Turnbull resists call to bring Abbott into Cabinet

Voters in Mr Tony Abbott's electorate on Polling Day last Saturday. Tensions between Mr Abbott and Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull have been simmering for decades.
Voters in Mr Tony Abbott's electorate on Polling Day last Saturday. Tensions between Mr Abbott and Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull have been simmering for decades.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

With his standing damaged by close polls result, Aussie PM faces prospect of rival's comeback

Australia's knife-edge election result has come as a heavy blow to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and raised the previously unthinkable prospect of a political comeback by his long-time rival and former leader Tony Abbott.

As the counting of votes from last Saturday's election continued, Mr Turnbull's ruling Liberal-National Coalition edged closer to a tiny majority in the 150-member Lower House. The Coalition is on track to win 73 seats and the Labor opposition 66, while there are five independents and six seats undecided.

Mr Turnbull has received the backing of at least three independent MPs and is almost certain to remain as Prime Minister even if there is a hung Parliament.

But his standing in the party has been severely damaged and he faces growing calls to bring Mr Abbott into the Cabinet, possibly as defence minister. Such a move would be humiliating for Mr Turnbull, a progressive who ousted Mr Abbott, a conservative, in a leadership coup last September.

Mr Turnbull, 61, has so far insisted that he will not promote Mr Abbott, but analysts believe he may eventually need to do so to unite the Liberals and placate the party's conservative wing.

Veteran political commentator Paul Kelly said this week that the government was in crisis and would urgently need to confront the question of whether Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull can establish a workable relationship.

"Turnbull can only bring Abbott back to the Cabinet if they can repair their relationship to the extent that they can actually work together," he told ABC Television. 

Mr Abbott, 58, was careful not to undermine Mr Turnbull during the election campaign and has avoided publicly declaring his ambitions. 

"The important thing now is that we have the best possible government with the strongest possible programme and, obviously, that is a Malcolm Turnbull Coalition government," he said this week.

But few believe that Mr Abbott, who has been an MP for 22 years, remained in Parliament after his humiliating ouster last year to merely remain a backbencher. He is assumed to have his eye on a Cabinet spot or even a return to the prime ministership. 

Mr Turnbull has reportedly attempted to sideline Mr Abbott, a London-born monarchist, by offering him the position of high commissioner in London. But Mr Abbott has apparently rejected any such offer.

The two rivals - who are both somewhat oversized figures on the political stage - have been enemies for decades since they sparred during the 1990s over whether Australia should become a republic.

Tensions between them continued after Mr Abbott defeated Mr Turnbull as Liberal leader in 2009 and then won the 2013 election, only to find himself ousted as leader two years later.

An opinion poll by Roy Morgan this week, however, found that Mr Turnbull was preferred as Liberal leader over Mr Abbott by 71 per cent to 25 per cent, with the remainder undecided. 

For now, there appears to be little appetite for another change of leadership, which would result in the fifth change of prime minister in six years.

Not surprisingly, the opposition Labor Party has been keen to inflame the simmering tensions in the Liberal Party.

Labor leader Bill Shorten, who was reappointed to his position yesterday, predicted that Australia would soon be forced to hold another election.

"The combination of a PM with no authority, a government with no direction and a Liberal Party at war with itself will see Australians back at the polls within the year," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull resists call to bring Abbott into Cabinet'. Print Edition | Subscribe