There were moments of nobility in the Canberra bloodletting of Monday night. The nobility existed on both sides.
The incumbent always feels desperately betrayed, and in the context of some personal relationships that’s justified. The challenger feels impelled by the greater good, and in some circumstances that’s justified too.
Without adjudicating on all that, it’s clear there were people of goodwill on both sides.
The performance of Mathias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg stand out. They went on television to declare their strong support for Tony Abbott.
For more senior ministers, getting towards the end of their careers, identified over many years with Abbott, the potential cost of such action was less.
But Cormann and Frydenberg are two of the government’s very best performers. They are in their mid-40s, both young politicians. They entered parliament not long ago and have had meteoric rises entirely due to merit. They are exactly the types the Liberal Party needs, Cormann a great personal story: migrating from Belgium, falling in love with Australia, shooting into politics and the cabinet; Frydenberg, the most energetic backbencher I ever saw with the exception of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, with all manner of illustrious academic achievements.
They are also workhorses in a government that lacks relentless retail politicians. By the time they went on TV to back Abbott, it was pretty clear that Malcolm Turnbull would win. They could have found a reason to stay silent.
They didn’t inflame party tensions, didn’t attack Turnbull or his supporters. But they stuck with their leader. They danced with the one that brung ’em.
If Turnbull were a lesser man than he is, this act of honour and decency could cost Cormann and Frydenberg dearly, set them way back in the party and government hierarchy. But I suspect Turnbull is smart enough and big enough to know that the Liberal Party needs these men, that their steadfastness, even if he feels it mistaken in this case, speaks well of their character.
Kim Beazley, one of the best men to have reached the top of Australian politics, made a similar decision in the leadership contest when Paul Keating displaced Bob Hawke. Beazley, one of Hawke’s closest supporters, went to see Hawke to tell him the position was hopeless and he should allow Keating to claim the leadership.
Hawke decided to fight on and Beazley supported him. At the time, some ridiculed Beazley for not switching over to Keating, or at least going neutral. But Beazley felt that Hawke was the better leader. More than that, he would not betray the relationship and all the elements of his own identity that had been invested in Hawke.
By staying loyal to Hawke Beazley remained a man of honour, someone the Australian people could make use of later. This is not to say it is always wrong to vote against a leader, but Beazley felt that in his position at that time the honourable and the right thing to do was to stay with Hawke.
Keating, who was utterly ruthless about the leadership, saw Beazley’s quality and eventually Beazley became deputy prime minister to Keating.
A number of Hawke’s strongest cabinet supporters assumed they were finished when Keating deposed Hawke. But Keating drew them all back in. Unifying the party was a precondition to Keating winning a wholly unexpected election victory in 1993.
One classic example of this was defence minister Robert Ray. With a low public profile, and not remotely a smooth presenter or easily marketable politician, Ray was nonetheless a formidable figure, a big policy mind, a good person and very powerful within ALP factional politics. He also loved defence and was a good minister. To everyone’s surprise, Keating kept Ray on in his portfolio.
Turnbull should do the same with Kevin Andrews, a good minister and a big figure within the party, if not with the public. If Andrews is dumped, then defence should certainly go to a senior minister such as Christopher Pyne. Pyne’s appointment I would think virtually guarantees an Adelaide build for the submarines, but I think that is all but guaranteed anyway.
Another reason Beazley stayed loyal to Hawke was the sense that Labor had to treat its election-winning prime minister with some dignity. It was this consideration that prevented cabinet ministers from moving against John Howard when, at the end of his prime ministership, some of them thought a change to Peter Costello might give them a better chance at the 2007 election.
Too much of the electorate, and all of the Liberal Party, loved Howard. For the Liberal government to dump Howard against his will would have been declaring war on its own base.
Abbott, obviously, is not as popular as Howard was, even at the end of Howard’s term. But Abbott is deeply loved and admired by millions of conservative Australians. This is a formidable factor in any equation about the future.
There was nobility too in the gracious and well-justified tributes that Turnbull and Bill Shorten paid to Abbott when question time convened on Tuesday.
It was not only right in principle for them to do this, but it was wise politically for both men. We need some basic civility in our politics, we need to treat institutions such as the prime ministership with some respect. And Abbott amply deserved such tributes.
Which brings us to the $64 million question — what does Abbott do with the rest of his life?
In truth it is a credit to the Liberal Party that it attracted people of the quality of both Abbott and Turnbull. Abbott is a young version of a man in his late 50s, in perfect health and with boundless physical and mental energy. He should not make any life-defining decision in a hurry.
We are not so well endowed as a nation that we can lightly dispense with the services of someone as substantial as Abbott. There is absolutely no need for him to leave parliament. His revered position in conservative Australia is itself a significant asset. He should take his time and do whatever he likes.
But the nation will be best served if he remains in public life.