CANBERRA, Oct 2 — Former Australian leader Tony Abbott is rarely out of the news, but the past month has been busy even by his standards: He called for the army to seize energy assets, sought to block a US rapper from performing a gay anthem at a sporting final, and was head butted by an anarchist.
In doing so, the arch-conservative and recent populist received more Google search interest than Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, 62, rekindling a war of words over the direction of their ruling Liberal Party that threatens to upend the government they’re both fighting to lead.
“Abbott is driven by a distaste for where his party is heading under Turnbull, so he’s seeking to become a figurehead for conservatives,” said Jill Sheppard, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “He’s creating disunity and a genuine chance of bringing down his own government.”
It’s unclear if Abbott, 59, wants to return to party leadership. The one-time trainee Jesuit priest is even less popular among voters than Turnbull. Still, by exploiting divides within the Liberal Party he could open the door for another member of its right wing, such as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, to potentially challenge Turnbull.
Either way, pressure is building on Turnbull to turn around the government’s performance and reverse a slide in the polls against the Labour opposition, even as green shoots appear on the economic horizon.
Turnbull ousted Abbott as prime minister in September 2015 in a vote of ruling party lawmakers, part of a cycle of revolving door leadership changes that have slowed policy making and given Australia five prime ministers since 2007.
“Australia hasn’t had a popular, competent government for over a decade and we would be better served if the Liberal party was a united, coherent force,” said Saul Eslake, an independent economist who has studied Australia’s economy for more than 30 years.
“Turnbull stands head and shoulders above anyone in his side of politics in terms of leadership capability and managerial skills. Abbott is playing a destructive role but you have to ask to what end.”
After being removed as party leader, Abbott pledged “no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping” against Turnbull.
But he’s periodically criticised Turnbull’s policies and in recent months has expanded his public profile, appearing at public speaking engagements at home and abroad and giving weekly interviews on a popular Sydney radio station.
“I am in no hurry to leave public life,” Abbott said in a June speech. “I will do my best to be a standard bearer for the values and the policies that we know have made us strong in the past and can do again in the future.”
Abbott has focused on some issues central to the populist surges in the US and Europe, urging Turnbull to reduce immigration. The pro-coal campaigner has threatened to lead disgruntled conservatives to vote against any government attempt to create a clean-energy target.
He has also seized on Turnbull’s move to hold a postal survey asking voters whether lawmakers should legislate this year to legalise same-sex marriage. The man who earned a nickname of “Dr No” for his negative campaigning as opposition leader has become a leading face of the campaign against marriage equality.
Turnbull has sought to avoid talking directly about Abbott. The prime minister reached out to check on Abbott, who was head butted in Tasmania on Sept. 21 by a self-declared anarchist who said he was driven by a hatred of the lawmaker.
The prime minister’s office declined to answer questions on whether Abbott was undermining him and potentially making his re-election more difficult. A request for comment from Abbott’s office wasn’t answered.
Still, members of Turnbull’s government have rallied to his defence.
Treasurer Scott Morrison has dismissed Abbott’s suggestion to use “defense powers” to take control of gas resources from states and boost energy security.
“We’re not interested in a khaki solution,” Morrison said.
Attorney General George Brandis labeled Abbott’s call to have rapper Macklemore banned from singing Same Love — a No. 1 song in Australia in 2013 — at the rugby league grand final in Sydney as “bizarre.”
“I thought Mr Abbott believed in freedom of speech,” Brandis said.
The enmity between Abbott and Turnbull is entrenched. As a journalist in 1978, Turnbull wrote an article on Australia’s student politics and described Abbott, then a student leader, as “the leading light of the right wingers” who indulged in “rather boisterous and immature rhetoric.”
Their ideological disparity was highlighted in the 1990s, when Turnbull — then a successful investment banker and former lawyer — led a failed campaign for Australia to become a republic. Abbott was the first executive director of an organisation promoting ties with the British monarchy.
As opposition leader, Abbott helped bring down two Labor prime ministers — Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. But he only lasted two years as prime minister after policy missteps including a budget with severe spending cuts.
“The discipline and coherence required to be prime minister didn’t suit Abbott,” said Sheppard from the ANU. “Turnbull is going to have some work to do to unify the government and that’s going to be near impossible if Abbott stays in the party room.” — Bloomberg