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Rehabilitating Abbott

  • 12 October 2015

When Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard lost the confidence of their party, there was at least the sense that leadership change was a gamble. There is no such uncertainty in Tony Abbott's case.

The polls have long favoured Malcolm Turnbull as preferred prime minister, even among Labor voters; over the past couple of weeks he has worn the role like a tailored suit. On the other hand, nothing in the way that Abbott has conducted himself since his exit from office makes people wonder if a mistake has been made.

Despite his promise to keep from wrecking, undermining or sniping, he has gone on a farewell tour, where the only ones buying tickets are die-hard fans. Farewell tours create their own reality for both performer and spectators; it is a reliving of the past, a mutual denial of failed albums and scandals, and the melancholic conviction that things will never be the same again.

Abbott appeared on radio shows hosted by Ray Hadley and Neil Mitchell telling party members to continue supporting the Liberals even through 'gritted teeth'. Andrew Bolt wrote a column about how his friend 'seemed too moral for the job' and that Australians had cared more about his image than his deeds.

Rowan Dean followed suit: 'If (Abbott) stays in Parliament and carries out his duties as a backbencher with dignity and enthusiasm over the coming years, respect for him will grow dramatically.' Dean speculates that Abbott might return to lead should a Liberal Opposition be 'in dire need of a strong, unifying leader'.

That's the thing with farewell tours — sometimes it sets the stage for a comeback, or at least some sort of rehabilitation.

Australia already has a long line of prime ministers whose standing seems to have been propped up over time. Edmund Barton, who oversaw the passage of immigration restriction laws, was an unalloyed racist: 'I do not think that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality.' For him it was self-evident that non-white people were inferior.

Alfred Deakin, after whom a suburb and university are named, spoke against 'undesirable coloured aliens': 'A white Australia is not a surface, but it is a reasoned policy which goes down to the roots of national life, and by which the whole of our social, industrial, and political organisations is governed.'

Many Australians favour a 'founding fathers' narrative of federation rather