Much to the chagrin of his numerous vocal detractors, Tony Abbott has been a disciplined and constructive ex-leader of the Liberal Party through the election period and beyond.
Tony Abbott recognises he could
have done better as PM.
He was consistently and strongly supportive of the return of the Turnbull Government, he campaigned in marginal seats despite a serious attempt by the left to defeat him in his own seat of Warringah, and has not said anything publicly that would suggest a hint of undermining the Government.
This is not to say that Mr Abbott would agree with everything the Turnbull Government is doing, because clearly he would be pursuing a different course in some areas. The contrast between Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott are fundamental in terms of ideology, approach and leadership style.
Nevertheless, Mr Abbott’s mere presence in the Federal Parliament acts as a lightning rod for media attention and anything he says or does is amplified and dissected, which is why, ironically, the same media critics were so vocal in suggesting that Mr Abbott should have moved on from politics after he was brought down.
There was no place for Mr Abbott in the Liberal Party other than as a spoiler, was the general opinion of the Press Gallery.
Mr Abbott’s recent speech to the Samuel Griffith Society shows that those commentators never understood him in the first place. The speech was mature, measured and constructive in terms of policy argument, while revealing something of the reflective and deeper-thinking Tony Abbott of old.
Most of the media attention from the speech focused on his push to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, thereby creating a point of policy tension in the Government. However, as Mr Abbott pointed out, the controversial law was introduced by Paul Keating and opposed by John Howard, and he genuinely regretted not repealing it when he was prime minister.
“This is a troubling law. At its worst, it limits free speech merely to prevent hurt feelings,” Mr Abbott said.
“The decency and fair-mindedness of the Australian people will always be a better defence against hate speech than a law administered by ideological partisans – yet our parliament prefers to tolerate over-the-top prosecutions than to upset thin-skinned activists.”
But the Samuel Griffiths Society speech was notable for other reasons.
Mr Abbott showed that he has returned to his roots as a true federationist after dabbling with the idea of the Commonwealth taking over all responsibility for running hospitals.
Further, there was acknowledgement on his own part that he took “hyper-partisanship” in a knife-edged parliament too far.
“You won’t be surprised that I have been reflecting on my time as opposition leader, as well as prime minister,” Mr Abbott volunteered. “We were right to oppose the over-priced school halls program and the combustible roof-batts program and the live cattle ban that threatened Indonesia’s food security; because these were all bad policies incompetently implemented.
“I wonder, though, about the former government’s people swap with Malaysia. The 800 boat people that could have been sent to Malaysia was less than a months’ intake, even then.”
Mr Abbott argued that there had to be a truce from cutthroat politics.
“All of us need to dwell less on what divides us and more on what unites us, and to have an open mind for good ideas – as the Howard opposition did with the economic reforms of the Hawke government,” he said.
Press Gallery doyen Michelle Grattan described the Abbott mea culpa as “breathtaking”.
“This is an extraordinary case of second thoughts. The people swap might not have been successful but it was worth a go. If it had succeeded, the Coalition Government would not have its present intractable problems on Nauru and Manus Island; it would not be facing a likely parliamentary inquiry about what’s happened on its watch on Nauru.
“Abbott’s political modus operandi has been marked on occasion by acting and then seeking absolution retrospectively. But this issue was too big, and the Coalition’s obstruction too significant, for any political absolution to be granted. He, (Scott) Morrison and the opposition generally behaved cynically and irresponsibly.”
This view may have some merit, though Mr Abbott has never been given the credit he deserves from the left media for his single-minded determination to stop the people smugglers and the drownings.
What it does show is that Mr Abbott has spent his time as a backbencher reflecting constructively on where he went wrong and how he could have done better.
Whether it means there will be a window in the future for him to make a comeback is at this stage immaterial – Mr Abbott’s wise self-reflections on his time at the top could be of greater benefit to the Turnbull Government itself.