Tony Smith became Speaker with the backing of Scott Morrison, according to Abbott cipher Chris Uhlmann. Smith's main opponent in the party room was Russell Broadbent, the last of the small group of backbenchers who spoke out against the Howard government's mandatory detention policies - policies since reinstituted by Scott Morrison as immigration minister, and endorsed by the ALP. Had Broadbent been elected as Speaker it would have been a massive fuck-you to Morrison, and to the Labor leadership that embraced the policy. It would have encouraged people who don't toe the line, people with ideas and the courage of their convictions - people who have all but been stamped out of public life by party machines and a compliant press gallery, relegated to the fringes and called "ferals".
The press gallery were happy to raise Broadbent's donations issues, but not smart enough to tease out the full story like this local-paper journalist, nor even wonder why they were set up to look like tools.
The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are not the moderates. The idea that moderate centrists stab the Liberal Party in the back is a common right-wing trope, pushed heavily by people like Bronwyn Bishop, but there is no proof of it. The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are the right-wingers who are watching the reality, the possibility, and the very precepts of their low-tax, high-religion, authoritarian program slip away. Support is slipping away from this government without any of the compensating respect that Howard used to attract, and which Abbott promised people like this gullible, whiny reactionary that he too could command respect when they didn't like him.
The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are conservatives, who have for years looked up to and been organised and sustained by, Bronwyn Bishop. She kept the faith, both for conservatism and for Abbott, and he and they indulged her expensive foibles. When backbenchers started complaining that she was embarrassing them, she expected Abbott to support her. He was embarrassing them too, and he tended to stick by her. Over the last month or so, he equivocated.
The polls for this government are every bit as dire as they were for the last government, and every bit as stuck, for those who worry about such things. Tony Abbott was never good enough to become Prime Minister in the first place, and never had what it took to turn a difficult position around. All of the savvy journalists, the in-house urgers and party grandees who believed otherwise, have been cruelly exposed. They complain to one another that it's a recent, unexpected development, but it isn't really. It never was. Those people were, and still are, killing themselves.
Scott Morrison has not relied on Bronwyn Bishop to get where he is. She knows he's an opportunist but had been prepared to tolerate him. By standing up to Bishop when Abbott wouldn't, Morrison has displayed leadership credentials that Abbott has clearly lacked. Morrison has knocked off an Abbott loyalist and knocked down someone who made his life difficult in courting the right. Morrison isn't the right's least-worst alternative any more, some sort of speed hump to Turnbull. The prospect that Abbott might stumble is no longer a distant, theoretical prospect, it's the inescapable reality. Morrison is the right's standard-bearer now. He, not Abbott, is the man.
Bishop is furious, but so what? Her fury doesn't count any more. She isn't biding her time, she's out of time. When she refused to applaud Smith she showed that, despite what conservatives claim, she cannot acknowledge anything beyond herself. The contrast with the magnanimous departure of Gillard is striking. Bishop expected to go out on her own terms, not with a thud; the firebrand reduced to just another frail old woman in the departure lounge.
When Abbott and Pyne talked of Bishop in the past tense, they were also talking about themselves in the same way. Abbott will be gone after the Canning byelection. Pyne has passed none of his much-touted reforms and will be gone at the next election. Adelaide will take on the same political complexion as Newcastle or Canberra, while Nick Xenophon will become the moderate liberal champion that Pyne had promised but failed to be.
We're in a political interregnum where the dead lie unburied and where those who now call the shots are under no obligation to stick their heads up. This is a massive change in the power dynamic of the government, and Australian politics generally; to call it "modest" is to have no understanding of politics at all.
Abbott had promised all opposition frontbenchers that they would become ministers after the 2013 election. Tony Smith was one of the few opposition frontbenchers who didn't make it. Peter Costello has said plenty about Abbott being an economic ignoramus, and Abbott has taken this out on Costello's acolytes like Smith and Kelly O'Dwyer. Smith has a similar - eerily similar - physical appearance to Costello, and even copied the former Treasurer's physical and verbal mannerisms. In practical political terms, Victoria is no longer the jewel in the Liberal crown and so the Coalition is not obliged to over-represent that state on its front bench; Robb has the experience, Billson and Ronaldson have put in the hard yards, Fifield got work experience with Costello without drinking too much of his "Prime Ministerial" Kool-Aid, and Hunt has been neutered. With Smith there was nothing to neuter; he and O'Dwyer were out in the cold, with Frydenberg and Tudge on initial probation.
Abbott paid tribute to Smith copping his disappointment in silence without admitting his role in that disappointment. Abbott can claim no credit in helping Smith up after having knocked him down. He was gracious at overlooking Smith's utter absence of policy conviction, as I noted here and there at the time: Smith was responsible for the Coalition going to the 2010 election with no communications policy, and was deputy chair of the committee that came up with no policies for the one after that. He had practiced his non-policy skills on people who keep asking about policy but wouldn't know it if it bit them: the press gallery.
Smith might have been promoted if Robb and Ronaldson pull out before the next election, but in politics you take your chances when they arise. Now he's ascended to a role that's kind of high profile, like a minister but without all that policy stuff. By giving Smith a prize that Abbott had denied him, Morrison creates the sense that the Liberals are moving on from Abbott, freeing themselves from his errors of judgment.
The press gallery wanted to believe Smith's rhetoric about even-handedness and decorum, forgetting that all former Speakers - Bishop, Anna Burke, Slipper, and Jenkins - all said the same thing at this point in their tenures. Slipper and Burke were even-handed in a tightly balanced parliament, but that even-handedness made a boorish, policy-free opposition look more in control of the agenda than a wonkish, rattled government. An even-handed Speaker will expose a government that is not across what little policy brief it has. It's one thing for Abbott to be a dead man walking, but he has enough pride to prefer anything other than the perception that he is a dead man walking - or sitting, waiting for Shorten to rope-a-dope him again and again.
Labor will exploit Smith's desire for even-handedness, making him look like a mug and protesting too much when Smith calls them on it. Smith can be stiff and awkward in the face of raucousness and this will work against him, and the government. The government will also use Smith's basic, non-focus-grouped decency against him, not hesitating to make him and his office look foolish rather than bear any more of the responsibility which they never deserved, nor could even bear with any dignity. The anonymous Liberal sources who help the press gallery pad out their thin offerings will call for Bishop to return. The living will envy the dead in the end times.
If Smith's "friends on the other side" get the opportunity to bounce off him and score a direct hit on Abbott, they will take it. Abbott has ridden Labor for six years (!) and he is wounded now. Smith might not be happy about it but he'll understand: that's politics, baby.
Smith will have moments of decency that will shine all the more brightly for being contrasted against this government. This should not be surprising to supposedly experienced political journalists. At the next election he might lose his seat of Casey, a sprawling outer-urban electorate that resembles a slab of western Sydney, where the profile and folderol of his new office will count for exactly nothing. Then again, he might win, and pootle on in the same middling way he's spent the last decade.
Speaking of crap forecasts, I owe an apology to Independent Australia for setting them up with this - fancy predicting a woman! What was I thinking?