Australian politics

‘We’re a low ebb’: former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott continues sniping campaign against Malcolm Turnbull

Abbott has also urged members to stick to the fundamental precepts of western civilisation, which ‘stem originally from the Gospel’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2017, 2:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2017, 2:30pm

Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has rejected calls to stop creating division, describing Malcolm Turnbull, his successor, as steering the government to a low ebb while also denying he is seeking a return to leadership.

Abbott was prime minister for just under two years, from September 2013 to September 2015, having led the Coalition to victory over Labor, led by Kevin Rudd, at the 2013 federal election. However, after his popularity slumped, he was successfully challenged by Turnbull for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Abbott has remained in parliament, though, and his combative remarks further fuelled speculation he may challenge Turnbull before the next election, scheduled to be held some time between August 2018 and May 2019.

Abbott spoke to his local newspaper, the Manly Daily, on Wednesday, amid growing disquiet among government MPs about his increasingly combative behaviour.

Just at this moment, let me tell you, we’re at a bit of a low ebb
Tony Abbott, former prime minister

Earlier in the week, Fairfax Media reported Abbott doubled down on Turnbull, criticising the prime minister for compromising in order to work with the Senate on his budget measures.

Abbott refused to compromise after the Senate blocked many of his first 2014 budget measures, which became known as “zombie measures”, only dumped in May 2017 by Treasurer Scott Morrison.

Abbott told a Liberal branch meeting on Monday: “Just at this moment, let me tell you, we’re at a bit of a low ebb.

“If you listen to some senior members of the government, because of the reality – the unfortunate reality – of the Senate, we have had to bring forward a budget which is second best. A taxing and spending budget,” Abbott reportedly said.

“Not because we believe in these things, but because the Senate made us do it. Well, a party that has to do what’s second-best because the Senate made us do it is a party which needs some help.”

Morrison compared his former prime minister’s comments to the noise from the construction site next door to his press conference.

“Background noise is a feature of Australian politics,” Morrison said. “There is a bit of background noise going on in construction here in Martin Place today.

“The government is not interested in the background noise of politics. The Australian people are turning down the background noise in Australian politics, the personalities, all of those sorts of things.”

Abbott has increased his interventions markedly in recent weeks, delivering set-piece speeches on top of his weekly radio spots with anti-Turnbull radio hosts.

The Coalition partner, the National Party, is becoming increasingly frustrated by his behaviour, with the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce describing Abbott’s constant sniping as “an accursed soap opera”.

He was followed by the National Party Senator John Williams reminding Abbott that Coalition MPs had behaved under Abbott and said Abbott’s criticisms endangered marginal seat members.

The government is not interested in the background noise of politics
Treasurer Scott Morrison

But Abbott has showed no signs of backing away. Asked by the Manly Daily if he wanted the prime ministership back, Abbott said: “No, I am very happy being a backbench member of the government because it gives me the freedom to speak as I think best, and it gives me more time to be a very conscious local member.”

Abbott also said he had a mandate from his election as prime minister two elections ago in 2013.

“I am just doing what is perfectly within the rights of a backbench member of our party which is to speak out in support of the values and traditions which have traditionally been our party’s,” he said.

“We were elected in 2013 promising lower taxes, lower spending, a sensible mainstream approach to issues like climate change and that is exactly the position I am advocating for.”

On Monday night, Abbott was speaking to a branch meeting in the seat of assistant minister and fellow conservative Michael Sukkar.

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His speech reportedly revolved around the direction of the Liberal Party and its values. Abbott urged members to stick to the fundamental precepts of western civilisation, which “stem originally from the Gospel” – equality and treating others as you would have them treat you.

But Abbott said he supported both the government and the prime minister.

“Obviously I support the government, I support the prime minister, I am a member of the government and it has always been the Liberal party tradition that backbenchers can speak their mind on policy issues,” Abbott said.

“That is what I have done, I have been very consistent over the last few months about where I think we need to be going.”