreme — the Sky News-after-dark consumers who consider themselves the heart and soul of the Coalition and project their own obsessions onto the general electorate.
Current obsession number one is coal, emblematic of the fight against global-warming warriors and the wider battle against progressivism. When a chortling treasurer Scott Morrison unveiled a lump of it in question time last year, he was targeting this self-proclaimed “base.” He, too, has future leadership aspirations to consider.
Which brings us to the big bunch of by-elections the weekend after next. Back in September 2015, a by-election in Canning, Western Australia played a starring role in ending Abbott’s prime ministership. It was seen as a test of his leadership, and the Liberal Party got itself into a tizz about losing the seat, or suffering a big swing. The Turnbull forces used those fears to destabilise Abbott, which made the swing more likely — and in the end the Liberals changed leaders before the by-election… to make sure they didn’t lose Canning.
The Liberal Party is contesting three of the 28 July by-elections, which are being cast as tests for both Turnbull and Bill Shorten.
Do you reckon Abbott is hoping for bad results for the government? Do you think he’s been contemplating ways to nudge the outcomes in the right direction?
Abbott as prime minister (and indeed Liberal leader) presided over only one by-election, in Griffith, Queensland in 2014. That saw a swing to his government, which is rare at by-elections.
It’s just possible Tony will be reminding us of this in the dying days of this month. ●