When Tony Abbott’s popularity was crashing in late 2014 yours truly wrote that the only plausible challenger was Malcolm Turnbull. The events of Labor in 2013 were instructive to how the Liberal Party leadership dramas would play out: that is, the Liberals would not countenance deposing Abbott until the situation was so dire that only the most popular politician in the country could possibly rescue their fortunes. Just as Labor could not have replaced Gillard with anyone but Rudd so the Liberals were only ever faced with a choice of two leaders: the incumbent and the people’s choice.
Fast forward to 2017 and many are tempted to look at the circumstances of 2013 or even 2015 to map out the seemingly inevitable demise of Turnbull. But those precedents are of no use here. Turnbull is in the queer position of being a terminally unpopular Prime Minister and yet perhaps the most popular politician in the party. Tony Abbott might like to style himself as the next Kevin Rudd: The people’s Prime Minister, exiled by a corrupted party, mobilising popular support for his return. But there is no popular support for his return. A few bellicose cheerleaders in niche corners of the media does not a popular revolution make.
In some ways Abbott is more like Paul Keating than Kevin Rudd. The Treasurer in exile was never loved by the public as Rudd or even Turnbull was. His bid for power rested on the idea that he was tough, ruthlessly effective, fiercely intelligent and brimming with political courage. But while both men do have something of the streetfighter about then, Keating’s intellectual stature was pivotal to his pitch for the top job. Rightly or wrongly, perceptions of Abbott are that he doesn’t possess the encyclopaedic breadth of knowledge that all his recent predecessors did. Memories of an unprepared Abbott bleating on about stopping the boats when asked complicated economic questions still ring in the electorates ears. Voters simply don’t believe he is smart enough to be Prime Minister.
And yet we are entering an era where a candidate submitting themselves to orthodox scrutiny seems to count for less and less. As Prime Minister Abbott would, from time to time, reluctantly front up on 7:30 or some similar prestige current affairs program and subject himself to a grilling from a capable journalist. There was an assumption made at the time that doing so was necessary for him to establish his worth as a political candidate. It was why Kevin Rudd as a backbencher from 2012 onward would periodically appear on Lateline or Qanda; it allowed him to show off his talents.
That was then, now there is a President of the United States that permits himself no scrutiny. His only interviews are soft puff pieces with friendly figures like Sean Hannity. Trump is unpopular, but not isolated, the President still enjoys a large fan base who are content with the fact that he only allows himself to be interviewed by sycophants. Abbott’s fan club in the media is sizeable, Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt and Paul Murray can all be relied upon to give their champion a high-profile interview with none of the accompanying scrutiny that usually entails. If Abbott chooses to make like Trump, eschew routine scrutiny and instead operate in a strange parallel universe where nobody gets to expose his weaknesses he might well amass a sizeable army of supporters that could take us into unchartered waters.
Perhaps in a country with preferential voting, compulsory voting and a relatively robust electoral distribution system a Trumplike figure would be unlikely to blunder into government like that, but perhaps not. Few of the old rules still seem to apply. The internet has made wilful ignorance so effortless. The ease with which one can dig up a collection of, ostensibly credible, news articles asserting whatever they wish to believe might just enable a political figure like Abbott to rise again. This is the volatile territory we now find ourselves in, Abbott’s quest for resurrection uses a playbook that has never been used in Australia before. All we really know for certain is that it will destroy any slender chance Malcolm Turnbull might have at re-election.