Comment: Abbott promised 'no wrecking' - then he broke that promise

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks to Neil Mitchell at the 3AW studio following his political fallout in 2015. Could the former PM be back on the frontbench in 2016? Source: AAP

Tony Abbott promised there would be 'no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping' after he was rolled as PM. And then he went on a farewell tour of interviews. But that shouldn't come as a surprise, writes Greg Jericho.

On the day Tony Abbott was rolled as Prime Minister he fronted the press and told the nation: “This is not an easy day for many people in this building. Leadership changes are never easy for our country. My pledge today is to make this change as easy as I can. There will be no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping. I’ve never leaked or backgrounded against anyone. And I certainly won’t start now.”

It is nicely in keeping with his time in politics that he was unable to keep his pledge for longer than a week.

To be fair, anyone who thought Tony Abbott would go quietly would have to be a pretty gullible type. Anyone who has watched Abbott’s entire parliamentary career in which he would pragmatically change his views on all manner of polices – whether it be Medicare or hospital funding, or carbon pricing (“If you want to put a price on carbon why not just do it with a simple tax?”) or his signature policy on paid parental leave – would know that keeping his word is not a top agenda item.

And so Mr Abbott has embarked on a farewell tour of sorts with his favourite newspapers (The Daily Telegraph and The Australian) talkback hosts Ray Hadley in Sydney and Neil Mitchell in Melbourne, in which sniping and backstabbing has been the over-arching theme.

It’s been a particularly sad farewell. He has re-issued some of his greatest hits, none of which were all that pleasurable to listen to when they were first released, and which now seem dated and sung to an audience eager to leave his music in the oldies section of the political record store.

He told The Daily Telegraph that the new Treasurer, Scott Morrison, “badly misled people. He badly misled people”. He told The Australian that, “Whatever else the changes of last week were about, they plainly weren’t about policy” and that “interestingly, just as nothing has changed on economic policy in the last fortnight, nothing’s changed on climate change policy in the last fortnight, nothing’s changed in respect of same-sex marriage in the last fortnight and nothing’s changed in respect of border protection in the last fortnight, and I don’t imagine anything will change in national security policy more broadly."

He reiterated this point in his interview with Ray Hadley, saying, “If you listen to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, they’re even using exactly the same phrases that Joe Hockey and I were using just a fortnight ago”. He also told the fawning Hadley that he would have led the LNP to a “a convincing victory” at the next election, and he described those who removed him as a “back room cabal.”

To Neil Mitchell, Mr Abbott said of the Prime Minister, “Malcolm didn't stay in the Parliament to be someone else’s minister” and that “He’s now got his chance in the top job ... let’s hope he makes the most of it.”

Given Abbott is clearly desperate to ensure the history of his brief period as Prime Minister is one which reflects his own rather positive view, the question becomes who Abbott is helping more – the ALP or Malcolm Turnbull.

The obvious view is that having a former, unpopular Prime Minister saying “nothing has changed” is going to be good for the ALP. It allows them to throw the comments at the new Prime Minister with the view of either forcing Turnbull either to contradict Abbott – and thus fuel greater divisions – or to essentially confirm what Abbott is saying is correct.

Among Julia Gillard’s greatest failing upon becoming PM was to never adequately explain why Rudd needed to be dumped. “A good government has lost its way” was a spectacularly weak explanation.

Turnbull did not really do any better on his taking office, but he has nicely moved to at least suggest changes are afoot.

He has taken to putting changes to superannuation back on the table, and deferred – though not dumped – the changes to university funding proposed by former Education Minister, Christopher Pyne. Trade Minister Andrew Robb is now prepared to consider the ALP’s proposed foreign worker laws, and Turnbull as well held a snap economic summit on Thursday.

Now this doesn’t mean good times ahead – after all Julia Gillard did change policy as well upon becoming PM by getting a deal done on the mining tax.

In the end the worth of the policies will triumph.

But these shifts in tone of policy if not complete substance are making Abbott’s cries of pity that nothing has changed look rather out dated and pathetic.

The reality is Abbott was never popular and despite reports of “hundreds of letters of resignation” since Abbott’s dumping, such voters are hardly going to end up preferencing the ALP at the next election.

For everyone else other than those “hundreds” Abbott being gone is nothing to mourn.

His continued appearances may help the ALP to sow division and suggest it’s a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But for Turnbull the assist comes from Abbott’s lame inability to talk of his time as Prime Minister in anything other than slogans – “stopped the boats”, “lower, simpler, fairer taxes” and so on only serves to remind people that they are not missing anything of value with Abbott gone.

The ALP will hope Abbott’s media appearances will remind people that Turnbull endorsed the same policies as Abbott – which is why they are currently providing transcripts of Abbott’s interviews to the media. Turnbull will hope that Abbott will remind people how much happier they are to have Turnbull rather than Abbott as PM.

In the short term, I think the ALP will get some benefit from Abbott’s pity tour; but in the long run, so long as it remains a solo tour – and backup singers like Kevin Andrews, Joe Hockey and Eric Abetz don’t join him – the sight of the former PM yelling at clouds will only serve to consolidate in people’s minds that Turnbull did the right thing.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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