Abbott seen as Turnbull's biggest election threat

Some observers have suggested that Mr Turnbull (top) offer his rival, Mr Abbott (above), a senior job to neutralise him before the elections.
Some observers have suggested that Mr Turnbull (left) offer his rival, Mr Abbott (right), a senior job to neutralise him before the elections.

Bad blood between political foes could hurt their party's chances

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has cleared the way for an election within months and appears set to win aside from one potential obstacle: the simmering rage of the man he ousted, Mr Tony Abbott.

The two have been political foes for decades, but tensions increased after Mr Abbott declared he will stay in Parliament and then began to openly question Mr Turnbull's policies. Mr Abbott, a staunch conservative, has criticised Mr Turnbull's approach to national security and economics. The question now is whether Mr Abbott will prove to be Mr Turnbull's "Kevin Rudd" and will leave the government and Australia facing a renewed period of political instability.

Mr Rudd, a former Labor leader, was toppled by Ms Julia Gillard in 2010 and undermined her until he finally wrested his job back in 2013. The bitter feud between the pair led to the party's crushing defeat at the last federal election in 2013.

But Labor's woes now appear to have been replaced by the tensions between the Liberal Party's Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull, whose public sparring dates back decades to the debate in the 1990s over whether Australia should become a republic.

Mr Turnbull acknowledged last week that Mr Abbott could potentially cause serious political damage, and said that he hoped Mr Abbott will prove supportive in the coming election campaign.

"It depends on what he says, frankly," Mr Turnbull told Radio 3AW. "Whether it's a plus or minus depends entirely on the nature of his contribution. I hope that he will be supportive and he's indicating that he will be, so that will be good."

Mr Turnbull deposed Mr Abbott in September last year after the ruling coalition struggled in opinion polls. The centre-right coalition is made up of the Liberal Party and the smaller National Party.

An election is due later this year, but Mr Turnbull last week said he would consider calling an early election - expected to be on July 2 - if the Upper House does not support an anti-union corruption Bill.

Analysts believe Mr Abbott looms as Mr Turnbull's biggest election threat, particularly as opinion surveys suggest the ruling coalition's lead over Labor in the polls has narrowed.

The latest Newspoll survey on March 21 found the coalition led Labor by only 51 per cent to 49 per cent on a two-party basis. Mr Turnbull's popularity has dipped in recent months but he remains the preferred prime minister of 52 per cent of the public, compared with just 21 per cent support for Labor leader Bill Shorten; the remainder are uncommitted.

Mr Turnbull, a former investment banker and ardent republican, is more progressive than Mr Abbott on issues such as climate change and same-sex marriage, and has long been the more popular of the two.

After being ousted, Mr Abbott promised not to "snipe" or undermine the new leader.

But few believe he has stuck to his pledge, particularly as he publicly criticised decisions such as Mr Turnbull's delayed purchase of a new submarine fleet.

Few also think Mr Abbott has any chance of making a comeback because of his own public unpopularity. In contrast, Mr Rudd had strong public approval ratings, which enabled him to muster support among his fellow MPs to mount a party-room challenge ahead of the 2013 election.

Some observers have suggested Mr Turnbull should offer Mr Abbott a senior job to try to bring him onside.

A former senior Liberal minister, Mr Peter Reith, said on Monday that Mr Abbott appeared to be trying to win his job back but had the support of only a handful of conservative MPs.

"If he (Mr Abbott) keeps undermining Turnbull, especially in an election when MPs are working hard to keep their seats, then the former prime minister will soon find that his legacy is seen as a present to Labor and a disaster for good policy," Mr Reith wrote in Fairfax Media.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline 'Abbott seen as Turnbull's biggest election threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe