An Abbott restoration would be a smart move by Turnbull
There are five reasons why Malcolm Turnbull should restore Tony Abbott to federal cabinet.
First and foremost, he’d do a very good job in a government that’s seriously short of ministerial star power. Under John Howard, Abbott was the employment minister who made the Job Network a success and Work for the Dole a reality. He was the workplace relations minister who established the Cole Royal Commission as a prelude to the ABCC. He was the health minister who ended the medical indemnity crisis, restored bulk-billing, doubled medical research funding, and brought in the Medicare safety net and the Medicare dental scheme. And he was the leader of the house who maintained the government’s parliamentary dominance over the then-opposition.
Second, and self-evidently, the idea that there are 23 members of the current cabinet all of whom are more talented and more capable than Abbott is absurd. Other than Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Josh Frydenberg and perhaps Scott Morrison, which other minister stands out?
Third, it would be the magnanimous thing to do. After 2010, Abbott was under no illusions that Turnbull had stayed in the parliament to be someone else’s minister. Yet despite knowing that he’d be stalked, Abbott put his rival into the shadow cabinet and then into the cabinet, and kept him there, despite Turnbull’s failure to give wholehearted support to Abbott’s key policies. For Turnbull to be far less gracious to Abbott than Abbott was to him just looks mean-spirited.
Fourth, restoring Abbott to cabinet could help reconcile the party room and the party. Abbott remains well-liked even by the backbenchers who feared that his government might lose. It would help to ease their guilty consciences , exacerbated by the near-loss of the recent federal election , if Turnbull were to give Abbott some praise and recognition. Then there’s the wider Liberal Party many of whose members still regarded Abbott as a true believer. Especially in Turnbull’s and Abbott’s home base, the moribund NSW division, many Liberals are keen to see the previous prime minister back in the main game.
Fifth and finally, Abbott in cabinet would be working for Turnbull in a way that Abbott on the backbench is not. On the backbench, as a former prime minister, Abbott will continue to be in demand to write and speak on subjects where his every word will be construed as an implicit challenge to his successor. In the cabinet, he would be bound to limit his originality to his portfolio and confine his wider observations to a robust defence of the government.
As Indigenous affairs minister, for example, Abbott could well be the one person in the country who by dint of energy, authority and single-mindedness might finally get “the kids to school, the adults to work, and the communities safe” as he constantly put it as PM.
Turnbull’s public explanation for Abbott’s absence is the need to bring on younger talent. This is a bit rich coming from someone who’s older than Abbott and far less energetic. The real reason is that Turnbull fears that Abbott would use a cabinet perch to undermine him as he did Abbott. But leopards don’t change their spots.
Abbott was not only loyal to Howard whom he revered, but he diligently served Brendan Nelson and Turnbull himself when he was a shadow minister. Contrary to some federal government spin-doctors, I don’t think Abbott has been massively damaged by speaking out on national and international issues and by defending his legacy.
But Abbott would be damaged by any failure to observe cabinet solidarity, which is why Turnbull’s view is not only a misjudgment of character but also a failure to appreciate self-interest.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and the author of 39 books, including a memoir, ‘My name is Ross: an alcoholic’s journey’ and the political/sexual satire ‘Going out backwards: A Grafton Everest adventure’.
‘The CanberraTimes’, 5 November 2016 & ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ and ‘The Age’ online.