Former prime ministers are usually afforded a degree of latitude to defend their time in office.
Inevitably, this gets tricky when mid-term leadership changes have been rung precisely because some of those times were so troubled as to see the leader replaced.
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18c back on the agenda
‘We’re not responsible for the feelings of others,’ says Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm. Vision courtesy ABC TV.
In that sense, Tony Abbott standing by his 2014 tomahawk budget is hardly controversial. Neither is his criticism of state Liberal leaders for having opposed that budget, thus giving succour to Labor’s trenchant oppositionism.
But Abbott lending contemporary support to changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is in another class.
This will always be viewed in the context of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership and Abbott’s fractured relationship with the man who succeeded him.
Re-opening the cursed 18C imbroglio may be unfinished business for Abbott, but it is a current issue too. Headache might be a better descriptor if you’re Turnbull.
Abbott knows full-well that many in the Coalition partyroom want removed the curbs on free speech set out in the Racial Discrimination Act. He knows also that Turnbull and his Attorney-General, George Brandis, have ruled out any change.
Therefore, he recognised that supporting change would put them on a collision course. Doubly so because a swag of newly elected right-wing senators have made clear they would back it and have private members’ bills to that effect – ensuring it remains prominent in the discourse.
Prior to Abbott’s intervention, the pressure massing on the Turnbull government’s right flank was always likely to be uncomfortable. But with Abbott buying in, and doing so from his uniquely senior position with the partyroom, that pressure will be more pointed.
What is more, it is likely that Coalition conservatives already antagonistic to the leadership will be similarly emboldened and that they will make scrapping or amending 18C a rallying point for their umbrage.
Abbott has made no secret that he stayed around in politics to lead the conservative tradition within his party.
The signs are already ominous.
While Abbott was largely compliant in the election campaign – certainly compared to Kevin Rudd’s behaviour towards Julia Gillard in 2010 – he has now begun finding his voice.
This began with his recent Four Corners interview, which none-too-subtly pushed Turnbull to choose between democratising the NSW Division of the Liberal Party and thus handing it over to the conservatives, or, leaving it in the hands of factionally manipulative moderates. It is a Hobson’s choice.
The former leader’s Adelaide speech stepped this presence up another notch.
One has to wonder whether these divisions could not have been better handled by Turnbull. After all, if Abbott was good enough to be elected by his party and by the people as prime minister, how can he not be up to scratch for the Turnbull cabinet?
For Turnbull, the quickening re-emergence of Abbott caps off a poor week. And the 45th Parliament has not even re-convened.