Caught like a bunny in a spotlight, Australia’s own Darwin Award contender, Prime Minister Tony Abbott froze in the cold unblinking stares of a posse of hostile men and three women who told him they’d had enough and were not taking any more. Abbott was shirt-fronted by rebels in his own backbench, a backbench fit to kill or hang the PM out to dry.
In politics backbenchers can be like canaries in a mine. They know how much a government is on the nose and often well before. To be fair, Tony Abbott was not exactly in top form, not that he ever was what you might call on top of his game. Opinion polls were still in free fall and had been, basically, since he took office. The budget was buggered. Morrison was about to drop a grenade into welfare, Andrews could barely keep awake when anything military came up and Dutton was a dud he’d had to shift sideways. He wished he had never allowed Peta to talk him into a reshuffle even if it meant Sussan Ley could carry the can for him.
In truth there was a lot more to regret in the lame duck PM’s self-inflicted crisis than mere feet of clay. Autocratic by nature, his Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, took her quasi-military title very seriously and was causing him all kinds of grief. It wasn’t just the way she bossed everyone around mercilessly, or merely her narcissistic personality disorder, it was her hard-line approach and the feeling people had that she could cheerfully kill them because of their insufferable congenital idiocy or just because she could. That and the fact that she rivalled Kevin Rudd in achieving a complete stranglehold on decision-making in her total control of government. And in her leaking to the media. Oh, and that the whole of Australia could see she had him by the balls.
Peta Credlin, loosened Abbott’s tie, placed calls for him and then massaged his temples, propping the PM’s head on a handy copy of Battlelines while he lay flat on his back, arms outstretched, cruciform at her feet and thought of England, cursing himself soundly for not having got around to renouncing his citizenship.
Peta read a few passages from BA Santamaria and dusted her boss’s signed photograph of George Pell in her own little revival ritual before checking her online salary deposit details. That usually did the trick. Comforted, she put her Blackberry on speaker phone.
The air was blue; some of the language would have made a bullocky blush. Never put a disgruntled punter on hold or on speaker phone. An ear-bashing from a furious, toey back bench later confirmed the worst: rebellion was raging. He’d have to backflip. Their backs were up well and truly. Their noses were out of joint. Blue ties were awry all over the shop. Even Abbott knew he had to back down.
Abbott was thus forced to rescind his hard-fought in cabinet decision to reduce the Medicare rebate for a short consultation to $20 leaving new Health minister and licensed pilot Sussan Ley to fly solo. Looks like you had to sell your arse after all, Credlin taunted. They both knew she was the author of the proposed changes which had been developed by the Prime Minister’s Office and then costed by the Department of Finance and Health. And they both knew she’d been leaking to News Corp about how Turnbull would make a better Treasurer than Hockey, another reason he had become more than a little unreasonable lately, such as the last cabinet meeting.
They both knew the bruising fight that had erupted between Hockey who had cut up ugly about keeping the $7 co-payment and the PM who had gone into bat for Peta’s rebate reduction and had stuck to his crease although it had cost him dearly. It was toe to toe.
Now Abbott was shirt-fronted by Mal Brough and Campbell Newman who had ganged up against the PM. Brough read the riot act. He began by quoting from the Fairfax Press, one of the ‘against us’ newspapers Abbott cannot bear to read reminding the PM.
The Coalition is “not a happy family” and there is a “shitload of room for improvement.” You leave us in the dark over everything your GP co-payment, your cabinet re-shuffle. Why? Because it’s all up to you and Credlin. Everything is centralised in your office. We don’t get a look in.
“We are not all a happy family … You have to ask people outside the backbench what’s happening with the policy decisions, because we are left right out.”
What are you gunna do? Brough bellowed. Now we all know Newman’s been on the blower so you can take it from the both us. Your health policy is gunna destroy us all. And only you can’t see it.
The two blue-tied boys from the deep North demanded that the PM back down there and then or Broughie would go public. He would tell all of Australia exactly what he thought of Abbott and his flip-flop, flapdoodle Health policy.
(A staffer suggested ‘flapdoodle.’ It fits a lot of things from foreign policy to our home grown jihadist alerts, our metadata gathering war on terror, and his government’s notoriously abortive failure to negotiate its ‘user pays more’ model health policy.) It may even enter the vernacular lexicon as in: is that government policy or just an Abbott flapdoodle? It is on a par with: ‘is that the truth or did you read in the Daily Telegraph?’
Brough said that he might even get a staffer to go on TV and fake news of a palace revolution as he did with his paedophile accusations when he was Minister for allegations of rorting, misappropriating and Aboriginal Affairs under Howard.
Maaate, there is all sorts of stuff I could go public on and you know it, he said. All sorts of stuff.
Abbott shivered and cursed the name of Peter Slipper. He wished he’d never been best man at Peter Slipper’s wedding.
Brough had been a bit out of the public eye for two years ever since he conspired with James Ashby former speaker Peter Slipper’s staffer, to bring down the most senior elected official in the Parliament but he always was a loose cannon. And when the going gets Brough, the Brough gets going.
Brough dug up further chutzpah from his own limitless resources. He knew he had nothing to lose and that Abbott was a dead man walking. He squared off against the PM as old mates so often do. Don’t expect this to be fair, he bellowed. He would spill his guts about Christopher Pyne’s real role in Ashbygate. There was no end of such handy trump cards. Of course Brough had made a few calls to the backbench. All his mates were behind him one hundred per cent, at least, for as long as it all went their way.
Newman who will possibly lose his seat anyway, did not want another albatross around his neck, getting in the way of all the kissing as in his Hillside revivalist meeting cum campaign launch in his snap election. The quickie election was a desperate move by a conservative politician whose vision is so limited he is politically legally blind, Newman is still a politician, nevertheless, and even he can see the clock ticking down on his political career.
It was a tough call for Abbott. The sight of his former mate Mal’s ugly mug twisting defiantly and threatening to do his career grievous bodily harm sent him further into shock.
Brough’s rebellion was a crisis for the conflicted PM who has good reason not to alienate Brough but better reasons to show leadership. Capitulation would be costly. There may even still be some of his supporters still waiting for Abbott to make sound policy and stick to it. His career was on the line.
‘Bagging Labor doesn’t cut it anymore. We’ve all had more than a gutsful of that. Pretending to have a plan when you chop and change all the time only draws attention to the fact that you can’t make your mind up or else you lie about it when you do. You need to lead from the front. Piss or get off the pot.’
Strapped for time, courage, support, advice or any other form of ready wherewithal, smarting from his hiding at the hands of those he thought he could safely Abbott could take no public part in announcing his latest humiliating backdown. Demure debutante Health Minister, Sussan Ley, a lass with a lovely smile and the political instincts of who could have counted on a few points just for not being Dutton, was forced to make her maiden policy statement all on her own. And it wasn’t a policy, it was a reversal, a humiliating and damaging backdown.
Sussan Ley’s words sounded as false as a Royal Commission into Trade Unions and convinced no-one of anything except she was now the bunny.
“I’ve heard, I’ve listened and I’m deciding to take this action now. It’s off the table and I stand ready to engage, to consult, and to talk to the sector,” she said ignoring the fact that the change by regulation was hardly ‘on the table’ if we allow the phrase its normal meaning of ‘up for negotiation.’
Of course, she could be referring to another table, a more arcane reference to a mythic table that Scott Morrison referred to so often when he told us he would take the sugar off the table when he was our Minister of Immigration. The poor, the sick, the elderly and the infirm would not find a place at such a table. They would instead by hounded down like some low borer or form of woodworm whose needs just cannot be met without bringing the whole table down.
This table is our low table of shame: all the sugar in the world on all the tables in creation could ever sweeten his regime of indefinite detention, death by bashing, death by neglect, rape and forcible relocation into the hands of your tormentors.
Abbott’s unsweetened, bitter political reality is that he no longer has any kind of table reservation, especially in Health, a ministry which every day looks less like a government department helping sick people get well than a money changer’s table in the temple of public health. No-one is game to set a place for him at any other table either because of all his baggage; all his minders and toxic hangers-on be they IPA, Commission of Audit, or CIA, a dead set worry the lot of them.
‘Nor do you have any strategy,’ Brough reminded the mortally wounded PM. You whinge and cringe and then blame Labor. You’re full of it. It’s futile, wrong-headed and hypocritical to suggest that if Labor continues to block these measures in the Senate, it should propose an alternative. I am here to tell you, Prime Minister, once and for all: the Labor Party is the alternative. Besides, when you tell Labor to put up or shut up; when you call for their alternative, you make us sound like we don’t have ideas of our own.
Big Mal, a former Howard rising star member of his inner cabinet, put forward by some wilfully deluded Liberals as a leadership contender, is like so many Liberal Party aspirants and incumbents, a man with a past so chequered you could play drafts on it. Brough, for example, made much of the running in the Liberals’ sleazy plot to get Peter Slipper, a scheme which to this day reverberates with unanswered questions if not potential legal issues. He was judged to have conspired against the Speaker of the House, resulting in an abuse of The Federal Court.
It has been alleged, moreover, that Slipper’s young staffer Ashby was put up to make a charge of sexual harassment against Peter Slipper, the former speaker and bon viveur, whom it was true had the odd issue including an infatuation with regalia and according to the emails to Ashby, an Oliver Sacks-like cognitive impairment, apparently mistaking his wife for a fish shop.
Brough issued an ultimatum; either Abbott back-flipped or Brough went public. Abbott complied with such alacrity that he is a stand out candidate for a coaching job at the Fruit Fly Circus should all his après politics leads for jobs on boards of directors in commerce and industry go bad on him.
It was a sudden decision, catching Bruce Billson like a stranded guppy, eyes bulging and gills flapping maintaining that there was no change to policy. Billson, doubtless, had an out of date set of talking points. He should hang on to these because whatever goes around comes around and who knows his government may have changed its mind again tomorrow. Or its leader.