Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damned be him that first cries, “Hold, enough! Macbeth
In the most critical captain’s call of his career as PM, Tony Abbott has galvanised Canberra watchers, and the nation, by advancing his appointment with destiny. Echoing Macbeth’s ‘lay on MacDuff …’ Abbott announced this morning that he will now hold his proposed ‘Game of Thrones’ parliamentary party meeting tomorrow.
Whilst the nation has come to expect the unexpected from Captain Abbott, our nation’s would-be great helmsman, whose impulsive and erratic navigation and weather eye of steadfast denial has caused his party and the nation irreparable harm, this time there is some danger his last-minute alteration to course might work. Yet there is every reason to believe it will be his final, ill-judged Captain’s call.
On the face of it, it’s a shrewdly calculated master-stroke. Bringing Tuesday forward to Monday is a bit like daylight saving; you can’t point to any concrete advantage gained in turning the clocks forward but you can guarantee some confusion, especially in WA with its own time zone and politics to match. Abbott will be gambling on confusing some of his bleary-eyed challengers and robbing them of momentum.
The PM will also be counting on reducing by one night his government’s own night of the long knives; the time his opponents have to muster supporters. He knows what they are up to, however much they cloak their deeds in weasel-worded denial. He sees through their lies. In Malcolm’s ‘turnbullshit’ canvassing support and nurturing insurrection is ‘having a conversation.’
Yet the footwork of the silver fox is cunning: should Macduff-Malcolm accede to the throne of games it will be against his will and only on noblest principle. His nose will be clean. He will merely be ministering to the needs of a suffering, marginalised backbench, righteously acceding to their calls for equal representation in decision-making. He is not, he would have us all know, being disloyal to his leader. He is simply being loyal to the wishes and the interests of the party.
There are clearly a lot of things not going on ‘chez Turnbull.’ When Lucy is not chasing reporters off the premises at their Gatsby mansion in Point Piper, her husband is not plotting the PM’s overthrow. The Communications Minister is giving a virtuoso performance in coded dissimulation and smiling denial, his many small teeth sharply pointing up the dangers of being taken in. No-one in the land, however, thinks for a minute that Turnbull is not scheming to take the Prime Ministership off Abbott, it is just that he would prefer the Abbott baby to throw his rattle out of his pram rather than be seen to reach in and snatch it in broad daylight. He plays to win, however, his expensively whitened teeth are on display as his foxy features crinkle in an avuncular but vulpine grin.
Nothing is ever simple in politics, however, despite the superficiality of much current political discourse. Abbott’s move is a two-edged sword. It sends a message of panic and desperation to the public while yet again signalling to an alienated backbench that the PM continues to act without consulting them. Regardless of any need backbenchers might have to talk leadership with one another on Monday, Abbott’s needs must come first. He is stealing a move while he has some support left. Hatchets are out; knives are being sharpened.
Bringing forward the time cuts both ways. A day less is left for the PM’s office to conduct their best hatchet work on the rebels, Dennis Jensen and Luke Simpkins, the West Australian MPs who have declared that they will move a spill motion at the next party room meeting. Yet some potentially damaging items have already been communicated to the media. The Age this morning declined to print some of the material given it via the PM’s office but it is understood that creative travel cost accounting is among the details designed to discredit that have been forwarded to the media.
Apart from stealing a march, Abbott is ahead of the pack with his Game of Thrones reference. Followers of the series would confirm that there are very few good guys but a great many baddies. Not only is GOT, a richly resonant peg for the PM to hang his own chequered hat on, however, it continues the Abbott world-view, enunciated earlier when he shared with a grateful nation his privileged insights into Middle Eastern politics. It was not a case of good guys versus bad guys but rather one of bad guys and not so bad guys.
‘Silly but deadly serious,’ the GOT soap opera-cum-fantasy trope is, above all, a handy conceptual device for those who wish to understand contemporary politics in general as much as what is currently taking place between our elected and freshly pledged collegiate Prime Minster and his hostile, neglected backbench. The silliest game being played seriously at the moment is the art of dissimulation, the pretence that in not challenging their leader but in orchestrating a spill, clever clogs contenders Bishop and Turnbull are technically being loyal to Abbott while jockeying to replace him should a spill motion succeed and he declare his position vacant.
‘The duty of the LNP cabinet is to back the PM,’ we are told endlessly from a number of sources including Julie Bishop. Bishop’s sand groping power base has been busy shoring up its own loyalties and interests but we can’t –technically- accuse her of disloyalty. This is a line repeated by smiling assassin barracuda chops Malcolm Turnbull who has today sweetly assented to break his silence to reporters on his own ambitions. Both persist with the fiction that what they are doing is somehow more proper, less Machiavellian and totally unlike anything Labor has done.
‘Why, of course, he supports the Prime Minister,’ he says, grinning like the Cheshire cat. ‘I am a cabinet minister.’ You could be forgiven for thinking Turnbull knows he has it all in the bag already as he licks his thin lips anticipating the sweet taste of his revenge for losing, by one vote only, five years ago his last campaign to lead his party. Under the carpet is the civilised place for the leader’s blood, not on the carpet like that awful Labor mob.
Revenge is a dish best served cold. When Abbott tersely announced Thursday that he and his deputy, Julie Bishop would be speaking against a spill motion in the next parliamentary party meeting, he put Ms Bishop in a compromising position. Or so he hoped. Bishop would be embarrassed by having to publicly oppose a leadership spill her party all knew clearly she was all in favour of – if not staking her career on. Bishop did not earn her against-the-spill gig for her debating prowess alone despite her reputation as a formidable barrister in her previous career in corporate law when she won such landmark victories as in her case for James Hardie against asbestosis sufferers’ claims. No, this was less a tribute than some form of payback.
The payback was, no doubt, Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin’s revenge on Julie Bishop for not doing as she was told when directed not to attend the UN conference on climate change in Lima in December and sundry other acts of insubordination, wilful defiance and sheer subversion such as taking tea with media mogul and LNP eminence grise, Rupert Murdoch ten days ago. Rupert then had everybody a twitter when he proved he had lost none of his tabloid touch as he thumbed his tweet that Abbott best rid himself of Credlin if he were to have any chance of retaining power. Better still, Credlin should resign.
Abbott’s captain’s pick was a bombshell to Ms Bishop. The reformed PM had neglected to let his deputy in on his strategy despite his pledge at the National Press Club. It was not that nothing had changed, however: backbenchers were to be granted a representative committee which would be allowed to meet the PM once every eight weeks. This great leap forward in party consultation aside, Ms Bishop is said to have been ‘ropeable’ that Captain of the LNP-Titanic Mr Abbott had not consulted her prior to publicly press-ganging her into a supporting role when he peppers the troops with grapeshot in his anti-spill spray on Monday, but perhaps she was hoping for too much.
The LNP party convention of the cabinet following the leader in any vote of no confidence or spill motion is a curiously unfair protocol which would seem to confer a massive advantage to inertia in the form of favouring the current incumbent and disadvantaging those good souls who must depose him for the good of the party. Abbott goes into the secret ‘to spill or not to spill ballot’ tomorrow with at least thirty votes already, regardless of his real level of support from within his party. Or is this merely a morale-boosting artifice allowing cabinet members to put their party ahead of their leader in the ballot without losing face? Either way it cannot help the party at this stage but it does provide some entertaining theatre of denial.
Julie Bishop has kept a remarkably straight face as she has told reporters and anyone else who would listen that she is not after Abbott’s job. In another unconvincing form of weasel words she has been specific about not phoning or canvassing support amongst party members. All the artifice implodes, however, when she lets it be known that she most definitely is not setting to challenge Mr Abbott but should there be a vacancy she will throw her hat into the ring.
Nothing will save Mr Abbott’s career but by bringing forward the spill, he has made a classic bid to buy time. It’s a desperate move which few would begrudge him save those who would advise him to resign for his own and his party’s sake. His prime ministerial career in tatters, his policies comprehensively rejected, his leadership tested and found wanting too often, he may well choose to cling to the wreckage of HMS Team Abbott; choose to go down with his ship.
Whatever the result of the spill tomorrow, blown off-course by a maelstrom of massive popular disaffection compounded by his own poor navigation and leadership, Abbott lacks the crew, the party support, the faith of his backers and all other resources to do anything more than to batten down the hatches and limp along in treacherous seas until all is lost in the next big storm to hit.