For the second time in a little over a week, the Liberal Party has been embarrassed by leaked audio of frank comments from a private event – this time Tony Abbott’s blunt assessment of the party’s position.
Abbott on Monday told a Liberal branch meeting in the Deakin electorate of Michael Sukkar, assistant minister to the treasurer, that “just at the moment … we’re at a bit of a low ebb”.
Last week some Liberals went into a meltdown after the leak of cabinet minister Christopher Pyne’s triumphalist observation to a factional function about the power of the moderates and his suggestion that same-sex marriage could be delivered earlier than expected.
The latest leak has put Sukkar – one of the ambitious younger conservatives often touted for promotion – on the spot. Not only did he have Abbott in his electorate but before the audio came out, he had said he didn’t think “there was anything that was a particularly tough critique” in what the former prime minister said.
The audio was leaked to Fairfax Media, which posted some of it online on Wednesday.
In his remarks, Abbott said: “Just at the moment, I’m not always the person that every Liberal wants to associate with”. But, he said, Sukkar “knows who his friends are and sticks by them through thick and thin”.
He said one reason he was speaking out was not because there needed to be a change in personnel but “because I think we’ve got to just move the direction a little bit”.
“If we can’t because of the Senate entirely change the direction, at least don’t lose the sense of what the bloody direction should be, for god’s sake.
"I mean, you can’t always determine the speed of the advance, but by god we should be able to determine the direction of the advance. We shouldn’t let the Senate go the wrong way even if it is trying to stop us from going very far in the right direction.”
Abbott said that if “you listen to senior members of the government”, the reality of the Senate meant “we have had to bring forward a budget which is second-best. A taxing and spending budget, not because we believe in these things, but because the Senate made us do it.”
“Well, a party that has to do what’s second best because the Senate made us do it is a party which needs some help.”
This was not the first time Abbott had referred to the budget as second-best. In May, he said publicly: “The reason why the other week we had a second-best, rather than a first-best budget, is effectively because the 2014 [budget] couldn’t get through the Senate.”
Treasurer Scott Morrison brushed off Abbott’s critique as background noise.
Senate crossbencher Nick Xenophon said Abbott was “being a huge pain in the arse right now”.
In an ABC radio interview, Malcolm Turnbull pointedly avoided using Abbott’s name. “I’m not going to comment on the gentleman you described,” he said.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra