Tony Abbott and like-minded conservatives are in the midst of a concerted push to claim back the heart and soul of the Liberal party and potentially reinstall him as leader should the party find itself in opposition after next year’s federal election.
By Anne Davies
Tony Abbott campaigning on Manly wharf in the 2016 election. Abbott is part of tight-knit group of conservatives holding events in rightwing Liberal branches. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
The tight-knit group, which includes Abbott, the MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, the MP for Canning in Perth, Andrew Hastie, and the New South Wales senator Jim Molan have embarked on a series of events at rightwing branches exhorting conservatives to take back control of the Liberal agenda.
On Thursday night Abbott will hold a gala fundraiser for his campaign to retain the seat of Warringah, where he is almost certain to face a significant challenge from an independent in next year’s federal election.
The event, at Doltone House, is being billed as “Mobilising good Australians to help the Liberal party win the next federal election”.
Exactly who the “good” Australians might be was left undefined but his speech on Thursday nightwill occur roughly the same time as Abbott’s nemesis, the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, appears on the ABC’s Q&A program.
The group has already held at least two other events in the past six weeks.
The controversial speaking campaign comes as the last few contentious preselections for state and federal Liberal seats in NSW take place.
In what could prove a flashpoint, the moderate wing has so far defied a bid by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to allow Kelly (pictured left) to remain the member for Hughes. Kelly, a climate sceptic and close ally of Abbott, is under challenge from Kent Johns who has the numbers and made way for Kelly in the last election.
“Craig Kelly thinks his only constituency is people who watch Sky,” one senior Liberal said. “He’s been a terrible local member.”
Kelly confirmed on Wednesday evening that he would become a regular on Sky’s Outsiders program, appearing once a week.
Another senior Liberal said there were fears Kelly could sit on the crossbench for the remainder of the term if he was not selected as the candidate, which would be problematic for a government already in minority.
Meanwhile the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has written to preselectors in the state seat of North Shore in a bid to save moderate Felicity Wilson, who is under challenge from hard-right candidate Tim James, another close ally of Abbott’s.
Abbott and his group have been holding a series of functions aimed at inspiring the conservatives to step up for what is likely to be a bitter internal struggle within the powerful NSW branch should the Liberals do poorly at the polls.
Themes at these talks are the myth of the climate change crisis, the rise of the left agenda and the need to make Australia secure.
Kelly told the Guardian these events were not an organised tour but simply a response to requests from branches to make themselves available.
“Its important to make branch meetings as attractive and entertaining as possible, and when I can, I accept invitations,” he said.
Six weeks ago Abbott and his group were star billing at the Middle Harbour Yacht squadron. Only Kelly and Molan appeared, running the gauntlet of about 100 demonstrators, mostly locals, who turned out in driving rain to protest the Liberals’ lack of climate change policy.
Kelly delivered a full-throated critique of the left’s myths of climate change and a defence of the fossil fuel industry, a tape obtained by the Guardian shows.
Kelly told his audience that “30 years ago, the temperature was the same globally about where it was today”, even though the Bureau of Meteorology and other international agencies estimate the planet has already warmed more than 1C in the past century.
He also claimed that fossil fuels have made us safer from the climate, which he says has always been dangerous.
Molan praised Kelly for leading the push to overturn the national energy guarantee, saying it was backbenchers who prosecuted the argument “with science and determination”.
The group was back rallying the troops at Maroubra Juniors club the night before the Wentworth byelection, which the Liberals lost to the independent and gay rights campaigner Kerryn Phelps. Phelps campaigned forcefully on a platform of taking action on climate change, getting refugee children off Nauru and the disunity and chaos in the Liberal party.
Billed as “Back from the Brink: Saving Australia from the Left’s agenda”, and organised by the conservative Bellevue Hill branch, the panel featured Abbott, Kelly, Molan and the Australian Conservatives’ NSW upper house candidate Riccardo Bosi.
Under questioning from the moderator, Tim Blair, a rightwing columnist for the Daily Telegraph, the Liberal speakers warmed to the task of urging the party faithful to claim back the Liberal party from the dangerous moderates.
According to those who attended, Abbott was prime ministerial, urging the rank and file to get out and support the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma, the next morning. He sung Sharma’s praises, in a move designed to contrast his actions with those of Turnbull, who went overseas for the duration of the campaign and failed to endorse his successor.
“I got the distinct impression he was making a bid to become leader again,” one attendee said.
Kelly returned to the dangerous leftwing agenda on climate change and how more coal-fired power stations were needed, while several in the crowd spoke passionately about the need for the Liberal party to return to its conservative roots.
Surprisingly, for an event organised by a Liberal party branch, the Liberals shared the stage with Bosi, a candidate for the Australian Conservatives.
Bosi, a former SAS officer, has also spoken at events organised by the anti-Islam, anti-immigration group True Blue Crew.
In June, at one of their rallies, he declared Australia was in an “economic, moral and cultural war” and “under attack from international forces”. He declared the 45th parliament illegitimate due to the dual citizenship cases, and accused the major parties of trying to change Australia with “out-of-control immigration and refugee programs” .
Bosi also dismissed 70,000 years of Aboriginal settlement saying it was only in the past 250 years that “we have created a society that is the wonder of the world”.
He has called on supporters to emulate the Trump phenomenon and “take back Australia”.
On Sky News’ Outsiders’ program Bosi defended the behaviour of SAS officers under investigation and said that “whether people like it or not, the whole purpose of the defence force is to kill people”.
A spokesman for Abbott said: “As a former leader, Mr Abbott is aware of the debt he owes the Liberal party and he does his best to support any branch that invites him along to speak. This means that in addition to his other duties, he regularly attends party functions across the country.”
First published at The Guardian Australia. Thursday 8 November 2018